Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, is a pioneer of women’s studies and feminist literary criticism. Her new book is A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf; $30). Focusing on published works, not diaries or private letters, it’s the first literary history of American female authors. –Christine Smallwood
What were the biggest surprises you found while researching?
The most important thing for me, and this was a motive for the book, is how good the writing is. I found so much amazing material. This is not about special pleading or making a case for women writers as culturally significant. This is great writing! The second thing was various historical moments that emerged as very significant for women’s writing. The Revolutionary War was a tremendous impetus. It’s quite astonishing how many books by American women have scenes on July 4, what a key moment it is for them in terms of self-definition.
Were there particular periods of note?
The 1850s, which has always been seen as the moment when American literature comes into its own, but in male terms–the decade of Hawthorne, Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It’s a decade in which women writers emerge in every genre; you see African-American women writers appearing. Specific dates within the 1850s are important–the trial and the execution of John Brown, the founding of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, which established a division between popular and elite literature. It wasn’t that women weren’t published in The Atlantic Monthly–they were. But it was the beginning of a quite prolonged period in which elite publications were controlled by male editors and women were struggling to be accepted by them, and very much internalizing and even fantasizing about their standards. And when you get to the twentieth century, there’s a long period where it’s Partisan Review for intellectuals and then, of course, The New Yorker, which continues to occupy that place. And it’s funny because you read in women’s private diaries, they have dreams about these magazines. Sylvia Plath had a dream one night that she was in bed with Partisan Review. But that division between elite and popular literature was very damaging for women in terms of their reputation and their place in American literary history.
This is a long book. Do you expect people to read it from beginning to end, or to dip in and out?
People can decide for themselves. I hope that some people will use it as a reference book and that they’ll take off from it, but there is a story here, a beginning and a middle and an end. The lives of the women themselves are so fascinating, like Julia Ward Howe. She wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; that’s what everyone knows. But she was an amazing poet. She published her first book of poems in 1853, anonymously. It was called Passion-Flowers, and a lot of it was about her marriage, which was not happy. When the book came out it was a huge success–Hawthorne said he esteemed Howe above all other women poets. Everybody knew who she was because it was a pretty small scene. It was a huge scandal, and then her husband found out–she had not shown it to him–and he threatened to divorce her and take custody of their children if she ever wrote anything like that again. She did write a lot, but she never wrote poems like that again. She also was writing a novel, which she never even tried to publish, which was about a hermaphrodite named Larry.