Elaine Showalter

(WOMENSENEWS)–Three decades ago, Elaine Showalter’s authoritative history of British female writers, "A Literature of Their Own," ushered in an era of feminist literary criticism. Now Showalter, a former professor at Princeton who divides her time between Washington, D.C., and London, has produced a new history of American female authors.

"A Jury of Her Peers" was published in February by Random House.

Amazingly in the intervening decades, no one has undertaken the task that "A Jury of Her Peers" attempts: to form the foundations of a canon for female writers on these shores, from Indian captivity narratives to passionate criticisms of race-based slavery, from Nobel Prize-winning masterpieces to popular chick-lit.

The title of "A Jury of Her Peers" is taken from a play by Susan Glaspell, a 1931 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, whose name has faded with time. The drama concerns a group of women who discover that their neighbor, Minnie, killed her abusive husband. The women eventually collude to cover up for Minnie, being more capable of understanding her plight than the authority-wielding men who might judge her. "In effect, they constitute a jury of her peers and they acquit her of the crime of murder," Showalter writes in her introduction.

But, Showalter adds, after more than three centuries U.S. female writers no longer need a sympathetic jury in the literary realm. They have arrived at a point of freedom, she believes, where they can write about any subject they want, and so can assess their predecessors without bias.

Showalter says she wrote her book to invite that assessment, to bring forgotten writers into the light and to inspire a vigorous, fearless debate on their merits as writers, their cultural significance and their relationship to American literary tradition at large.

Encyclopedic Range

Showalter sets out to accomplish this goal with a book that is a hybrid of history and criticism. It covers an Jury of Her Peers, book cover almost encyclopedic number of women writers from the most lauded (Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison, Louisa May Alcott) to those who have largely been forgotten, such as Revolution-era playwright Mercy Otis Warren–a pen pal of John and Abigail Adams. There are also those of in-between stature, such as the Jewish poet whose words adorn the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus.

Showalter includes only women who wrote for publication, a historical thread that unites Puritan poets such as Anne Bradstreet, first published in 1650, with sexual pioneer Erica Jong, whose novel "Fear of Flying" made waves in 1973.

"I am asking how American women negotiated the act of writing professionally, how they were changed by committing themselves to writing as a vocation, how they reconciled their public selves with their private lives and how changes in the status of women affected their lives and careers," she writes.

That navigation was never easy.

The agonies suffered by women who took up the pen fill Showalter’s 550-plus pages. There was plenty of depression, abandonment of the craft, public criticism and unmerited erasure from history. Much of the trouble stemmed from the writers’ basic brazen act: daring to make their mark outside of the domestic sphere.

Parallels and Divergences

Each woman’s entry is grouped both chronologically and thematically, illuminating the parallels and divergences among women writing about the same subjects at the same time.

In the 1920s, for instance, we see a group of poets–Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Eleanor Wylie and Dorothy Parker–experiencing and chronicling the allure and peril of Jazz Era bohemian life, from the excitement of sexual freedom to the despair of alcoholism.

Among contemporary writers, Showalter points out similarities among writers of cross-cultural literature–Jhumpa Lahiri, Gish Jen and Julia Alvarez–who frequently explore characters navigating the boundaries between their ethnic identities and their lives as Americans.

Showalter, who has sat on the panels of prizes such as National Book Awards, and the Orange Prize, defines her role as a peer, including a significant amount of criticism and judgment.

From her readers and her successors, Showalter encourages and welcomes debate, or "prosecution and defense," of the works and writers in "A Jury of Her Peers."

Some recent book reviews of "A Jury of Her Peers," particularly Katie Roiphe’s March 8 review in the New York Times Book Review, have puzzled at what they see as Showalter’s privileging of history over analysis.

But the book is in fact rife with analysis and the priorities of its author.

Showalter’s verdict on writers’ literary merit is often expressed tersely: "Alexandra is a majestic heroine, but also rather one-dimensional and dull," she writes of Willa Cather’s "O Pioneers!"

When discussing the potent influence of "Little Women" on the U.S. female psyche, for instance, Showalter concludes: "A woman’s novel did not have to be the highest art to have this impact; it only needed to have unforgettable characters and genuine situations."

Wharton and Cather Loom

The two writers to whom Showalter devotes the most space–they share an entire chapter–are early-20th century novelists Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.

Although Wharton was a grand dame of high society and Cather felt more at home in prairie towns, they shared an aversion to the "feminine" literary tradition and identified with male characters. By attempting large-scale, literary masterworks that shunned a female tradition, Showalter says they paved the way for women to attempt the "Great American Novel."

"Paradoxically, American women’s writing could not fully mature until there were women writing against it," she writes.

From those two writers’ heyday, through Pearl S. Buck, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison and more, Showalter believes women have emerged to achieve a kind of literary freedom, of which Morrison’s Nobel Prize and her combination of stature and fame are a sort of vanguard.

The intent of "A Jury of Her Peers" is not to be the end of an exclusionary process, rather the start of an inclusive one. It serves as a crucial first step in a long-delayed discussion about women wielding the pen in America, and a testament to the ground those women have covered.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer and book critic in New York City. Her writing can be found at http://www.sarahmseltzer.com