A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.
In a narrative of immense scope and fascination--brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions--we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers--both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon--were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.
Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture. Amazon Exclusive: Elaine Showalter's Top Ten Books by American Women Writers You Haven't Read (But Should)
Everyone knows the handful of novels by American women writers, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
to The House of Mirth
, that make it onto standard reading lists. But there are hundreds of wonderful books by American women that have been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten.
Here’s my starting guide to ten extraordinary works of fiction--one from each decade of the twentieth century--that deserve to be much better known. The Country of Lost Borders by Mary Hunter Austin (1909)
A moving collection of stories emphasizing the California landscape and the vulnerability of women, especially Native American women who were seduced and abandoned by white men in the Wild West. The memorable final story about a mysterious woman in the desert, “The Walking Woman,” is Austin’s manifesto of female independence, equality, tenderness, and sorrow. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Gilman’s clever utopian novel imagines three American men on a scientific expedition who hear tales of a “strange and terrible Woman Land in the high distance,” and decide to find and invade it. Expecting to rule over the women, the men are astounded, entranced, and defeated by the resourcefulness of an all-female society. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)
Fisher was a prolific novelist, a judge for the Book of the Month Club, and a pioneer of Montessori education in the U.S. She claimed that The Home-Maker was more about children’s rights than women’s rights, but she empathized with all the members of a middle-class family whose lives are being destroyed by the straitjacket of maintaining proper male and female roles. When an accident forces the husband and wife to change places, everyone is much happier. This could be a comic premise--Mr. Mom--but Fisher treats it with seriousness and psychological insight. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934)
Slesinger used her disillusion with the whole cultural spectrum of the 1930s for her sparkling satire of the New York leftwing editors of a radical magazine. The novel is both a penetrating autobiographical portrait of the divided woman intellectual of the decade, painfully torn between party politics and personal emancipation; and a timeless and very funny lampoon of ideologues driven by vanity, political trendiness, and competition. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (1947)
Stafford was at her best in this powerful coming-of-age novel about a young brother and sister, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, who spend their summers at their grandfather’s ranch in Colorado. While Ralph is being initiated into adventurous manhood, Molly is fiercely and tragically resisting the dull femininity which lies in store for her. Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)
The only novel by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha tells the story of a poor black Chicago housewife, in a lyrical form like that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but suffused with anger against racism, war, and the daily small tragedies of black women’s lives. An American classic. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
Long overlooked, Jackson’s masterpiece has been rediscovered in the twenty-first century by writers from Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem to Joyce Carol Oates. A perfectly constructed and spine-chilling example of the female gothic, the novel was among the first great stories of the weird girl, part teenage outcast, part witch, as a dark heroine of American horror. The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson (1974)
While Diane Johnson’s novels about Americans in Paris (such as Le Divorce) have been bestsellers, The Shadow Knows is my favorite among her books. Set in Northern California in the early 1970s, it is about the racial conflict and paranoia of the decade, and, in Johnson’s words, “about persons on the fringe; they happen to be women, and what happens to them is meant to be particular to America in the seventies.” Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)
In her first novel, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Robinson traced the lives of three generations of women in the imaginary Idaho town of Fingerbone, which is surrounded by mountains and next to a dark lake. The narrator, Ruth, and her sister, Lucille, are passed from one family caregiver to another; finally, their aunt Sylvie Fisher, a wanderer and transient, comes back to keep house for them. But Sylvie’s bizarre housekeeping is like something out of a gothic fairy tale, and the sisters find their separate ways to create their own domestic visions. Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen (1996)
Gish Jen is one of the funniest and most free-wheeling novelists of the multicultural 90s. In Mona in the Promised Land, whose title plays off a long tradition of Jewish-American immigrant writing, the adolescent Chinese-American heroine Mona Chang is at a new stage of ethnic identity, renaming and self-creation. In their own enclave, she and her high school friends exchange food, music, games, and politics. In the promised land, American girls can change their names, their religions, even re-invent their nationalities.
About the Author
Elaine Showalter, a professor emerita at Princeton University, is the author of numerous books, including the groundbreaking A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. A frequent radio and TV commentator in the United Kingdom, she has chaired the Man Booker International prize jury and judged the National Book Awards and the Orange Prize. She divides her time between Washington, D.C., and London.
From the Hardcover edition.
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