Herland and Selected Stories (Signet Classics)

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9780451525628: Herland and Selected Stories (Signet Classics)

At the turn of the century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a celebrity—acclaimed as a leader in the feminist movement and castigated for her divorce, her relinquishment of custody of her daughter, and her unconventional second marriage. She was also widely read, with stories in popular magazines and with dozens of books in print. But her most famous short story, the intensely personal "The Yellow Wallpaper," read as a horror story when first published in 1891 and lapsed into obscurity before being rediscovered and reinterpreted by feminist scholars in the 1970s, and her landmark feminist utopian novel, Herland, remained unavailable for more than sixty years.

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About the Author:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), a major American feminist and prolific writer, published a dozen books of social analysis, almost two hundred poems and close to two hundred short stories and novels. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, a grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design before marrying her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson. Her mental breakdown after the birth of her daughter led to the writing of her now classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She left her husband in 1888 and supported herself by lecturing, editing, writing, and teaching. After she obtained a divorce, she created a public scandal by allowing her daughter to live with her ex-husband and his new wife. In 1900, she married George Houghton Gilman. Her writings include Women and Economics (1898), hailed as “the Bible” of the women’s movement, Concerning Children (1900), Human Work (1904), Man-Made World (1911), and The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935). After being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, she committed suicide in Pasadena, California.

Barbara H. Solomon is professor emeritus of English and Women’s Studies at Iona College. Her major academic interests are twentieth-century American and world literature. Among the anthologies she has edited are The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin; Other Voices, Other Vistas; and The Haves and Have-Nots. With Eileen Panetta, she has coedited Once upon a Childhood; Passages: 24 Modern Indian Stories; and Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, and Ghosts: 25 Classic Stories of the Supernatural.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge the role of the Iona students studying “Images of Women in Modern American Literature” during the fall of 1991. Their enthusiastic reception of Herland helped to make my work on this text very rewarding. To Kenneth Hedman and Charlotte Snyder of the United States Military Academy Library at West Point, I am indebted for considerable help in locating Gilman materials. A great deal of assistance was offered by Mary A. Bruno and the staff of Iona’s Secretarial Services Center: Teresa Alifante, Patti Besen, Nancy Girardi, and Teresa Martin, as well as by Adrienne Franco and Anthony Todman of Ryan Library. At the Department of English, I was cheerfully aided by two student assistants: Susan Pavliscak and Shigeko Yamaguchi.

Introduction

In the spring of 1887, a depressed and desperate young woman from Providence, Rhode Island, traveled to Philadelphia to consult Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, the famous physician and specialist in nervous disorders. She had been ill for about three years, experiencing symptoms which today might well lead to a medical diagnosis of clinical depression. Moreover, her situation and misery were perfect examples of the condition which would be described so accurately three-quarters of a century later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique as “The Problem That Has No Name.”

After a month of treatment at S. Weir Mitchell’s sanitarium, the young woman was discharged with the following prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible. . . . Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”

Fortunately for posterity, the patient, who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (though at the time she was Charlotte Perkins Stetson), found it impossible to live according to the doctor’s instructions. She later wrote in her autobiography that those directions caused her to come very close to losing her mind.

Thus, in the fall of 1888, still in poor health and with little money, Charlotte Perkins Stetson did the unthinkable. She left Walter Stetson, her husband of four years, and traveled with her three-year-old daughter, Katharine, to Pasadena, California. There she began a life characterized by the independence, determination, and hard work which were to be her salvation.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not become America’s leading feminist writer and lecturer at the turn of the century through a casual or purely intellectual inclination. She had attempted to live her life according to the collective wisdom of her era about women, and she had found the precepts handed down to women by respected authorities to be not merely misguided or wrong, but deadly, leading to unlived lives, to stultification, depression, and desperation. Gilman turned to writing both fiction and nonfiction as she explored her own personal experience as girl and woman, as wife and mother, and as she studied the economic and social facts of the communal experience of American women. Like the majority of women of her generation, Charlotte was reared in a world that considered her being female as the foremost fact about her. Thus, she was raised to take her place in the domestic sphere in which it was assumed all normal women would find happiness and fulfillment. As she attempted to live in the sphere assigned to women, with the goals which were described in her era as “the cult of true womanhood,” she learned firsthand that no matter how fervently the religious, political, and social leaders expounded upon the responsibilities and duties of women to their parents, husbands, and children, a life lived vicariously was not a real life at all.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience of the destructiveness of America’s cult of feminine domesticity began in infancy with the relationship of her parents. Soon after Charlotte’s birth, her mother, Mary Perkins, was abandoned by her husband, Frederick Beecher Perkins. He may well have left after being told by a physician that his wife must never again become pregnant. A member of the illustrious Beecher family, which included the preacher Lyman Beecher, the famous authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, as well as the abolitionist minister and writer Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick, in contrast, was an unsuccessful and debt-ridden man who seemed eager to avoid all family responsibilities. Mary was forced to raise her two young children alone, often living in the households and on the charity of relatives. She, Charlotte, and Thomas, who was a year older than his sister, were forced to move some nineteen times during Charlotte’s youth.

