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A series of extraordinary explorations of the biographies and literary achievements of twelve modern women writers, Passionate Minds tells the stories of women who "rewrote" the world that they inherited, shaping beliefs about vital issues ranging from religion to sex to race to politics.
Claudia Roth Pierpont organizes these probing portraits into three sections. Broadly speaking, the first deals with issues of sexual freedom, in essays on Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, and -- surprisingly, for those who do not know her as a writer -- Mae West. The second section, which examines Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eudora Welty, deals with issues of race and the American South during a period of wrenching change and retrenchment. The third focuses on politics, particularly on the experience and historical interpretation of Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany: the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, and, in a dual essay that is also a moving account of an enduring friendship, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Throughout, Pierpont anatomizes both the lives and the art of her subjects and suggests their roles in the progress -- if it has been progress -- that has taken place in the attitudes of women over the course of the century.
Individually published in The New Yorker during the past eight years, these essays -- brought together in revised and expanded form, and containing ample new material -- reveal unsuspected parallels, contrasts, and influences among the twelve women discussed, illuminating each of them in new and startling ways.
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In Passionate Minds, Claudia Roth Pierpont lifts several artists out of their hagiographical limbo and eases others (even Mae West and Margaret Mitchell) away from cliché and the condescending chortle. Her 11 essays offer a fascinating mix of biography, analysis, and elegant aphorism. Yet Pierpont also lets her women speak for themselves, and they often do so eloquently and unexpectedly. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, writes: "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.... It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?"
Pierpont is interested in both reality and reception: how these writers altered the world, but also how they have been viewed--their lives and visions disseminated and vitiated, ritually patronized, misinterpreted, and reinvented. As she declares, with typical wit, "There is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others. Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein and Mae West, Doris Lessing and Anaïs Nin, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva and Mary McCarthy: what could they possibly have in common?" Yet even while she proves that achievement and reputation don't necessarily go hand in hand, Pierpont makes it clear that all her subjects refused to make the easy concessions. (At the same time, these hyperaware individuals often lacked--and sometimes deliberately skirted--self-knowledge.)
It's difficult to elevate a few pieces above the rest, since the standard is so high (all appeared in The New Yorker). But those on Stein, Lessing, Hurston, and, yes, Rand and Mitchell offer continual enlightenment and surprise. Pierpont is unafraid of generalization. In her piece on Anaïs Nin, for instance, she declares: "The real and bottomless subject of Nin's diary is not sex, or the flowering of womanhood, but deceit." Elsewhere, she rescues Lessing from her harsher critics:
Despite her theories and her ethics and the range of her literary personae--the African realist, the London scene painter, the anguished psychologist, the social prophet--Lessing is in essence a storyteller, with a rare gift for getting characters on their feet and for setting the wind stirring the curtains with language so apparently simple it betrays no method at all. The classical concision of the story form seems to induce in her an unusually clear-eyed mental energy, an urge to pick the locks of the elaborate cages she constructs in her novels.Pierpont is also fond of the startling detail, the quote that reverses expectation, and even the pun. (After a delightful summary of The Fountainhead, she writes, "It is surely gratuitous to point out that the author suffered from an edifice complex.") In Passionate Minds this author repeatedly shows us the rewards of close reading and historical context. Even her asides are inspiring. At one point, she avers, "The greatest Russian translator of Shakespeare's tragedies, Pasternak played the Hamlet of the Revolution, much as Mayakovsky had been its Mercutio." Wonder how these tragic male figures made it into a book on "women rewriting the world"? Open this collection and read on. --Kerry Fried From the Publisher:
"Her quiet intelligence is inspiring. At times I felt I was reading the best literary criticism written by a woman since the days of Virginia Woolf. The women writers she discusses are like characters in a great, loony, tragi-comedy."
-- Pauline Kael
"Blithely erudite and witty, these post-feminist portraits of mostly literary women form fascinating narratives of the inner life, and do nicely as social history, too."
-- John Updike
"Excellent, astute...In [Pierpont's] highly capable hands, these diverse women--writers, philosophers and a movie star--come alive through probing questions about their work and vivid details about their lives....Perhaps this collection's most noteworthy contribution is its levelheaded, sympathetic and unsentimental nature, especially given that the name alone of many of these figures (such as Rand and Nin) can provoke powerful reactions from both admirers and detractors."
-- Publishers Weekly
"A book that sparkles with intelligence, wit and human interest...A scintillating collection of brief lives of women writers...Each one is exhaustively researched, sharply focused, convincingly opinionated. Her adroit melding of biography and criticism makes most of today's literary scholarship seem lame and ponderous...What connects all these women is a passionate need to transcend the limitations of their lives, to transform themselves through language and storytelling...With their seamless web of biography and interpretation, Pierpont's robust profiles of exceptional women remind us of just how much the life and the art are intertwined."
--New York Times Book Review
"Adroit, trenchant...Pierpont's graceful essays are at once erudite and personal in their focus."
-- Boston Globe
"Models of serious engagement [and] fearless candor, the twelve portraits intertwine literary and social perspectives to reveal how each writer responded to the conflicts that confront women artists and how her work 'changed the way people thought and lived'."
"Informed compassion is the note Claudia Roth Pierpont strikes (not while but until the iron is hot), producing that Cleopatra effect which makes us hungry where most she satisfies. These worldly revisions -- of her dozen subjects, as theirs of us -- have located what this author calls 'the source of imaginative sympathy by which we think or feel ourselves into the flesh of another'; and her book -- which cannot be totalled, only taken serially to heart -- is therefore the most valuable, the most useful manual of style (inasmuch as life is recognized by style) our critical moment affords."
-- Richard Howard
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