Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter
Talking about American Women Writers

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I haven't posted for a long while--have been traveling around to give talks and lectures. In early March, I chaired a panel on "Susan Sontag as a Female Intellectual" at a conference on Sontag at CUNY Graduate Center.  In  fall  2010,  the Louis Vuitton show in Paris  featured animal motifs, neon, sequins, lame, crystals, and chinoiserie. As designer Marc Jacobs explained: "It‘s camp—it’s inspired by  Susan Sontag’s 'Notes on Camp,' which even prompted the music. “  The first model on the runway even wore a “Sontagesque zebra stripe in her hair.”I don’t believe there’s such a thing as good taste or bad taste,” said Jacobs. “I’d rather be fun and decadent, camp and glamorous.”
            It’s startling to imagine Sontag as madcap fashion icon, given her stated distaste for make-up or handbags, and her stern notes to herself in her journal to wash her hair every 10 days whether it needed it or not.   But the fate of the fmeale intellectual icon is hard to predict.  It's interesting to compare Sontag with Jacques Derrida. The deaths of  Derrida,  age 74,  on October 8, 2004 and Susan Sontag,  age 71, on  December 27, 2004,  were seen by many as  symbolic of the death of the intellectual in our time. Derrida and Sontag had much in common. Both were committed to a  rigorous intellectual tradition; both were  secular Jews; both were interested in literature, culture, and politics as well as philosophy;  both wrote about European rather than American or British thinkers; both became celebrities and  icons of the intellectual in ads, movies, documentaries, even rock songs;  both were buried in Paris..
            But despite these similarities, Sontag and Derrida occupied very different places in our culture, and these differences were reflected in the responses to their deaths as well as in their lives. Sontag always stressed her private persona. As she told New York Times critic Richard Bernstein in 1989. "I don't appear on television. I don't write for any newspaper or magazine regularly. I'm not a journalist. I'm not a critic. I'm not a university teacher.. I don't speak out on most public issues…My life is entirely private."   Her  funeral in Montparnasse in January was private too, and attended by famous friends including Salman Rushdie, Isabelle Huppert, and Ian McEwan.  But in the United States and Europe, public and academic tributes to Sontag have been muted, even mixed, and limited; and have come primarily from feminists and women writers, including Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Andrea Dworkin, and Lisa Jardine.   The names of women philosophers, such as Judith Butler, Helene Cixous, or Julia Kristeva,  are strikingly absent from the memorialists of the woman Camille Paglia called “Sontag, bloody Sontag.”. 
          . Of course Derrida had his detractors too, but the responses to his death were very public and official. Jacques Chirac issued a statement about the nation’s loss.  Derrida’s academic disciples, admirers, and followers have rallied to commemorate him in a variety of public and institutional ways.  In protest against what they saw as the disrespectful  tone of the New York Times obituary, American academics  set up a website of testimonials  which now has thousands of signatures. Within the American university world alone, there have been special issues of journals, lecture series, and institutes devoted to Derrida’s work.   Not so for Sontag.
            Why the differences in public attention and honor? In our time, if not in John Stuart Mills’s, the  intellectual role is  also a career choice, and  a game, and those who play it make choices that determine the power  of their ideas to survive.  Sontag chose to work outside the  academy or the press, a decision that perhaps gave her more intellectual freedom, but  also cost her  institutional power. Derrida, in contrast, maintained lifelong affiliations with a number of academic institutions, including  the Sorbonne,  the Ecole Normale SupĂ©rieure, Johns Hopkins, Yale, NYU, and the University of California at Irvine. His willingness to recommend students and endorse colleagues placed him in an intricate network of patronage and discipleship.  Sontag rarely endorsed anyone in the academy, and those she did endorse, such as Terry Castle and Elaine Scarry, have not been active in hre commemoration.
Furthermore, with deconstruction, Derrida invented a term and founded  a school—an indispensable move for any intellectual desiring influence--while Sontag was celebrated for the range and variety of her interests. Even in gay studies, where her pioneering defense of “camp” and her writing about AIDS might have established her as a key figure, her reticence about her personal life and her absence from the conference and lecture circuit kept her from iconic status.
            Moreover, male and female intellectuals are on different  tracks, and even today women pay a higher price for choosing the life of the mind. Few women of our time were  stronger candidates for that life than Susan Sontag, but even she recognized early on  the contradictions and pressures  of her position. In 1972, along with  Simone de Beauvoir, Sontag  participated in a questionnaire about intellectual women set by the Spanish literary quarterly Libre. "Every generation produces a few women of genius (or at least of irrepressible eccentricity),” she wrote, ”who win special status for themselves. But the historical visibility of ... that small band is understood to follow precisely from their possessing qualities that women do not normally have.”
