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A Jury of Her Peers

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

(Page 2 of 2)

There is 17th-century English settler Mary Rowlandson, who wrote of her captivity among the Narragansett Indians. There is Civil War icon Harriet Beecher Stowe who complained that trying to write while also purchasing codfish and baskets of apples, making chowder, and nursing a child was like “rowing against wind and tide.” More recently there is prose stylist Joan Didion, the embodiment of 20th-century California cool who offered an “edgy, paranoid vision” of America at a moment of cultural unrest.

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But Showalter never forgets that what she is really writing is a literary history. Although concise, her quick sketches of the contribution of each of these writers are insightful and stress the unique quality of their different visions. From overlooked Southern novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Glasgow (who wrote of “disillusion, desolation, and childlessness” and struggled to find comfort in relying on a female protagonist) to contemporary writer and critic Cynthia Ozick (who soundly rejected the notion of a “feminism of difference”), Showalter does not try to force any of these writers into uncomfortable slots in any kind of artificial female pantheon.

These writers are all individuals, and Showalter treats them as such.

The broad scope of “A Jury of Her Peers” doesn’t allow for definitive treatment of any of its authors. Readers looking for more depth will have to be content with considering this book as a starting point.

But one of the pleasures of Showalter’s approach is the wide range she is able to explore. Beloved children’s writer Laura Ingalls Wilder receives a mention, as do “pulp queen” Grace Metalious (“Peyton Place”) and Chinese-American writer Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”). Casting the net wide enlivens Showalter’s account with the collision of so many, and so varied, a multitude of world views.

Just one warning about the reading of “A Jury of Her Peers”: The book offers fleeting – yet enticing – descriptions of the works it catalogs. So beware of the sudden longing for old titles that it may induce. You might suddenly find yourself rummaging through the house in pursuit of a forgotten copy of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” or a volume of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.

And when you find it you’ll want a moment, before you sit down to enjoy it, to savor the lineage from which it sprang.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.


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