Mary Perkins appears to have been a woman with few inner resources and little wisdom. Suffering pathetically from the lack of her husband’s love, she thought that if she denied all signs of affection to Charlotte, her daughter would never need nor long for them. Mary only revealed her love or tenderness for Charlotte when she believed that the child was asleep. Having discovered this pattern, the affection-starved girl tried to remain awake until her mother came to her bed, “even using pins to prevent dropping off. . . . Then,” writes Gilman in her autobiography, “how carefully I pretended to be sound asleep and how rapturously I enjoyed being gathered into her arms, held close and kissed.”

By the time she was a young woman, Charlotte had formed unusual and strong resolutions against marrying. In a journal entry written when she was twenty-one, she recorded a number of reasons for remaining single, which included her desire for “freedom,” for having her own “unaided will” in all matters, and her preference for providing for herself rather than trusting another to provide for her. She added a description of one of her goals: “I love to be able and free to help any and every one, as I never could be if my time and thoughts were taken by that extended self—a family.”

Ironically, only a few days after writing this diary entry, Charlotte met Charles Walter Stetson, an attractive artist. He assiduously courted her, overcame her misgivings and objections, and two years later, they were married. As we have seen from the disastrous effects and psychological distress Charlotte suffered during the years they lived as husband and wife, their marriage brought together two people whose characters, ambitions, values, and needs made them totally unsuited for one another.

One aspect of Walter’s character that would prove destructive to Charlotte was his romanticized ideal of male dominance. Even during their courtship, Walter had noted his desire to have Charlotte “look up to me as if I were superior . . . that my love of her has conquered.” He resented her independent nature and recorded his pleasure in his belief that her “spirit is broken.”

Often well-meaning, and certainly not malicious, Walter was simply a rather conventional specimen of a turn-of-the-century American male, one who resented the idea of his wife’s having ambitions and desiring accomplishments other than those associated with the roles of wife and mother. Vulnerable as a painter who was struggling to win recognition of his own work, he undoubtedly thought of Charlotte’s desire for literary achievements as unnatural and as reflecting unfavorably upon him.

Their inevitable problems were exacerbated by the birth of Katharine less than a year after the marriage and the straitened circumstances of the household. Unable to function as a wife or mother, unable to cope with her deteriorating mental and physical state, and unable to find helpful medical advice, Charlotte left Providence, never to return to Walter.

She settled in Pasadena, choosing to live near the Channing family. Charlotte had become very close to them, particularly to Grace Ellery Channing, during the years when they had lived in Providence. William F. Channing, his wife, and two daughters were an affectionate, lively, and well-educated family. In their congenial household, Charlotte had enjoyed stimulating discussions and literary activities in a cheerful and relaxed atmosphere. They were sympathetic to Charlotte and willing to help her as much as they could, even locating the small wooden house in Pasadena that Charlotte rented for Katharine and herself.

Charlotte and Grace were especial girlhood friends who had a great deal in common. Grace, too, wrote fiction and poetry, and the two women had amused themselves by writing a comic play together during a vacation trip. Interestingly, their friendship was not destroyed by Grace’s subsequent marriage to Walter not long after he and Charlotte had finalized their divorce. On the contrary, because Charlotte knew Grace to be a gentle, affectionate, and dependable woman, and because during that period Charlotte was traveling extensively and preoccupied with earning a living, she arranged for Katharine, then nine years old, to live with Grace and Walter when they married in 1894.

