Fighting a sexual war of words and worlds. 20th-century women writers

No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume I: The War of the Words, by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 320 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. BELITTLING the contribution of women to literature is an old, but by no means defunct, sport. Nineteenth-century writers like Hawthorne grumbled darkly about the ``mob of scribbling women.'' In our own century, women writers have been accused of every literary sin from excessive gentility and sentimentality to sheer volubility.

In ``No Man's Land,'' Profs. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose 1979 study, ``The Madwoman in the Attic,'' traced a motif that seemed to haunt 19th-century women writers, now turn their attention to the 20th century, most notably, the era of ``modernism.'' What they find is a sexual war - of words and worlds - being fought on a variety of fronts: literary, cultural, social, and political.

``No Man's Land'' is to be a three-volume enterprise. The current volume, ``The War of the Words,'' will be followed by ``Sexchanges,'' then ``Letters from the Front.'' Gilbert and Gubar note that the years 1880 to 1920 brought tremendous gains for women - and engendered exaggerated fears among men.

Along with forays into higher education, the professions, and the political realm, more and more women were entering the literary marketplace. (Gilbert and Gubar do not address the fact that more does not mean better: No other American poet, male or female, would rival the originality of Emily Dickinson; few novelists have ever equaled the achievements of Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bront"e, or George Eliot.)

At any rate, the more that women writers were able to compete with men for critical esteem and commercial success, the more vehemently male writers reacted against the ``feminine'' influence. ``Indeed,'' Gilbert and Gubar boldly speculate, ``it is possible to hypothesize that a reaction-formation against the rise of literary women became not just a theme in modernist writing but a motive for modernism.''

This hypothesis parallels other revisionist attempts to come to terms with those aspects of modernism previously dismissed as incidental by liberal admirers of this innovative, but in many ways reactionary, movement. The innovations, alas, can even be viewed as part of the reaction - against 19th-century humanism, against feminism, against liberal democracy, against the crumbling of the old order and the spread of mass culture.

Insofar as the misogyny of the men whom Julian Symons in a recent book called the founding fathers of modernism remains underexplored, ``No Man's Land'' may well be the most valuable book that the team of Gilbert and Gubar has thus far produced.

But there are severe limitations in this brand of feminist criticism. Any reference to sexuality, for example, is taken as part of the ongoing sexual warfare. When Emerson demands ``spermatic, prophesying, man-making words,'' they read this as an assertion of gender superiority rather than as a plea for vitality, creativity, passion, and boldness in literature.

Considered more broadly, Gilbert and Gubar's work represents a current trend in feminist literary criticism, neatly dovetailing with the proliferation of women's studies programs at colleges and universities. It is not so much an effort to obtain justice for neglected women writers as an attempt to raise the status of certain texts that fit into the definition of a women's tradition that can be conveniently taught in the classroom.

In their ``Norton Anthology of Literature by Women'' (1985), Gilbert and Gubar aimed to provide a book that would ``define the ways in which the female literary imagination has struggled to articulate visions and revisions of a literature energized by female consciousness, impelled by female creativity, and empowered by female community.''

Valuable as the anthology was, it was nonetheless a premature attempt at canon formation. It tended to include women who deliberately sought to define and evolve a specifically feminine tradition, while omitting those who did not consider gender an issue of central importance. The tendentious revisionism of the headnotes seemed curiously at odds with condescending footnotes aimed at students with little or no previous knowledge of the old order purportedly under revision.

The critic and novelist Cynthia Ozick once claimed, ``When we write we are not women or men but bless`ed beings in possession of a Promethean art.'' Either, as Ozick argues, ``the imagination is free'' and gender is not an indissoluble element of a writer's consciousness, or, as the current thinking among feminists would have it, it is. If it is, then men and women are equally bound by it, strengthened or limited, and we should not be surprised or appalled by men (Norman Mailer, William Gass, and Robert Bly are among the motley crew cited in ``No Man's Land'') who make preposterous claims about writing with their genitalia, or by women who dream of ``writing in the `white ink' of maternal milk,'' a current fantasy among French feminists.

Or, perhaps, beyond Gilbert and Gubar's romanticizing vision of a female consciousness/imagination/creativity community and Ozick's idealizing vision of a genderless freedom, the imagination is freer yet - to weave energizing fantasies about gender or blithely to consign it to oblivion.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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