A Jury of Her Peers

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

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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.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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