When Charlotte first arrived in Pasadena, she struggled to support herself and her child, but the move to California proved to be curative and revitalizing. Within a surprisingly short time, she began to earn money through writing and lecturing. Her poem “Similar Cases” (published in 1890 in the Nationalist) brought her work to the attention of William Dean Howells, the influential author and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She began to establish first a local and later a national reputation as an inspiring speaker on women’s issues and on socialism. The topics of her lectures anticipated those which would be discussed in American women’s consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s and 1970s. She recognized that women’s economic dependence, relegation to drudgery in the home, exclusion from work in the professions, industry, and commerce, and submission to male authority were preventing women from leading fully human and productive lives. Most important, she understood that women’s problems were not individual or isolated instances, and that only reform on a national, system-wide basis could ameliorate their conditions. Gilman crisscrossed America for more than three decades preaching the need for economic, political, and social reform in the ways that people live together as families and work at their occupations.

Her successful career as a lecturer was inextricably linked to her career as a writer. The themes of her first and best-known work of nonfiction, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), were those she had been presenting in her provocative lectures.

During the time Charlotte was writing this book, in which she focused in a public way on the most important issues of her life, she was also writing about herself in a private way in an extraordinary series of letters to her cousin, George Houghton Gilman. Charlotte and Houghton had been fond acquaintances as children. An unusually scholarly and cultured individual, he had become a New York attorney. Although he was obviously competent and professional in his work, he was not particularly ambitious or career-oriented. After a brief meeting in 1897, he and Charlotte began to correspond. Her letters became increasingly lengthy and introspective as she found herself describing her fears, self-doubts, needs, hopes, and beliefs to this gentle and understanding relative.

During this courtship by correspondence—for this is, indeed, what it turned out to be—Charlotte revealed all of the character traits and aspirations that she must have imagined had made her unlovable. To her great delight, she found that these self-revelations did not dismay Houghton at all. Instead, he repaid her confidences with an approval and affirmation of her innermost self that made true intimacy possible. In 1900 they were married.

As Charlotte recalled her thirty-four-year marriage to Houghton in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she judged that they had “lived happily ever after.” Always thinking as a writer, she added, “If this were a novel, now, here’s that happy ending.”

Secure as a beloved wife and increasingly self-confident as a famous author of national stature, Gilman followed Women and Economics with four additional and closely related volumes: Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911).

Although she had written and published poetry and short stories for more than two decades, with the founding of her own monthly magazine, the Forerunner, in 1909, Charlotte Perkins Gilman entered an astounding creative period of eight years. The magazine, which was entirely written by Gilman, typically contained one fully developed short story, one very brief and didactic story, a chapter of a novel (generally serialized over the twelve issues of a single year), as well as several poems, articles, and book reviews. During Gilman’s lifetime, three of the novels serialized in the Forerunner were subsequently published as separate books: What Diantha Did (1910), The Crux (1911), and Moving the Mountain (1911). The other novels preserved in the issues of the Forerunner are Mag-Marjorie (1912), Won Over (1913), Benigna Machiavelli (1914), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916).

A prolific writer and tireless activist for women’s rights, Charlotte Perkins Gilman believed that far-reaching change could be brought about through education and experience. If human beings could abandon their caves, their huts, their tenements to embrace the well-built and technologically sophisticated homes of the best modern architects, they could also abandon their ideas about women’s and men’s lives, which were just as primitive and useless as a cave home would be to a modern family.

Gilman believed in her work of bringing this message to women everywhere, much in the same way that her Beecher ancestors had preached about sin and salvation to their throngs of listeners. In spite of a painful and terminal illness, cancer, she struggled to write and lecture during her last months of life. Knowing that the end must come soon, Gilman returned to Pasadena, the sanctuary to which she had fled so many years earlier and now the home of her married daughter, Katharine. During Charlotte’s final weeks, Grace Channing Stetson—now, like Charlotte, a widow—also returned to help care for her old and dear friend. With Charlotte’s days of work behind her and only the agony of an incurable disease ahead, Charlotte Perkins Gilman ended her life, by chloroform, in the summer of 1935.

During subsequent decades, it appeared that Gilman had been greatly mistaken about the significance of her work, especially her writing. Descriptions of her life and contributions simply disappeared. For example, the 1962 edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature profiles three Gilmans, Arthur Gilman, Daniel Gilman, and Lawrence Gilman. No Charlotte. Similarly, the 1965 edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature includes sketches of Caroline Howa...

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