For those of us crepuscular enough to remember the first flowerings of feminist theory and "Womyn's Literature" courses in college, part of the pleasure of reading Elaine Showalter's grand new work of literary history, A Jury of Her Peers, derives from nostalgia. It was such a disco inferno thrill, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to glimpse, for the first time, a lost continent of books — a veritable Herland at the time uncharted by those male-dominated Norton Anthologies.
Early feminist literary archaeologists excavated the work and life stories of forgotten women writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Vera Brittain, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Granted, some of the disinterred turned out to have curiosity value only. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's nine-book novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh, may have been a hit in 1857, but as someone who read it and taught it in those dizzying gynocentric days, I'm here to tell you that it's a little slooow.
In recent decades, academic recovery work has tapered off — all the poshest tombs have been raided and, more importantly, it now seems a tad unsophisticated to simply want to wedge a forgotten woman writer into the canon when the idea of the canon itself has been "problematized." The very act of judging, of making hierarchical distinctions, many postmodernist theorists would say, unavoidably imposes white male European cultural norms on women's literature.
But Showalter has never been a slave to academic fashion — though she's certainly gotten into hot water with other feminist critics for writing too enthusiastically about fashion. In her introduction to what she says is the first comprehensive literary history of women's writing in America, Showalter bulldozes through the usual objections to literary history being worthwhile, politically correct, or even doable. Showalter's Rosie the Riveter attitude seems to be that there's so much recovery and critical work left to do that second guessing a project like hers is a luxurious academic distraction.
A Jury of Her Peers attempts the mammoth task of discussing and unapologetically judging the writing produced for publication by American women from the days of Puritan Anne Bradstreet to the modern-day gay cowboy tales of Annie Proulx. Of course, Showalter stumbles sometimes on this long matriarchal march: For instance, she doesn't seem as engaged in the final chapters of this book, maybe because contemporary writers like Proulx and Toni Morrison are all too familiar to us.
But in addition to the sheer jumbo size of this project, two things make it a critical standout: First, there's Showalter's commitment to gathering both highbrow and lowbrow writers together in one place, thus giving us a different sense of literary history. Respectable Founding Mothers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Willa Cather share space with Grace Metalious of Peyton Place fame and lesbian pulp princess Ann Bannon.
Even more crucial to the value — and, certainly, the incendiary potential of this book — is Showalter's bossy critical presence throughout its pages. As a feminist scholar, Showalter rejects the Voice of God narrative style of traditional literary history; instead, she opines with zest on the personalities and books of the writers here. Take this kick in the bloomers to Gertrude Stein. Showalter concludes her irreverently brief entry on Stein with a paragraph of dismissal; here are its first and last sentences: "Although she is widely acknowledged to be unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and excruciatingly boring, in the twentieth century Stein always had a cult of devotees. ... Stein seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes — a shocking sight to behold in every respect." I don't agree with Showalter about Stein, but I do relish her critical gusto and guts.
A Jury of Her Peers includes so many writers and dusts off so many intriguing books and poems that to even give a sense of its scope would reduce this review to a chorus line. Suffice it to say that Showalter has inspired me with the quaint resolve to read, among others, Mary Rowlandson, who wrote the first white woman's narrative about being taken captive by Indians; Susan Glaspell, whose 1917 short story of the same name gives Showalter's literary history its title; Pauline Hopkins, who in 1902 produced a feminist African-American spin on popular quest romances like Treasure Island; and Julia Ward Howe, poet, novelist, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and heroine of a life story that should have been made into one of those glorious Joan Crawford Hollywood weepies. The unorthodox intelligence with which Showalter discusses the work of these and a cavalcade of other American woman writers makes a literary history like A Jury of Her Peers — which some would regard as an old-fashioned project — its own critical excuse for being.