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About this book

In this book Guy Reynolds offers a wide-ranging introduction to American women writers. He discusses a wide range of authors from Sarah Orne Jewett to Toni Morrison and the common themes and genres that they have covered. He presents detailed readings of both classic and little-known fictions, placing works in the social and historical contexts of their times. Incisive and detailed, this book will interest readers and students in this increasingly important field of study.

Table of Contents

Introduction: the Genealogy of American Women’s Narrative, 1892–1995

After nearly thirty years of canon-busting, critical revisionism and renewal, is it possible to generalise about American women’s narratives produced during the past century? For American women’s fiction (and associated forms of prose, such as autobiography and the diary), continual recoveries of lost works mean that the ‘canon’has hardly come into being. As soon as a canon begins to take shape, the deconstructive turn of modern criticism undermines its foundational principles. Women’s fiction, as a body of work sui generis, began to attract serious and sustained critical attention in the wake of the 1960s women’s movement. Feminist critics attacked what they saw as the ‘masculinist’ bias of American literary criticism; the motifs, topics and themes celebrated by the masculinist critics were, it was now argued, highly gendered, and took little account of the contribution of American women to the national literature. Attacks on the male bias of literary scholarship went hand-in-hand with recoveries of lost female writers and marginalised traditions (the increased attention to nineteenth-century sensational and domestic writing dates from this phase in the early 1970s). Well-known writers such as Willa Cather or Edith Wharton continued to be read; but their work was increasingly seen as a distinctively female achievement.
Guy Reynolds

1. ‘Sickbed Deathbed Birthbed’

Therapy and Writing in the 1890s
For a range of historical commentators (Christopher Lasch, Philip Reiff and T. J. Jackson Lears) much that is distinctive, and distinctively regrettable, about American life can be summed up by the word ‘therapy’ These historians argued that the waning of Victorianism saw a shift from a culture of morality towards a world where feeling good and feeling better became the signals of worth. Newspapers and journals at the end of the nineteenth century were filled with articles regretting the collapse of American self-confidence and warning of a ‘psychic crisis’. Prominent fin-de-siècle intellectuals — William James, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton — suffered from the recently identified mental crisis ‘neurasthenia’. For T. J. Jackson Lears this crisis in the American personality grew out of fundamental social and cultural shifts. The advent of consumer society meant that consumption and leisure began to constitute a way of life; Americans moved away from a ‘bourgeois ethos’ that ‘enjoined perpetual work, compulsive saving, civic responsibility, and a rigid morality of self-denial’. The development of psychology, the advent of advertising and a consumer economy, the establishment of the guru of health (mental and physical), a general and pervasive emphasis on the need to feel vibrant and well: these symptoms indicated the shift from a Victorian world of individual moral choice towards a more therapeutic world.
Guy Reynolds

2. Re-making the Home, 1909–33

The authors gathered together in this chapter constitute a quirky grouping. Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) has long been recognised by scholars as a major modernist, a radical innovator (even if her difficult oeuvre still fends off a wider readership). Edith Wharton (1862–1937) has always maintained canonical virtue, though for reasons that are the reverse of Stein’s case: as torchbearer of an older realist tradition — the Jamesian novel of manners and society. Mary Antin (1881–1949) is a newer arrival. The Promised Land (1912) is an early version of those migration and ‘self-making’ narratives later elaborated by Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston. The re-making of the canon over the past twenty years, and in particular the recovery of forgotten or neglected works of great worth, enable us to re-consitute literary groupings such as this one. But do these writers have anything in common beyond temporal coincidence? Are we not better off sticking with familiar and tested literary—historical periods and schools (local color, realism, regionalism)? A revisionist literary history sees continuities between writers and attempts to construct a nexus of cultural forces which shape literary production during a particular period; these early twentieth-century authors have more in common than first appears.
Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Mary Antin

3. Modernist Geographies

Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein
If an anthropologist were to consider late nineteenth-century American society, she would note the central role played by the organisation of space in that culture. The Victorian ‘female world of love and ritual’ praised by many feminists might well have had a radical edge, and it certainly allowed for a greater range of emotional expressiveness than stereotypes of nineteenth-century stuffiness would suggest; yet it was also a confined world of the interior, of sitting-rooms and parlours. It is a cliché, but also a truth, that nineteenth-century American literary culture associated the open spaces of a new country (frontier, sea, wilderness) with freedom, while female culture was locked within the home (often constructed, as in Huckleberry Finn, in terms of a tyrannical space ruled by womanly culture’s petty rules). Women themselves, of course, often explored the home as a site of emotional plenitude and a sentimental politics of renewal (as in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). And historians such as Ann Douglas have pointed to the ‘feminisation’ of American society as these values gradually took on a wider resonance and importance. But a time was bound to come when women would want to break out, in their writings and their lives, from this relentless association between themselves and the home.
Willa Cather, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein

4. The Interwar Social Problem Novel

In 1932 fifty-two writers, including Sherwood Anderson and Edmund Wilson, publicly backed the Communist Presidential ticket. This was the ‘The Red Decade’, a period when writers became enmeshed in politics, usually of the liberal and leftist variety. In general, the radical creative works of the era were marked by a code of social realism and social protest, often coupled to representations of ‘proletarian’ life and a fascination with vernacular speech (the climactic work in this protest tradition was, of course, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939). However, I want in this chapter to suggest a more capacious and fluid reading of the political fictions of the late 1920s and 1930s. Two female literary histories of this time are now familiar to us: the upsurge of polemical, committed writing (Meridel Le Sueur, Agnes Smedley and Tillie Olsen); and the emergence of black female modernism in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. This chapter suggests that these two bodies of work might be thought of in conjunction. The white leftists and the black modernists shared a commitment to a form of social problem novel. They identified a nexus of social or political problems, and then created around those issues (often identified explicitly as issues) new fictional shapes, or gave voice to the problem in an innovative, experimental register.
Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Agnes Smedley

5. ‘There are So Many Horrible Examples of Regional Writers, and the South is Loaded’

The critics have not agreed with Flannery O’Connor’s dismissive joke. For them, rather than ‘horrible examples’ the South has supplied some of the best of modern American writing. While O’Connor warns of the facile diminution of the area’s literature to ‘regional writers’, critics including Louis Rubin, Richard Gray and C. Hugh Holman discover a richly serious body of conscious artists. They emphasise the centrality of history to the Southern writer; the tragedy at the imaginative heart of this literature; the interest in religion; the attentiveness to the material specificities of life and the suspicion of abstract philosophising. Southern literature seems to possess sufficient coherence as a corpus of work to sustain generalisations such as the comment that these writers ‘have tended to depict man’s nature as being religious, to view the individual very much as a creature of time and history, to assume the individual’s commitment to society and his determining role within it’.2 One is also struck by the assumption in these critical accounts that Southern writing encompasses both men and women. Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor: all have featured regularly in critical accounts since the 1950s. Indeed, there is a strong case for suggesting that literary criticism of the South was feminist avant la lèttre.3
Eudora Welty, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor

6. Dysfunctional Realism

The historian Elaine Tyler May describes the immediate postwar period as one dominated by ‘The Reproductive Consensus’: ‘Procreation in the cold war era took on almost mythic proportions.’1 The baby-boom, the idealisation of the home and chil-drearing, attacks on feminism: all these features marked a period usually characterised for its reaction against the advances women had made in earlier decades. Despite women’s movement into the workplace during the war, ‘no general feminist argument was made in justification’.2 Indeed, the era saw bitter denunciations of feminism. In 1947 The Modern Woman: The Last Sex, by Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, argued that female sexuality found its real fulfilment in motherhood. Drawing on (pseudo)-psychoanalytical models and on historical anecdotage, the authors presented feminism as a disaster. Only by active propaganda in favour of the traditional family and sex roles could this dangerous ideology be overcome. The idealisation of home life was central to their programme of re-education. The Modern Woman quickly became a popular and influential work.3
Ann Petry, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Stafford, Jane Bowles

7. ‘What’s Happening in America’

For feminists in the 1960s, to address ‘reality’ was to engage in revolutionary and revisionist acts of storytelling. The pioneers of second-wave feminism suggested that basic womanly narratives had been obscured; their revolutionary polemics were acts of storytelling and recoveries of undocumented reality. Thus Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) unleashed a powerful political energy through its collation of anecdotage, personal memoir and interview. The book originated in a questionnaire Friedan sent to her fellow-graduates in 1957 about education and women’s role in society. The finished volume was structured around the freed voices of women, speaking out from the margins to place their angst at the centre of the culture. The Feminine Mystique achieved its vital impetus in moments of confession and collective recognition:
But on an April morning in 1959, I heard a mother of four, having coffee with four other mothers in a suburban development fifteen miles from New York, say in a tone of quiet desperation, ‘the problem.’ And the others knew, without words, that she was not talking about a problem with her husband, or her children, or her home. Suddenly they realized they all shared the same problem, the problem that has no name. They began, hesitantly, to talk about it. Later, after they had picked up their children at nursery school and taken them home to nap, two of the women cried, in sheer relief, just to know they were not alone.1
Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates

8. Fictions for the Village

The fiction of the past quarter-century has seen a resurgence of the fascination with community which has been a leitmotif in American women’s narratives. Just as earlier periods of cultural transformation witnessed a flowering of fictions with fresh notions of community at their centre (for instance, during the breakdown of Victorian certitudes in the 1890s), so this period (1970–95) can be described as a phase of radical communitarianism. For writers such as Cynthia Ozick, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston the novelist remains a storyteller (all three are indebted to the folkloric modernism of the 1920s and 1930s); but the relationship between storyteller and community has become more complex, and sometimes fraught. For the communitarians, storytelling is complicated by the interplay of the imagined communities addressed by the writer. The communitarian writes for a readership of women, for her own ethnic or cultural ‘village’ (in Morrison’s term); but these authors also claim a national significance for their stories, addressing fundamental national subjects (migration, race, cultural pluralism). In writing about the structures of community (the lore of Judaism, say, in Ozick’s Puttermesser stories) these authors provide local fictional templates for a conceptualised understanding of what culture is and how the individual situates herself within cultures.
Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick
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