Posted at 5:00 PM Feb 26, 2009
By Kathleen Willcox
Elaine Showalter is gloriously mid-brow - she appeals to our grunting inner id with her work as a critic for the likes of People and then she fluffs our striving, perfectionist superego with her work as one of the founding, and still one of the best, feminist literary critics in America.
Showalter, as a celebrated professor emerita at Princeton and yet no foe of a little pop culture fun, is perfectly poised to make a resounding cultural splash with her magnum opus, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.
In A Jury of Her Peers, she traces the relationship in America between patriarchy and the public perception of female scribes, and compares it to our counterparts in England. In the 19th century, the U.K. was cranking out the likes of George Eliot, while we were cranking out domestic fiction that couldn't even begin to compete with her whip-smart cannon-worthy fodder. The notable writers we did produce from that era - from Kate Chopin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Louisa May Alcott - focused almost exclusively on matters of the heart and hearth.
Showalter points the finger at economic realities; in the U.S., women who wanted to write also had to raise children, keep house and cook, while even relatively poor women in the U.K. had oodles of household help.
In her book, she studiously avoids the common, and oh-so-tempting trap that many a feminist critic stumbles into, of dutifully wagging a mumsy finger at the great white male conspiracy against all things female and non-white. Instead, she sticks to the indisputable facts -- and nothing but the facts. The reading may be drier and less immediately relatable than a juicy, vitriolic assault on sexism in the literary world, but her scholarly approach ultimately delivers a more potent brew.
After all, we have Marilynne Robinson and Annie Proulx, both wonderful, ballyhooed writers, but ones who still focus on the domestic; England's got the likes of Doris Lessing - a wonderful, ballyhooed writer, who isn't afraid to write about ideas outside of a familial context. These days, we can't blame the lack of a scullery maid, head cook and butler on the dearth of (published and successful) work that aims straight for the brain.