THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN WOMEN'S LITERATURE by Dale Bauer, ed., Reviewed by
 

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN WOMEN'S LITERATURE
Ed. Dale Bauer
(Cambridge, 2012) xvi + 696 pp.
Reviewed by on 2012-10-16.

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This collaborative volume is an impressive achievement, making sense out of a field that has only recently come into being, and giving fair space to the multitude of scholars who have contributed to it. Not until the 1970s did the influence of feminism and the influx of women into the professoriate begin to activate the retrieval and study of women's writing in America. Before then, a small number of women writers had been noticed only to be dismissed on account of their presumed literary incompetence and soppy sentimentalism. They were either mocked for holding supposedly feminist values or castigated for discarding them. Overall, they were judged in such a way as to demonstrate that men, and men alone, had written true literature--and that men alone were sufficiently capable to be literary critics. Literary studies were thus rescued for men after being dismissed and denigrated as a feminine field. But the field could not remain purely masculine without ignoring a large body of what must be recognized as literature. Scholarship on women writers, therefore, has not only discovered and organized a vast new field; it has also demonstrated that the boundaries between "literature" and "women's writing" were largely constructed by the critics.

Although--or perhaps because--so much of the writing of American women remains to be studied, this seems like a good time to take stock, asking where we have been and what remains to be done. As Dale M. Bauer puts it in her introduction, the purpose of the book "is to assess the major renovation of US women's literature in the past thirty years" (1). "Contributors," she says, "have been asked to present a current view of their areas of study and to offer a vision for what is to come" (7). With one exception (a chapter on Catherine Sedgwick), each of its thirty-two chapters--by as many contributors--succinctly describes a group of literary women and the scholarship that has called them to our attention, thus telling two historical stories simultaneously. Earlier literature cannot be known except through the work of academics who have retrieved, organized, and publicized it. By making their scholarly contributions visible, this book maps the contours of a huge collaborative enterprise.

Ranging from Native American writing to women reading, the chapters of this book cover virtually all the important topics in the field. Each chapter has its own notes and bibliographies, and a comprehensive index serves the entire volume. Chapters on specified periods alternate with thematic chapters--e.g., on war, religion, fiction, writing for children, lesbian literature--that are strategically placed according to the historical moment when the specified theme became prominent. Since the women who wrote and read American literature were mostly white, Protestant, and middle-class, these three adjectives also describe most of the writers considered here, but they are sometimes grouped by ethnic affiliation (African American, Jewish, Latino), for less privileged ethnic groups also looked to literature for validation and affirmation.

More generally, without the contributions of women as producers and appreciators of literature, it could not have attained the respected place that--at least until the present moment--it has enjoyed in this country. Every chapter recognizes this achievement, and though each stands alone, the whole coheres beautifully. While naming hundreds of scholars and writers, the book never subsides into mere listing. It explains and assesses theories in a language both accessible and free of the carping animosity that sometimes infects academic literary scholarship. The most important questions posed by contributors are about the work remaining to be done. "The discussions here," writes Bauer, "are not only new in their emphasis on what has been done already, but, even more crucially, what is left to make of women's writing." No one method dominates, just as no one method can encompass the "polyvalences of women's writing" (7).

The most obvious task still ahead is to make the huge number of women writers in America better known. The work of publicizing them, of bringing them into the expanded canon of American literature, remains. Certainly the book itself contributes to this project. But expanding the canon is especially challenging now, when the very idea of a canon has been shaken in no small part by the retrieval of so many writers from so many walks of life. Traditionally, the canon included only the small numbers of writers thought to exemplify transcendent literary values, leaving all other writers behind. But if no one standard of literary value prevails any more, and if writers can no longer be canonized by the act of simply asserting their genius, how shall their achievements be categorized?

At the least, this book shows that along with the range of women's topics, the multiplicity of strategies they adopted to write about them has demolished any impression of women's writing as uniform in its concerns or literary strategy. The writers examined here were deeply involved in politics of all sorts and divided in their views of women, whom they saw as either special or diversely generic: as beings endowed with a special mission according to their special sensibilities, or as varied figures bearing the same responsibilities towards public and private life as men. While most of these writers considered women specially endowed, they differed in their conceptions of what made women special. Ordering this plenitude of women writers and divergent opinions is a major task.

The plenitude of writers treated here, however, excludes one group of women: those who did not publish their work. It is important to recognize that to publish, as the women featured here all did, requires a sense of the public and public responsibility. Women who felt that women's place was in the private home and truly lived up to that conviction simply never published. Their beliefs-- along with the beliefs of numerous other non-publishing women-- are lost. They can and maybe should be searched for, but these recovered materials should not be inserted into an account of literature. Even at the cost of ignoring Emily Dickinson, who was largely unpublished in her lifetime and who was canonized for poetry that did not conform to female norms, Bauer was right to exclude women who did not publish.

