Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing (1977) changed the way we read fiction by women by showing female writers in historical, political, and literary relation to one another, and doing it in prose that was energetic, enjoyable, and blessedly free of academic jargon. At the time, this was a controversial project. The previous year, Ellen Moers' brilliant (and, sadly, out of print) Literary Women was attacked by Anne Tyler for arguing that great women writers like Dickinson, Collette, and Woolf shared something like a literary tradition with lesser writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Fanny Fern. You can see why Tyler bridled: After all, it was the misogynists who usually grouped women writers together, the better to dismiss them all—Nathaniel Hawthorne's "damned mob of scribbling women," churning out their hypersensitive derivative poems, their narrow, pedestrian domestic fiction. Women writers, the good ones, anyway, tended not to want to be put on the bookshelf next to the other women writers.
Thirty years and many books later (to say nothing of a stint writing at People and a distinguished Princeton teaching career), Showalter has done for America what she did for Britain, and the results are equally exhilarating, provocative, revelatory, and even more magisterial. The 350-year span of A Jury of Her Peerstakes in more than 250 writers and covers sweeping tides of history and social change. It's a long book, but it doesn't feel long at all because it is so full of information, ideas, stories, and characters. The celebrated get their due—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O'Connor, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison—and so do the forgotten: Mercy Otis Warren, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary Austin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Emma Lazarus, Anzia Yezierska, Nella Larsen, Meridel LeSueur, Ann Petry, and a host of others.
Who decides which subjects matter; what voice is appropriate for what kind of story; what books get published, reviewed, read and reread, and enshrined as Literature with a capital L? Showalter takes her title from Susan Glaspell's 1917 story "A Jury of Her Peers," in which a sheriff and an attorney, at a loss to find a reason why a wife would murder her husband, overlook clues to his brutality and her desperation that their wives, rummaging around the farmhouse crime site, easily discover—and, sympathizing with the accused, destroy. Women, of course, could not sit on juries in 1917, or even vote; they were judged and governed by laws and codes and procedures they had had no hand in making or applying. In the same way, Showalter argues, for most of our history women writers lacked "a critical jury of their peers to discuss their work, to explicate its symbols and meanings, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to all readers."
A woman could do very well in the popular marketplace, and many have—women were, and are, the major readers of novels and poetry, a source of much annoyance to male writers from Hawthorne's day to our own—but men had a lock on prestige. They ran the elite magazines and publishing houses and gave out patronage. (If Emerson or Thomas Wentworth Higgins liked your poetry, you were in.) They wrote the important, serious, taste-making reviews. (Henry James, despite being Edith Wharton's great friend, seems never to have missed a chance to savage a woman writer in print.) Most important for the long haul, they edited the histories and surveys of American literature that shaped the canon, and they made no bones about their preferences. In 1917, the four male editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature set out to "enlarge the spirit of American literary criticism and render it more energetic and masculine." The Literary History of the United States, published in 1948, was edited by 54 men and one woman.
Showalter organizes her history—the first of its kind, she tells us—around the theme of women's relationship to the literary marketplace. There is indeed a female tradition in American writing, she argues, but biology and psychology do not explain it: "[I]t comes from pressures on women to lead private rather than public lives, and to conform to cultural norms and expectations." Anne Bradstreet's first book of poems (1650) was prefaced by testimonials to her humility and piety from no less than 11 English men. Like many women writers to come, Bradstreet was careful to disclaim high ambition, even as she penned a 6,000-line epic about ancient history and produced at least a few poems that speak to us today and that Showalter forthrightly calls great. "Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bayes," she modestly asks—kitchen herbs, not the laurel of poetic immortality.