Uneven but rewarding collection of essays by poet and pioneering feminist scholar Gilbert (Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, 2006, etc.).
“To reread is both to read again and to read anew,” writes the author in a preface to a volume that does indeed contain some rethinking, including more nuanced assessments of female writers’ ambivalence toward powerful women than were possible in the giddy early days of the Second Wave. The first section displays both the strengths and weaknesses of academic feminism. The charming “Becoming a Feminist Together—and Apart” chronicles Gilbert’s personal trials as a female graduate student turned down for jobs because she was “just a Berkeley housewife.” Readers will share her exhilaration as she discovers her métier and her convictions, team-teaching with Susan Gubar a course on female-authored texts that became The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), one of the founding works of modern feminism. By contrast, “What Do Feminist Critics Want?, Or a Postcard from the Volcano” is a tedious tract on scholarly politics of little interest to anyone outside the academy. The subsequent two sections, which feature close readings of authors from Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Brontë to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, are more engaging, though still best appreciated by those with a strong background in English-language literature. “Potent Griselda” reminds us that male writers, especially from the late 19th century on, have often acknowledged and sometimes even admired the power of the ancient Great Mother goddess, while “Mother Rites” is an ambitious attempt to analyze the strategies employed by female artists to tap the matriarch’s mythic powers without having their creativity simplistically tied to motherhood and biology. Gilbert occasionally lapses into academic jargon, but in her best pieces she is forthright without abdicating her mission as a scholar: to read beneath the surface of familiar works and show us what they say about our culture and our attitudes.
Spanning four decades, ranging from groundbreaking excavations to magisterial syntheses, this stimulating volume reminds us how much feminism has changed and grown since the 1970s.