Judge for Yourself

Book cover
A Jury of Her Peersby By Elaine ShowalterKnopf. 608p $30

Elaine Showalter's book is a delightful literary voyage, guided by a woman who truly knows the territory. Neither an anthology nor an academic critique, it is something quite original, the first informed popular literary history of American women writers. It was inspired by a question this distinguished author of 18 books on literature and the humanities kept asking herself: Why have so many women writers disappeared from literary history?

The question brought to Showalter's mind the 1917 story of Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers,” based on her coverage of a real murder case. Glaspell places two farm women in the kitchen of the murder home, waiting for their police officer husbands to solve the crime. The wives come to the accurate conclusion that the murderer is a joyless woman driven mad by a cruel husband. But they do not share this information their husbands do not notice evidence that seems obvious to the women and the accused woman is acquitted by a jury of her peers.


Showalter narrows her choice of authors to professionally published women writers in America from the 17th century to the present, ignoring diarists and private letter writers. She examines the work of short story writers, novelists and poets, within the context of the authors’ lives&ampampnbspagainst a&ampampnbspconstantly changing background of the revolution, slavery, the civil war, Depression and increasing freedom.

The task seems daunting for one person, even in our age of electronic servants, but Showalter carries it off with a sure voice. The first two-thirds of the book are a special pleasure, including information on women writers most of us have never heard of: Mercy Warren, the first dramatist treated Judith Murray, the fiery first feminist Susanna Rowson, the first bestselling novelist and Mary Rowlandson, who not only survived capture by Narragansett Indians but wrote about her interracial experience with genuine understanding.

About writers we know, like the 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet, we gain new insight, for Showalter describes their work in relation to their lives and hopes. In this early period, men were expected to praise Bradstreet's published poems, not only praising them but testifying that she had neglected no housewifely duty in writing them. The chores were heavy in her case, since she had eight children to raise and endured many illnesses as well as the burning of her beloved home.

In the early 19th-century, women writers were able to use fictional characters to treat forbidden topics: romantic mad-women, for instance, the popular Crazy Janes of the period. Lydia Maria Child wrote novels, short stories, women's history, domestic advice and children's books, and attacked racial prejudice. Ironically, she is known to us today only as the author of the lines "Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go.”

The 1850s was distinguished by female concern for home and family. Even as Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about the multitude of "women scribblers,” American women became the majority of fiction readers. For the first time, the literary marketplace pitted men against women. Ambitious and brilliant women like Julia Ward Howe were often thwarted and discouraged from writing, in her case by both father and husband.

Despite similar lack of support from her husband, Harriet Beecher Stowe, forever known for Uncle Tom's Cabin, determined not "to become a mere domestic slave” but to save three hours a day from her children and housework to become a prolific writer (nine novels). Showalter considers her the most important woman writer in American history she was the first to present men speaking to each other about business concerns, something women were not supposed to overhear.

If Showalter has a deficiency, it is a kind of tin ear to religion. This may account for her later lack of emphasis on the religious dimension of Flannery O'Connor's work and the strange absence of Mary Gordon from her list of contemporary writers.

Spirituality was important to Emily Dickinson, too, and though Showalter acknowledges her work as original and unique, she hesitates to analyze her inspiration, seeing the poet as "divorced from her social context.” As the fair and good critic she is, however, she observes that Dickinson's poems, which explode the usual female images of bees and flowers into erotic and unexpected directions, are "unmistakable, while the verses of virtually all of her female contemporaries are interchangeable.”

The number of women writers grew substantially in the 19th century. Showalter covers the "local color” writing by the first group of women who took themselves seriously as artists: among them Mary Wilkins Freeman, author of the short story "A New England Nun,” now in most anthologies, and the poignant Revolt of Mother (which, surprisingly, goes unmentioned) and Sarah Orne Jewett, known for "The Country of the Pointed Firs,” and her story of a brave girl's sacrifice of romance for the protection of a bird in "A White Heron.” We hear of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, a story of tragic love between an Indian and a woman of mixed race that became a huge popular success. We learn about Emma Lazarus's protests against anti-Semitism and her eloquent defense of persecuted immigrants, which provide background to her famous poem that appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Two authors, whom Showalter views as "the greatest women novelists of the first half of the twentieth century,” are given a chapter each: Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Both wanted to be writers, not "woman writers,” and succeeded brilliantly, though many male critics of the period did not see the strength and originality of Cather's work. By now readers have made both part of the canon of American literature.

The last third of the book deals with more recent poets and novelists, many familiar to us (from Marianne Moore to Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, from Katherine Anne Porter and Zora Neale Hurston to Flannery O'Connor). The author's inclusiveness is remarkable, introducing us to black, Latino, Asian and many other fine writers. Unfortunately, though, because of her disproportionate interest in the content and popularity of women's works, she gives as much or more attention to Gone With the Wind and Peyton Place than to Tillie Olsen's stories or Elizabeth Bishop's poetry.

But Showalter has not written this book to show off her own critical abilities she has a different and more worthy aim. She gives us this rich, entertaining volume and lets us judge for ourselves what is art and what literature is worth preserving. Like a well-informed tour guide, she points out new places we must explore ourselves.

The verdict as to which women writers should be added to the canon will take a while to come in, but in the meantime Showalter has given us an invaluable volume to guide our deliberations.

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