A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx
by Elaine Showalter
(Knopf, 608 pages, $30)

Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn’t entirely pleased when American literature blossomed in the 1850s. Competition from Melville and Whitman he could handle. What he couldn’t bear was being outsold by writers who wore petticoats. “Ink-stained women are, without a single exception, detestable,” he told his publisher. Hawthorne’s female contemporaries were, meanwhile, laboring under a prejudice that had arrived with the Puritans. Two centuries earlier, when the first book written by a woman living in America appeared, its London publisher offered an apologia upfront. A male witness avowed that Anne Bradstreet hadn’t neglected her household chores in order to write her poems. She had stolen the time, he said, “from her sleep and other refreshments.”

It’s no wonder that most of the writers Elaine Showalter mentions in her “monumental” new survey “wrestled with a nagging feeling” that just picking up a pen was “going against nature,” said Laura Miller in Salon.com. Showalter isn’t out to torch the patriarchy. Instead, she treats gender bias as simple contextual fact, and she sorts great female writers from mediocre ones with “impressive aplomb.” Addressing why Britain produced several “women novelists of genius” during the 19th century while America didn’t, Showalter is blunt. In Britain, even women “as poor as the Brontës” had servants, she says, while American women kept house themselves. Besides, America’s faith in self-invention bred an aesthetic that favored the “poet-hero” over the astute domestic observer.

Though Showalter’s valuable history ends on an optimistic note, said The Economist, its “most striking” idea is that female writers haven’t traveled a straight road away from 17th-century bias. “Modernism, with its macho ideal of the artist,” seems to have presented “a particularly hostile environment.” In mapping the whole terrain, Showalter has performed “an enormous service,” said Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times. She’s not only given us new ways to think about well-known writers from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Joan Didion; she’s provided a reading list “happily punctuated by names we’ve never seen.” Suddenly, the world of literature by American women feels vastly undiscovered.