Bauer's contributors constitute an impressive roster of scholars from academic institutions across the country. Four of the thirty-two are men--John March, Gordon Hutner, John Ernest, and Andy Doolen--who are all known for their specialties and their gender-neutral scholarship. The others include such familiar scholars as Stephanie Foote writing on regionalism, Elizabeth Renker on poetry, and Brenda Murphy on playwrights. Though some contributors are less known than others, all display a gratifyingly high level of sophistication and tact. The book is a pleasure to read, and almost half the chapters treat women writers of the Nineteenth Century, beginning with Doolen's chapter 6 on the early Amercan novel through Chapter 19, Jennifer Travis's account of American literary naturalism. But since earlier and later chapters often allude to the nineteenth century, the book deserves to be read thoroughly.

With so many chapters to choose from, three will have to stand in for the rest. All conform to the aims of the volume, but in each the emphases are slightly different. Elizabeth Renker begins her chapter on poetry by asserting: "I offer a brief overview of the emergence and development of nineteenth-century poetry studies. I then turn to addressing the problems at the core of the field at the present time" (232). Though she does not neglect the poets themselves, she chiefly considers poetry studies, specifically how critics and scholars have categorized poetry by women. Rather than consigning women's poetry to the histories of gender and genre, she argues, we should recognize that periodicity is always inaccurate because the poetry written at the beginning and end of the century seeps into what came before and after. Also, she contends, because American women poets always knew something of foreign writers, we should rethink the category of "American." Furthermore, given the diversity of poetry written by women and the ways in which their accomplishments rival those of men, she questions the the category of "women's" poetry. Finally, she opens the question of what is "poetry" itself, dismissing the formalist answer as itself a historical artifact. The shift away from formalist analysis, she writes, "frees up the massive array of neglected poems for new forms of analysis" (249). Everything can be re-considered afresh: "A new archive, a new history, a new theory, since everything about the history of American poetry is currently on the table for reassessment" (250). American poetry as a whole is due for reassessment, and to question the terms by which American women poets have been defined and sequestered is implicitly to define a new field entirely. "[T] wenty-first century literary histories of nineteenth-century women's poetry," Renker concludes, "will barely resemble those of the twentieth century. The prospect of change is thrilling indeed" (250).

In her chapter on regional writing, Stephanie Foote works in a more abstract, theoretical mode, but does not neglect the regionalists themselves, who arguably contributed more than any other women to the enterprise of high literature. Regionalism, she notes, was "not just about small domestic places, rural communities, or isolated villages" but about "the idea of place itself"; critical connections between place, space, gender, and literature "rely on changing historical definitions of how place can be represented, and how its stories can be told to an audience with a range of different investments in the meaning of local places and cultures" (295). She goes on to explain why regional writing by women "has been virtually synonymous with the later nineteenth-century writing": regional writing "managed to balance the nostalgic tone that seemed to drive ideologies of the region with the contemporary material and political concerns to which the region was assumed to be impervious" (295, 299). In short, as town gave way to country at the end of the nineteenth century, women writers worked on both sides of the divide. In Foote's chapter, key regionalists of the century include Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Noailles Murfree, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Zitkala-Sa, Sui Sin Far, Celia Thaxter, Rose Terry Cooke, Kate Chopin, Grave King, Mary Hallock Foote, and Alice French. At present, Foote suggests, mystery writers Sara Paretsky and Nevada Barr exemplify contemporary regionalism, wherein a nostalgic sense of place is tempered by a hard-nosed concern with facts.

Finally, Brenda Murphy's survey of women playwrights--less theoretically inflected but no less historical--begins with Mercy Otis Warren and winds up with contemporary dramatists like Suzan-Lori Parks. Murphy observes in passing that Susanna Rowson's plays remain understudied and that melodrama (the dominant dramatic genre of the nineteenth century) is poorly understood, a victim of critical contempt. She also extends the definition of drama to include dramatized fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe's reputation, she contends, cannot be understood by anyone who does not know that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the "most produced play of the century" (355).

This collection's openness to all women's writing in the United States is bound to inspire some resistance, precisely for its refusal to rank the women. (As noted above, the only woman to get her own chapter is Catharine Sedgwick.) The dominant tone of the entire volume is celebratory, both for the number of women who have produced literary works in the various genres as well as experimented with generic expectations, and for the multitude of critics who have sought to recover and analyze this great mass of material. One wishes that the price tag--$180--were not so steep, because the book should be read carefully and consulted frequently, and the latter is impossible with a book that only libraries can afford.

Nina Baym is emeritus Swanlund Chair, Center for Advanced Study Professor of English, and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois.


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