Granger Collection

Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novel The Country of the Pointed Firs was published in 1896

“‘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 for the murder of her abusive husband. Two women who visit the crime scene “conspire to conceal or destroy the evidence they have found,” Showalter notes, “and to protect Minnie from the patriarchal system of the Law.” In a credo at the outset of her book, Showalter suggests that special protection for women writers is no longer necessary:

I believe that American women writers no longer need specially constituted juries, softened judgment, unspoken agreements, or suppression of evidence in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage.

Showalter begins with two Puritan writers born in England, the poet Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) and the minister’s wife Mary Rowlandson (1637–1711). When Bradstreet’s poems were published in England, her brother-in-law insisted in an introduction that she “had neglected no housekeeping chore in their making.” In finding ways “to make domestic topics worthy of serious literature,” Bradstreet wrote in an affecting plain style reminiscent of Sir Walter Ralegh, as in these lines from what Showalter calls “the first woman’s poem about empty-nest syndrome”:

I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest.
I nurst them up with pain and care,
No cost nor labour did I spare
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.
Chief of the Brood then took his flight
To Regions far and left me quite.
My mournful chirps I after send
Till he return, or I do end.

While Bradstreet was a highly educated poet, Rowlandson became a writer inadvertently, when she and her three children were kidnapped by Narragansett Indians during King Philip’s War in 1676. Three months later she was freed, and her vivid account of her captivity sold well in Massachusetts and England. Readers were fascinated by her dispassionate adjustment to Indian frugality:


They would pick up old bones, and cut them in pieces at the joynes, and if they were full of worms and maggots, they would scald them over the fire to make the vermin come out; and then boyle them, and drink up the Liquor, and then beat the great ends of these in a Morter, and so eat them. They would eat Horses’ guts and ears, and all sorts of wild birds which they could catch: Also Bear, Venison, Beavers, Tortois, Frogs, Squirils, Dogs, Skunks, Rattle-snakes: yea, the very Barks of Trees.

Showalter finds traces of Bradstreet’s domestic concerns and Rowlandson’s dramatic encounter with American Indians in novels by American women during the nineteenth century. One may feel that Showalter prefers Lydia Maria Child’s interracial romance, Hobomok, to Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s novel on a similar theme, Hope Leslie, more on political than aesthetic grounds. “Child was much more critical of the Puritans, and much more idealistic about the Indians, than Sedgwick,” she notes, who based her own captivity narrative on “the clash of these two obdurate cultures.” When Hope confronts her lost sister Faith, thoroughly assimilated into Indian life, Faith tells her bluntly, “No speak Yengees.”

It is with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Showalter calls “the most important figure in the history of American women’s writing,” that American women begin to make a contribution to world literature. Showalter is not the first critic to call for a reassessment of Stowe’s achievement, often denigrated for its alleged sentimentality and unconcealed propaganda. Edmund Wilson’s commanding study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, opens with a sympathetic account of Stowe’s long career, and of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular, “a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect.” Showalter admires Stowe’s chaotic second novel, Dred, more than Wilson, who found the book’s relentless Christian moralizing a distraction from its call for armed slave rebellion.

In linking Stowe to a later generation of gifted American writers, Showalter helps clarify an unexpected confluence in late-nineteenth-century American literature of what one might call Stowe’s legacy and that of Gustave Flaubert. The moralizing visionary and the fastidious French realist would seem to occupy opposite extremes of the literary spectrum. And yet it was in the opening pages of Stowe’s The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862) that Sarah Orne Jewett, the daughter of a country doctor from coastal Maine, first sensed how to convey through naturalistic detail some of the distinctive character of the hard-bitten local folk. Stowe describes her young heroine as

like those fragile wild-flowers which in April cast their fluttering shadows from the mossy crevices of the old New England granite,—an existence in which colorless delicacy is united to a sort of elastic hardihood of life, fit for the rocky soil and harsh winds it is born to encounter.

