At last—a New World companion volume to the distinguished feminist scholar’s pioneering A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977).
Showalter (Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, 2005, etc.) begins in the 17th century, spotlighting Anne Bradstreet’s poems and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative as American literature’s founding documents. Poetry gets a great deal of attention, from 18th-century African-American Phillis Wheatley through Emily Dickinson to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, mad housewives who trashed domesticity and challenged male poetic hegemony in the 1950s and ’60s. Especially in her coverage of the 19th century, the author casts a wide net and considers the commercially successful novelists denigrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “a d—d mob of scribbling women.” She makes no exaggerated artistic claims for Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Susan Warner, Maria Susanna Cummins and their ilk, but the author cogently elucidates how their popular fiction created an environment in which Harriet Beecher Stowe could write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first Great American Novel by a woman. Home, husbands and housework were staple subjects, and sources of conflict, but not until the 1890s did New Women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin scandalize critics with frank depictions of female sexuality. As the authors become better known, Showalter’s work necessarily becomes less groundbreaking. It remains intelligent and thorough, however, as she moves from Edith Wharton and Willa Cather at the beginning of the 20th century through the fraught relations between modernism and feminism in the ’20s, women writers both liberated and constrained by political radicalism in the ’30s and the repressive postwar cult of femininity that provoked the feminist explosion of the ’60s and ’70s (as well as such prominent naysayers as Joan Didion and Cynthia Ozick). Chapters on the ’80s and ’90s survey a more diverse, self-confident literature in which Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx and others write matter-of-factly as women without feeling limited in any way as to subject matter or style.
Certain to make its way onto college course lists, Showalter’s lucid, comprehensive survey should also find an appreciative audience of serious general readers.