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Literary Domestics’

In response to:

Darn that Darning from the April 12, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

A word to your readers on the hidden dangers in the word provocative. I know now the error of my ways but I pray it is not too late to warn others. I think back nostalgically to those halcyon days when I was completing my book, Private Woman, Public Stage, an historical study of twelve nineteenth-century American women of the home whom I have called the “literary domestics,” who unexpectedly became best-selling authors and thereby confronted experiences that had never before befallen American women. It will avail me little to protest that my original sin was innocent when I wrote to an editor at my publisher’s that I anticipated that my book would stir discussion, even debate. But I made the fatal mistake of concluding that I thought that Private Woman, Public Stage would prove to be in some quarters, yes, provocative. Unfortunately, the word seems to have reached the wrong quarters.

Had I known what I know now I would have done then what I have done since—check the Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, the OED begins promisingly enough stating that to be provocative means “having the quality of provoking, calling forth, or giving rise to.” But do you notice what I notice? It does not say what is to be provoked, what is to be called forth, or what is to be given rise to. That is ominous. It suggests that anything is possible. However, to be fair, the OED does not keep you guessing. Read on. Yes, it says “tending to excite” but, it adds, “or enrage”; it says “stimulating,” but also “irritating.” Hurriedly, I read on. I should not have. Neither provoke nor provocation helps matters. Provoke begins in the same apparently innocuous fashion saying, for example, “to call forth.” But then it quickly settles the matter with “to enrage, vex, irritate, exasperate.” Oh, my, that is not what I meant at all. And provocation bulls forth, so to speak, with “the action of calling out to fight.” Desperate, I thought to check the 1982 supplement to the OED. That only complicated matters. Under provocative (“A.adj. 2.”) it states, “Now limited to sexual contexts.”

In retrospect, I think I may have attempted subconsciously to cover my tracks by never again linking my book in print to that word. What word? But to no avail. For along comes one Diane Johnson, woman writer and defender of domesticity, with her purported review of four books in The New York Review [April 12] and it becomes undeniable that I have unleashed a barrage of, well, I am not quite certain of what (those people who put together the OED knew what they were doing). In Johnson’s exercise covering 3700 plus words (I counted), she spent 60 percent of her energy (I used my calculator) being exercised exclusively by Private Woman, Public Stage. Let us face it: she was provoked and provoked in all of those undesirable ways.

Exigencies of space prevent me from commenting upon all of her choice items, but to list a few is instructive. Johnson accuses me of having a “particular horror” of household duties. She condemns me for an “implicit denigration of domestic subjects” and for spreading the idea that “since the dawn of history the whole female race has, until recently rescued, existed in a swamp of misery and darkness.” I am excoriated for suggesting even that the homes of the literary domestics were anything other than perfect paradises or for hinting even that these women were at all ambivalent about their lives. For, Johnson insists, the nineteenth-century “home was a valued and interesting place for men and women both”; that women were “thoughtful, brave, accomplished people,” and “Many seem to have been cheerful, talented, aggressive, well occupied.” And I guess all lived happily ever after.

In novel fashion, Johnson freely rewrites my book by attributing to me, for example, the conclusion that the literary domestics did not “create culture,” although even my book-jacket states that they “became…creators of culture.” She gratuitously psychoanalyzes me when saying that I am obsessed with whales, as in “Presumably, for Kelly, culture is created only by books about whales.” And if this is beginning to sound fishy to you, too, consider that she lectures to me, presumably from first hand experience, saying that “darning is restful, and more conducive to literary reflection…than, say, marlin fishing, or boxing.” Nor does that represent the entire spoiling catch, for she asks scornfully if I think that the literary domestics would have been more content if they could have appeared on The Today Show or in People magazine.

Admittedly that does raise the historical question and Johnson razes it to the ground by calling into question historical inquiry as such. She asserts that the literary domestics “were like…any other twelve woman writers today, allowing for the differences that antibiotics and contraception would have made in their lives.” I guess that means either that nothing has changed in the last century and a half or that the literary domestics were singularly unaffected by their very different times, having existed in a kind of vacuum. Or consider Johnson’s suggestion that, “If Kelley means to impugn the restraints of the home, it might have been better to study women in other professions, if there had been enough of them….” Come again?

Having spent a wonderful and challenging decade of researching and writing about the literary domestics, it is sad for me to think that anyone including Johnson would believe that I do not respect or value their legacy. I think I appreciate Johnson’s problem when she says that it is difficult “to break through to the elusive reality” of the past. She says, “We have a choice of attitude toward the people of the past—piety, pity, indifference, contempt.” At the risk of being additionally you know what, I would suggest that she try understanding.

Let me now go read my Melville and Hemingway.

Mary Kelley

Dartmouth College

Hanover, New Hampshire

Diane Johnson replies:

It must be upsetting to feel yourself “accused,” “excoriated,” “condemned,” and especially “gratuitously psychoanalyzed.” I do assure Ms. Kelley I did not intend anything so belligerent or impertinent about her somewhat interesting and unexceptionable book. I am not sure what prompts her to the dissertation on “provocative,” since it was not a word I used of the book, but I am indebted to her for the word count, which explains to me my sense that I had not left enough space for Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives. Rose’s book seemed a model contrast to a certain kind of historical inquiry I was complaining of, of which Ms. Kelley’s seemed an example. If I was not plain, G.R. Elton, writing in the June 14 New York Review about Steven Ozment’s book about family life in Reformation Europe, is plainer:

the historian should be allowed to ask whether that black picture of private lives in earlier generations tells the truth…. Depending on his personal view of life, the historian may dislike it as smug and bourgeois, object to it as too constrainingly conditioning, distrust it as inimical to much freedom and potential development.

In doing any of these things he takes his stand with the present and should remain aware of the standards of that very different society which he presumes to judge.

However, Kelley is correct in understanding me to mean that, judging from her book, not much has changed in the lives of women writers. I tried also to make the point that as successful writers they were luckier and more liberated than most women, and were therefore less representative of “women” than those aspiring to some other calling might have been. And that some of their complaints and frustrations no doubt arose from the condition of writer rather than the condition of woman.

Kelly says, “As much as the literary domestics admired the male palace of culture and looked upward to Olympus, they admired it from afar, and from below, for they could not imagine that this or any of society’s bastions of power were theirs to rule.” (I am indebted to Sandra Gilbert for pointing out that this view entirely ignores Ann Douglas’s convincing suggestion that high nineteenth-century American culture was, to considerable extent, in the charge of women.) “Paradoxically, while the literary domestics ranked as best-selling authors in the literary marketplace…they never left the cloistered corridors of their domestic consciousness.” Ms. Kelley should look up “paradox.” This is not a paradox, it is a statement of effect and cause. If I may quote my entire phrase, “these women did not ‘create culture’ well enough—or else they would have left [Kelley, and no doubt the rest of us] a legacy of respect for the values they themselves respected.”

I mentioned sea stories as masculine equivalents of domestic stories about women’s destiny. The problem remains whether sea stories are absolutely more valuable and readable than stories about who will marry whom, or whether it’s a matter of taste or simply of the skillfulness of the teller.

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