In her introduction to The Vintage Book of American Women Writers, editor Elaine Showalter suggests that “the main reason women do not figure in American literary history is because they have not been the ones to write it.” Showalter sought to amend the fact that women writers, even those who were praised in their own era, “tended to disappear from literary history and national memory” in her earlier volume A Jury of Her Peers, a comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000. History though is not enough — Showalter continues in her introduction: “Finally, we need a canon of outstanding women writers over the past four centuries both to organize their history and to begin the arguments that keep literary discussion alive.” The Vintage Book of American Women Writers aims to be that canon, or at least to be a volume of that canon, collecting writing by American women from the past 360 years. And while Showalter admits that “it cannot claim to be comprehensive,” the trade paperback is impressively hefty at over 800 pages, showcasing the work of 79 authors.
Many of these authors will be familiar (hopefully) to anyone who didn’t sleep through his or her American lit class in high school. The volume begins with several selections from the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet; there’s also Mary Rowlandson, Phillis Wheatley, and Margaret Fuller. A tidy chunk of the early part of the book comes from writers we might associate with the transcendentalist movement — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson, just to name a few of the more famous writers. There’s an abundance of riches near the turn of the twentieth century, with tales from Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, writers who set the stage for the modernism of Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, and H.D. And then: Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zora Neale Hurston (the collection won my heart simply by including her incomparable short story “Sweat”), Gwendolyn Brooks, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Ursula K. LeGuin, Flannery O’Connor (but not, for some reason, Carson McCullers), Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
I realize I’m just listing names now, but hopefully you know these names, are familiar with them, have read their works (if not, The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is clearly a great starting place). As an experiment — and perhaps an implicit challenge to Showalter’s contention that these writers continue to be neglected — I counted the authors I’d read at least once before this collection: 33, or 42%. Granted, I teach English for a living, and many of these authors are represented in every literature anthology I’ve ever used. But that might be my point, I suppose, that the canon has opened up, been re-examined and reformed. I can’t think of a literature course I’ve ever taught that hasn’t included Hurston or O’Connor or Katherine Anne Porter.
For me then, the greater joy in The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is in reading the writers that I haven’t seen anthologized before. I’m almost ashamed to admit I hadn’t yet read (okay, never even heard of) the abolitionist poet Frances E. W. Harper; Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s poem “Indian Names,” written in 1849, seems more poignant (and troubling) than ever; Rose Terry Cooke’s “Blue-beard’s Closet” (1861) resonates strongly, in that it connects to the latest piece in the collection, Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Nearest Gas Pump.” The story of Bluebeard of course metaphorizes the history that Showalter wishes to reverse, what with its discarded bodies, locked in a secret room, awaiting discorvery. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch (or at least a hyperbole). In any case, these stories, poems, essays, fables, and tales are hardly lifeless. Great stuff.
The Vintage Book of American Women Writers is new in trade paperback from Vintage.
From David Foster Wallace’s 1997 interview with Charlie Rose. I love Rose’s response–
DFW: Feminists are always saying this. Feminists are saying white males say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world.”
ROSE: And you say?
DFW: I — I — if that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to.
ROSE: Do you still play tennis?
The Odyssey has long been my go-to example for phallocentric literature in the high school classes I teach. The story of wily Odysseus and his crew wandering the high seas for a decade after the Trojan War prototypifies a literature of masculine fantasy full of adventure, intrigue, and romance. While Odysseus explores the world, bedding nymphs and witches and having every kind of adventure with his boys, his wife Penelope is at home, faithful and chaste, raising kid Telemachus and keeping the would-be usurpers at bay. In short, the story of Odysseus licenses an entire tradition of phallocentric literature wherein the clever protagonist is able to duck familial and social duty and have a great adventure in the process. Think of Huck lighting out for the territory. Same deal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as Margaret Atwood saliently demonstrates in The Penelopiad, her reworking of The Odyssey, there’s always another side to that story of masculine escape–and a price to that adventure, as well.
