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A Jury of Her Peers

Elaine Showalter’s absorbing tour of the American women writers’ pantheon.

By / March 30, 2009

About a decade ago, as a reporter on the education beat, I wrote a piece on the state of women’s studies departments on contemporary college campuses. Pouring back at me over the Internet came something I never expected: a surprising amount of hate mail.

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It seemed that a number of angry readers felt that expending intellectual energy on women and their history was either a waste of time or a dangerous means of sowing societal dissent – or both. And this, as I said, was just about a decade ago.

All the more reason to welcome the arrival of a book like A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter. Remarkably, Showalter notes, her book is “the first literary history of American women writers ever written.”

Covering 350 years of American literary history, Showalter, who is a professor of English and the humanities at Princeton University, does an excellent job of not only showcasing dozens of America’s female writers (mixing the renowned with quite a few nearly forgotten names) but also of clearly positioning these writers in the larger frame of American history.

For Showalter, the goal is to organize and make accessible the “definitive, unmistakable, and powerful heritage” that is women’s literary history in the US.

Chapters are set up to allow a reader to easily jump in and out and cherry-pick among the various time periods. But at the same time, the prose is so good that the 500-plus-page book also works as an absorbing cover-to-cover read. (Showalter may be an academic, but her outside experiences – she has worked as a TV critic for People magazine, written about fashion for Vogue, and covered the Michael Jackson trial for the L.A. Times – attest to her ability to engage the rest of us.)

All the material in “A Jury of Her Peers” is arranged chronologically, and, taken as social history, the brief bios of the writers open interesting windows onto various moments of American life.


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