Monday, March 15, 2021

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter is an award winning literary critic and biographer who has spent her career focusing on women's literature.  A prior book she wrote in 1977, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing  was very well received and in 2009 she published A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix which centers around US women novelists, poets and playwrights from the 19th and 20th century.  

And what you discover after the first few pages of A Jury of Her Peers is that it's very difficult for most people to name 19th century American women writers after one gets through mentioning Louisa Mae Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin.  Were no other US women publishing novels and poems between 1800 and 1899?  

A Jury of Her Peers is the book that fills in the blanks and not in a boring list sort of way.  Elaine Showalter is too good a writer for that.  A Jury of her Peers (the title is taken from a famous short story by Susan Glaspell) reads like a novel and it's a book not only of American women's literature but also American history itself. You learn such interesting facts.  For example in 1791 Susanna Rowson published Charlotte Temple.  It would remain the biggest bestselling novel in the US until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852.  

We learn about Lydia Maria Childs and Catherine Maria Sedgwick who in the 1820's published really fine novels: Hope Leslie and Hobomok. Childs and Sedgwick were passionate advocates for Native American rights and people may know Lydia Maria Childs as the author of the classic children's song "Over The River and Through the Woods" but there was much more to her story.  The 1850's spurred on by the overwhelming popularity of Jane Eyre saw a real flowering of American women's fiction.  Not everyone was pleased, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne, although to his credit he knew good writing when  he saw it, hence his remarks about Fanny Fern's novel Ruth Hall published in the 1850's:

"The woman writes as if the devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading. ,,. when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked ... then their books are sure to possess character and value". 

We learn about the late 19th century and how regional writing and the short story came into fashion in the US with such writers as Rose Terry Cook, Sarah Orne Jewett,  Mary Wilkins Freeman, Helen Hunt Jackson, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar Nelson etc and then we move to the 20th century and such writers as Mary Austin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Glapell, Zora Neal Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, Ellen Glasgow, Nella Larsen, Dorothy Parker and so many others.  

And as we get deeper into the 20th century the women novelists mentioned in A Jury of Her Peers and the time periods they lived through become more familiar and the impulse might be to put the book down and go on to something else.  But I am glad I didn't do that because the life stories of Flannery O'Conner, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Grace Metalious, Sylvia Plath and Amy Tan to name a few are worth reading about.  I did not know for example that Amy Tan's mother fled China and an abusive husband before the Communist revolution took over, leaving her three daughters behind.  But you can see from that real life story where the inspiration came for The Joy Luck Club.

They say that books lead you to other books and certainly that is true with A Jury of Her Peers. And what is even better is that practically all of the novels Elaine Showalter mentions are available via one's kindle at reasonable rates and sometimes at no cost at all.  Of course a number of these books are obscure for a reason, they are simply not that good, and Elaine Showalter doesn't shy away from saying so.  She makes an excellent guide as we go on this journey with her through American women's literature and American history as well.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (reposted from my archives 8/8/2017)

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else.  His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in isolation, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  

Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passable in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted, the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization, effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.

Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but couldn't let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into the Wild (published 1997) an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Christopher McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated by his story?  Most of us do what is expected in life and when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existence but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we conform.  Chris McCandless was different. After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two-year penniless hitchhiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska. 

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two-year odyssey and they are interesting.  Many parts of the American West are filled with people who have fallen off the grid, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics.  But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins, they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it. Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years.  But Chris would not listen.  There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping.  Chris in addition to being very bright could be very judgemental.  

I heartily recommend Into the Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris McCandless' life but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century.  Young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Jon Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by his death.  It's probably a major reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligations to others.