Overstuffed but still thin anthology highlighting women’s contributions to American—and world—literature.
In a frustratingly brief introduction, Princeton emerita professor Showalter signals her intent to make “available works by important American women writers from 1650 to the present”—women whom she calls “the literary mothers of us all.” She goes on to note, however, that both space considerations and the cost of copyright permissions prohibit including “many great women novelists.” Poets and essayists suffer as well, and the anthology is a lopsided affair, with scarcely a word from Native American and Hispanic writers, from Leslie Silko or Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo or Denise Chavez. The anthology is somewhat better with African-American and Asian American writers, though again with some curious absences. That said, many of the selections show considerable awareness of the ethnic and economic diversity of American society, from a piece by Louisa May Alcott concerning a “contraband” slave to the little-known writer Mary Noailles Murfree, who, sandwiched between classics Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin, paints a richly detailed portrait of hardscrabble life in the Great Smoky Mountains. Some of the usual suspects are on hand, though some aren’t; in a way, it’s refreshing to find an anthology of this kind that does not include Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” though unusual to have no Welty at all. Showalter makes well-thought-through choices that avoid anthological clichés: The ever-problematic Mary Austin, for instance, is represented by two autobiographical pieces that are not often read these days, a century after they were written, while it’s perhaps daring but smart to represent the always wonderful Willa Cather with a story from her debut book of short stories rather than her better-known mature novels. An anthology of this sort is impossible, of course, without founders Anne Bradstreet (“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits”) and Mary Rowlandson, though Showalter’s headnotes are too brief and cursory to give uninitiated readers much sense of why they’re important in the larger scheme of things.
A mixed bag, then: a one-of-a-kind anthology that, though large, needs to be larger still to do its job, and that begs for more extensive annotation and context.