Mary McCarthy’s Room

‘House’ is being ‘cleaned,’” Emily Dickinson wrote in 1866. “I prefer pestilence.” Her father, a wealthy lawyer, employed servants to bear much of the workload in the kitchen and the barn; she could afford to joke about what she called the “prickly art” of housekeeping. Dickinson cooked the bread for her father because he liked only hers. “And people must have puddings,” she told the Boston-based writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when he visited the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1870. According to Higginson, Dickinson spoke of puddings “very dreamily, as if they were comets—so she makes them.”

There was nothing dreamy about cooking and keeping house for the hardworking writer and political activist Lydia Maria Child, best known today for her Thanksgiving song “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Married in 1828 to a litigious lawyer always in debt, Child was the author of forty-seven books and tracts, including four novels and her electrifying call for immediate abolition, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). In 1864, Child made a list of her nonliterary accomplishments for the year:

Cooked 360 dinners.

Cooked 362 breakfasts.

Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times.

Filled lamps 362 times.

Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.

Besides innumerable jobs too small to be mentioned….

When Child wasn’t cooking and dusting, she was writing about cooking and dusting. She dedicated The Frugal Housewife (1829) “to those who are not ashamed of economy,” and included advice on “how to fix a frozen pump, make mattresses, and salvage spoiled foods.” Thomas Higginson, a great admirer of Child, noted that “it seemed to be necessary for American women to work their passage into literature by first compiling a cookery book.”

In her capacious, engaging, and opinionated new book, A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter expands Higginson’s point about the rough “passage into literature” of American women. “We have to acknowledge that domestic life, the everyday life of the home, had to be a central concern for women writers,” Showalter maintains.

While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook, and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts. In Northern census records, the occupation of Emily Dickinson…is listed as “keeping house.”

Showalter, professor emerita at Princeton and the author or editor of eighteen books, is best known for her history of British women novelists, A Literature of Their Own (1977), one of the founding works of what has come to be known as feminist literary criticism. Her new book, something of a companion volume for American writers, is the first comprehensive history of its kind. While there have been anthologies of American women writers, “no one before me,” she writes, “has tried to trace their contribution to our national literature.”

Her title is drawn from a short story by Susan Glaspell, published in 1917, about a woman on trial …

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