by Elaine Showalter
It’s perhaps hard to imagine that a survey of American literature could be described as “fascinating reading.” Yet I am convinced that this is true of Elaine Showalter’s remarkable “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx” (Knopf, 2009). Not only does Showalter write in a sprightly, witty, and inviting style; but also her insights into the works of women’s literature and their authors have the potential to make us all better readers. On nearly every page of this intelligent and opinionated book, she offers us something of interest. In her instructive introduction, Showalter writes about the movement of women’s writing going through three phases: “feminine,” “feminist,” and “female,” before culminating, thus far, in “free”; that is, writing that is not hobbled by form or subject. Her example of a woman writer whose work exemplifies that fourth phase is Annie Proulx.
Reading Showalter’s book will introduce you to many women whose writings have for the most part disappeared from the public consciousness, like Mary Rowlandson (c.1635–1678), who wrote about her captivity by Native Americans or the Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Susan Glaspell, whose plays were once considered on a par with Eugene O’Neill but are no longer produced, Pulitzer or no. Showalter provides mini–biographies of lesser–known writers like the political radical Meridel Le Sueur or the feminist intellectual Tess Slessinger, as well as those who are better known, like Katherine Anne Porter and Mary McCarthy, whose lives were richly complicated. She offers her insights into the lives and poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, as well as ranking their places in the pantheon of 20th century poetry. Obviously, one of the subversive pleasures for readers of a book like this is to disagree with not only the evaluation of different writers, but also with whom Showalter chose to include and whom she’s omitted, especially when it comes to those late 20th and early 21st century writers. But that’s a fun bone to pick, and Showalter obviously intends her book as something for both scholars and ordinary readers to react to. If you’re looking for some suggestions for books to read, you could do far far worse than open Showalter’s book to a random page and go check out the book she’s discussing.