Rereading Stowe’s novel late in life, Jewett found the power of the opening undiminished but was disappointed by the jumbled romance of the rest of the book, which she attributed to the interruptions of housework. (Virginia Woolf, by contrast, argued in A Room of One’s Own that women excelled as novelists because the writing of novels could survive such interruptions while poetry and drama could not.) “You must throw everything and everybody aside at times,” Jewett wrote her longtime companion, Annie Fields,

but a woman made like Mrs. Stowe cannot bring herself to the cold selfishness of the moment for one’s work’s sake, and the recompense for her loss is a divine touch here and there in an incomplete piece of work.

Cold selfishness was what Jewett admired in Flaubert, “the greatest single spur to her work,” according to the Harvard scholar F.O. Matthiessen, a cousin of Jewett’s who published a pioneering study of her in 1929.1 Jewett pinned to her writing desk a quotation from the master: “Écrire la vie ordinaire comme on écrit l’histoire. ” (“Write about ordinary life as one writes history.”) She found in Madame Bovary a study of ordinary rural life treated with the seriousness and objectivity of the best historical writing. In Mont Saint Michael and Chartres, Henry Adams wrote of the affinity between Flaubert’s Normandy and New England:

The relation between the granite of one coast and that of the other may be fanciful, but the relation between the people who live on each is as hard and practical a fact as the granite itself.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett’s masterpiece, is a series of linked sketches about a writer’s return to a village in coastal Maine to get some writing done. The manner, at once lyrical and astringent, in which she personifies the village mirrors her own heightened expectations:


These houses made the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs.

She encounters an array of sturdy women, including her sibylline landlady, Mrs. Todd, and a contrasting group of blighted men, who remember the heroic period of New England sailing and whaling ships. The radical plotlessness of the book exasperates many readers. “Has anything happened to her during this chapter of her life?” Showalter asks. “Is the point of the pointed firs that the narrator has overcome her own isolation and will be a better writer? Who knows?”

The Country of the Pointed Firs resembles Thoreau’s Walden in both its rejection of traditional modes of story-telling and its steady engagement with the moral intimations of an intensely observed landscape. Like Thoreau, Jewett establishes recurrent patterns of imagery—waves breaking on the rocky shore, receding lines of fir trees, rows of benches in an empty schoolhouse—that can be interpreted as metaphors for the daily discipline of writing lines of words on a page. At one point, the narrator turns to “a long piece of writing, sadly belated now, which I was bound to do” and receives a visit from a bookish old eccentric with the symbolic-sounding name of Captain Littlepage. At such moments, one may feel that Jewett is making an explicit connection between the writer’s vocation and her chosen New England locale.


Granger Collection

The poet Elinor Wylie, 1920s

In The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett wrote of how “literary employments” are “vexed with uncertainties at best.” When Jewett met the young Willa Cather, who was visiting Boston on assignment for McClure’s Magazine and wrote short stories on the side, she advised her, in a famous letter, to abandon journalism for the iron discipline and Flaubertian coldness of writing fiction:

If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago…. Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life and write from that to the world that holds offices, all society, all Bohemia, the city, the country—in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up…. To work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writer’s lot; he is the only artist who must be solitary and yet needs the widest outlook on the world.

A few years earlier, Cather had dismissed Kate Chopin’s superb short novel The Awakening as a “Creole Bovary,” a “trite and sordid” account of a woman who wanted love “to fill and gratify every need of life.” But Cather’s own long career can be seen as a sustained engagement with the challenge of Flaubert’s legacy. The three linked stories of humble lives in Obscure Destinies are clearly modeled on his Trois Contes. Her magnificent late novel A Lost Lady, mentioned only in passing in A Jury of Her Peers, flirts with the suicidal endings of Madame Bovary and The Awakening (as well as her own early story “Paul’s Case”) before freeing its hardy survivor, Marian Forrester, for more adventures, much to the consternation of her young admirer, Niel, who wants her to “immolate herself” instead.

