The title of this collection of essays (some delivered as lectures at Oxford in 1989) refers to a quilting pattern--the image, as Showalter (English/Princeton; Sexual Anarchy, 1990, etc.) explains, that best describes women's literature in America: its communal and ritual nature, its continuity, its diversity, its history as a domestic art that lapsed into disrepute before being resurrected into a high art in the 60's. Showalter's dual preoccupation with the role of women writers and the special identity of American literature appears in the first essay, ""Miranda's Story,"" describing the way various American subcultures have appropriated The Tempest--the role of Miranda, the Dark Lady, Shakespeare's sister--as played by American women, the prototype being Margaret Fuller. In successive chapters on Alcott's Little Women, Chopin's The Awakening, and Wharton's The House of Mirth, Showalter identifies the distinctive voices, values, preoccupations, ""hybridity"" of American women's writing that makes any question of being Shakespeare's sister irrelevant. And in an astute chapter on what she calls ""women's gothic,"" she further explores the contributions of women writers to the dominant male culture. Even in her chapter on the lost generation of women writers of the 20's--poets such as Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie, and Afro-Americans such as Zora Neale Hurston--she finds, in spite of the exclusion, victimization, and repression, a ""literary history of female mastery and growth."" Persuasive, ranging, perceptive, unpolemical, Showalter here offers a splendid example of humanistic writing, of her own ""female mastery and growth,"" a genuine contribution to contemporary thinking about women's literature. Her flaw: excessive quoting of scholars who don't write as well as she does, illustrating merely that she has done her homework.