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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 6/13/2009

Dave Beck

There are no longer any topic areas off limits to women writers. That's what Elaine Showalter says in her new literary survey called "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx." Our book critic Nancy Pearl has a review. She speaks with KUOW's Dave Beck.

It's perhaps hard to imagine that a survey of American literature could be described as "fascinating reading." Yet I am convinced that that's true of Elaine Showalter's remarkable "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx" (Knopf, 2009). Not only does Showalter write in a sprightly, witty and inviting style, but also her insights into the works of women's literature and their authors have the potential to make us all better readers. On nearly every page of this intelligent (and opinionated) book she offers us something of interest. In her instructive introduction, Showalter writes about the movement of women's writing going through three phases: "feminine," "feminist," and "female," before culminating, thus far, in "free," that is, writing that is not hobbled by form or subject. Her example of a woman writer whose work exemplifies that fourth phase is Annie Proulx. Reading Showalter's book will introduce you to many women whose writings have for the most part out of the public consciousness, like Mary Rowlandson (c.1635–1678), who wrote about her captivity by Native Americans or the Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Susan Glaspell, whose plays were once considered on a par with Eugene O'Neill, but who whose plays are no longer produced, Pulitzer or no. Showalter provides mini–biographies of lesser–known writers like the political radical Meridel Le Sueur or the feminist intellectual Tess Slessinger, as well as those who are better known, like Katherine Anne Porter and Mary McCarthy, whose lives were richly complicated. She offers her insights into the lives and poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, as well as ranking their places in the pantheon of 20th century poetry. Obviously, one of the subversive pleasures for readers of a book like this is to disagree with not only the evaluation of different writers, but also with whom Showalter chose to include and whom she's omitted, especially when it comes to those late 20th and early 21st century writers. But that's a fun bone to pick, and Showalter obviously intends her book as something for both scholars and ordinary readers to react to. If you're looking for some suggestions for books to read, you could do far far worse than open Showalter's book to a random page and go check out the book she's discussing.

When I interviewed David Wroblewski (author, of course, of the best–selling "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle") for a program at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he said that one of his favorite books — a book that had influenced him and his own writing — was William Maxwell's novella "So Long, See You Tomorrow" (Vintage, 1996). (Maxwell was for many decades a fiction editor of the New Yorker and had, in that capacity, a great influence on the course of American writing in the mid–twentieth century.) I recalled reading this novella when it was first published in 1980, but of course now that I knew that Wroblewski was one its fans, I was eager to reread it and try to understand why he liked it so much. I discovered, upon this second reading, that it was even better than I remembered. It's a masterful exploration of the how the past weighs on and shapes the present, and how there are some things we do, or that happen to us, that can never be forgotten or forgiven, of one's self or others. The unnamed narrator — writing from the perspective of an adult looking back some 50 years or so — reconstructs the events surrounding a tragic murder/suicide that took place in 1921 in his central Illinois hometown, when he was 12 years old. The murderer is the father of his friend, Cletus. And a year and a half after the murder, the narrator behaves — in his own eyes — shamefully toward his friend. In trying to understand what led up to the deaths, the narrator is also trying to understand and forgive his own conduct, which was at least partially motivated by the the death of the narrator's mother three years before and his father's subsequent remarriage. All of this is presented in prose so lean and precise that it evokes much more than it ever literally says. Like poetry, every word chosen by Maxwell is necessary; it would be impossible to edit down this brilliant novella. A great choice for a book group, then, especially if you've already done "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." You can start off by asking why Wroblewski likes this novella so much — that's a question that will take the group in many different directions.

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