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.