As its title suggests, The Penelopiad tells the story from the perspective of Penelope, a plain but clever girl, who–like Odysseus–must learn to live by her wits. Atwood, working from several myths, details Penelope’s divine parentage (she’s half-naiad), and her upbringing as a young maid in her father’s home. In an early key scene, Penelope’s father supposedly (the details are fuzzy, she admits) tries to murder her by drowning her, after learning that she will weave his shroud. This infanticide echoes the story of Oedipus, and also serves as a dominant motif throughout the story (it’s also twinned with a motif of eating meat–Penelope remarks at one point that she is just “meat” to be eaten). As the story progresses, young, shy Penelope slowly transforms from a naive gal with a chip on her shoulder about her preternaturally beautiful cousin, Helen, into a woman as wily as Odysseus himself. Atwood treats us to Penelope’s inner thoughts on all sorts of subjects, and even though Penelope claims to love Odysseus, it’s repeatedly clear how angry she is at not only him, but also her son.
While Penelope’s story is dominant, Atwood is very concerned with Penelope’s twelve maids, orphaned servants slain by Odysseus and Telemachus after Odysseus’ return. The maids serve as a chorus, interjecting their voice in short chapters written in a variety of styles, ranging from epic poetry to sea shanties to short skits. One of the most fascinating choral sections plays as an anthropological seminar, in which Atwood’s maids suggest that the real story of Odysseus and Penelope is in fact the displacement of a matriarchy by a wandering warrior. There’s also an inspired court scene where Odysseus is tried for killing the suitors, and the maids sue for justice.
Ultimately, Atwood paints the maids, poor orphans and slaves, as the real victims in this ancient tale. While Penelope complains that she is treated as “meat,” Atwood makes it clear that it’s really the maids who are treated as mere flesh to be consumed–slaves forced to clean, bodies subjected to repeated rapes. And while Penelope repeatedly expresses sorrow and dismay for the murder of the maids, complaining that their deaths were a result of tragic miscommunication, the maids have a different story to tell–one that ironizes much of what Penelope has to say. As the story progresses, we are frequently reminded by Penelope herself that she is a liar and storyteller on par with Odysseus and because of this insight we begin to realize that there might be something to some of the slanderous rumors she’s been protesting in her narrative. It would’ve been simple for Atwood to give Penelope a straightforward and strong voice, a voice that communicated the virtue classically identified with Penelope along with a feminist slant of insight. Instead, Atwood’s Penelope is far more complex and human, gossipy and spiteful, sympathetic and ripe for contempt. The Penelopiad ironizes not only The Odyssey (and the phallocentric literary tradition after it), but also itself; its a book that complicates our notions of history, memory, and identity, and it does so in ways both playful and profound. Highly recommended.
What’s the deal with Wonder Woman? (images via Superdickery, who provide their own snarky comments).
A little five-on-one action. Luckily, that nasty voyeur Elongated Man is there to film the whole thing.
Good clean Amazon fun.
Look out for the giant phallus–uh–torpedo!
A Freudian’s field day.
(Evil) mustache rides, 10 cents.
Yay! Girl power!
Read this hilarious article from The Onion, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Ever Does.” It neatly sums up all of my feelings on the current national/pop cultural understanding of what feminism is in America today.
Every time a discussion of feminism comes up in any of my graduate courses, I always manage to come off like a caveman jerk as I try to explain how I think that the term “feminism”–much like “punk”–has been completely co-opted by mainstream patriarchal commercial culture, and thus etiolated of life, its original power sucked dry. There is of course an easy solution for this, which involves a re-appraisal of feminist objectives and a general re-education of young girls and boys (okay, easy in theory, not in practice). The concern in academia with gender studies over the past two decades has done a remarkable job of re-framing the problematics of identity, sexuality, culture, etc. beyond just “women’s issues,” but the trickle-down of second-wave feminism seems to be, well, diluted at best and completely misunderstood at worst . And as recent attacks on Roe v Wade show, these aren’t battles that were neatly finished thirty years ago–there is still much at stake today. Get empowered, yo.