Gertrude Stein began writing the linked stories of Three Lives (1909) “while reading Flaubert’s Trois Contes and looking at the paintings of Cézanne,” but Showalter has no patience for any aspect of Stein’s career. She calls Stein “a massive, crop-haired, mannish lesbian” who “solved the problems of creativity versus domesticity and leisure versus drudgery by taking a wife who did all the work.” Her writing “is widely acknowledged to be unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and excruciatingly boring.” Stein, she concludes, “seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes—a shocking sight to behold in every respect.” Stein has survived equally crude onslaughts before; it is pointless to argue again that Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas are perfectly comprehensible, or that the prose poetry of Tender Buttons, despite its evident difficulty, is not boring at all.

The best excuse for a book like A Jury of Her Peers is that it brings neglected works of literature to the attention of readers. Showalter spiritedly brings out the merits of such distinctive Gilded Age talents as the New Orleans short-story writers Grace King and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, on opposite sides of the color line; the cold-eyed New England short-story master Mary E. Wilkins Freeman; and the western elegist Mary Austin, whose austere stories of mysterious “walking women” and Indian basket-makers recall the imagery of Georgia O’Keeffe and anticipate some of the subject matter of Annie Proulx. She makes a strong case for Quicksand, Nella Larsen’s exquisitely written novel of racial “passing,” and the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, two novels that are frequently assigned in American colleges but deserve to be better known.

Among the unjustly forgotten poets of the 1920s, it is good to encounter the Byronic wit of Elinor Wylie’s “Portrait in Black Paint, With a Very Sparing Use of Whitewash”:

She’d give the shirt from off her back, except that
She doesn’t wear a shirt, and most men do;
And often and most bitterly she’s wept that
A starving tramp can’t eat a silver shoe,
Or some poor beggar, slightly alcoholic,
Enjoy with Donne a metaphysical frolic.

Wylie had cultivated a public image of pearly preciosity in her work; when “Portrait in Black Paint” appeared in The New Yorker, signed “E.W.,” many readers guessed it was by Edmund Wilson. “I expected a ravishing and diaphanous dragonfly,” Virginia Woolf wrote when she met Wylie in England in 1926,

a siren, a green and sweet-voiced nymph—that was what I expected, and came a tiptoe into the room to find—a solid hunk; a hatchet-minded, cadaverous, acid voiced, bareboned, spavined, patriotic, nasal, thick legged American.

In Showalter’s treatment of more recent poetry, political concerns dominate. The angry and aggrieved poems of Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich get a more respectful hearing than those of the more detached and inventive Marianne Moore (“a poet read mainly by other poets and academic critics”) or Elizabeth Bishop, whose final book Showalter mistakenly calls Geographies III. Bishop’s “The Moose,” about a bus journey from the Maritime provinces to Boston, has some of the same understated intensity of detail as Sarah Orne Jewett’s writings, and a kindred feeling for the shifting meanings of “home”:

—Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).

A Jury of Her Peers clarifies lines of affiliation and inheritance among women poets and novelists. With its tendency to exclude male writers and critics except when they stand as obstacles in the path of women’s achievement, the book is less successful in its stated aim “to integrate [the] careers and contributions” of American women writers “into our narrative of American literary history overall.” Wouldn’t it help the cause of such integration to learn, for example, something of John Berryman’s major poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, or Edmund Wilson’s admiring account of Kate Chopin’s work, as well as the work of other women writers, long before the feminist revival of the 1970s? Shouldn’t it be a cause for celebration that Gertrude Stein inspired Hemingway and other male writers rather than one more charge against her?2

Showalter notes that Mary McCarthy’s

first efforts at fiction came at the insistence of her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson, who shut her up in a room for three hours and ordered her to write a story. Paradoxically, during the time in her life when she was most dominated by a man, McCarthy began to create a new image for American women.

Where is the paradox? Wilson’s insistence that McCarthy allow time for her writing was overbearing, perhaps, and maybe even “patriarchal”—the word she used was “fatherly.”3 But wasn’t it better to shut her in a room with a typewriter than to hand her a broom and a dustpan?

This Issue

October 8, 2009