Married young and the mother of a son, Sontag  felt the need to leave her marriage in order to pursue her career. As she told Jonathan Cott, "I did have the idea that I'd like to have several lives, and it's very hard to have several lives and then have a husband... somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project." Sontag never forgot that she had faced the struggles of a single parent: "I was divorced when my child was five years old and I raised him myself. I had all kinds of responsibilities that a man would not have. I had to take care of the apartment, raise the child, put the shoes on him in the morning, take the laundry and so on. You have to be stronger than a man."
 Derrida, meanwhile, married a psychoanalyst, had two sons and a comfortable life in the Paris suburbs despite roaming the world as a lecturer, celebrity, and academic icon.. When he had an affair with the feminist philosopher  Sylviane Agacinski  and she became pregnant, he did not wish to maintain two households and so left her to raise their son as a single parent.  When she married the socialist politician Lionel Jospin, Derrida supported Jospin’s successful mayoral campaign—all very civilized but without Sontag’s burdens..
            Sontag's life and values were  permanently changed in 1975 when  she was hospitalized with breast cancer and told that she had a 10% chance of living two years.  She responded to the news of her cancer with fierce intelligence and determination to survive, but she had no medical insurance; friends raised money to pay for her treatment. The experience of illness led to her most original and ground-breaking book, Illness as Metaphor and its sequel, AIDS and Its Metaphors.  Facing the prospect of death also freed Sontag to break away from the political shibboleths of the intellectual Left. In  1982, she outraged many  by declaring at a public meeting  that the American Left had underestimated the evil of Communism. Her  declaration of political independence shocked her former friends, and they retaliated with insults. In Elizabeth Hardwick's view, Sontag was punished because Americans resented outspoken intellectual women. 
            Sontag herself declared that  "writing well is the best revenge," and went on to
develop her interests.in fiction and drama, and to move away from the essay form. This shift was not only a personal struggle for her-- "I have to come out of the closet of the third person and speak in a more direct way," she said – but  a break with the rules of the intellectual game, and a step off the intellectual’s career path.  She did not connect this shift in her aims with the  experience of women intellectuals in the past, from Wollstonecraft and Fuller on, who had yearned to write fiction and deal with passionate feeling, but had forced themselves to adapt to masculine standards of intellectual style. While Sontag was learning to write more directly, Derrida was being encouraged to write ever more obscurely. While she was attempting to speak to wider reading audience, his work –and the professional norm—became ever more elitist.
I think that Sontag’s writing during this period,  especially the short memoir, “Pilgrimage,” she wrote for the New Yorker, her prize-winning short story  about AIDS, “The Way We Live Now,” and her still-neglected play “Alice in Bed (1990),”  will outlive  her essays on writers like Calvino and Barthes. Alice in Bed  is Sontag’s most feminist and personal work, the first to locate itself  in the traditions of women's writing as well as men’s. Influenced by  Caryl Churchill, as well as  Alice James, Margaret Fuller,  Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf,  the play, as Sontag explained, is about "the all too common reality of a woman who does not know what to do with her genius, her originality, her aggressiveness, and therefore becomes a career invalid." More generally, it is a play about "the grief and anger of women", which she claims "to have been preparing to write all my life." Predictably, this work did not get her academic acclaim or attract disciples.
            In other ways too, Sontag  was beginning to assert herself as a professional, and to make demands for herself. In 1989, a fire destroyed  her apartment, and Sontag did not have enough money to move into a hotel.. At the age of fifty-six, she decided that she had  the right to  financial security and that it was not “corrupt” to want some of the rewards of her brilliance. She acquired her first literary agent; she received a  MacArthur Fellowship for $340,000, which allowed her to buy a sunny co-op. "I ask myself all the time," Sontag said, "why did it take me so long?"
It took her so long because she was trying to live a life of intellectual rigour, anti-materialism, and creative independence that she had learned from books, one that men of her generation did not aspire to or attempt. In a sense, Sontag was punishing herself for being an intellectual woman, doing it all the hard way, claiming that she had never experienced any disadvantage because of her sex.. And yet, she was regularly mocked  during her lifetime as a woman, whether   “the Natalie Wood of American avant-garde,” or the intellectual groupie “Susie Creamcheese,” or the “Dark Lady” or  “Feminist Fatale.” During her life, Irving Howe insultingly classed her with lowbrow women’s culture art, calling her “a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from her grandmother’s patches.”  After her death, Roger Kimball  called her work “the simulacra of arguments and the mood or emotion of insights.”  Sontag herself once  self-mockingly told a student who inquired  “What are you most noted for?” that it was “the white streak in my black hair.”
Derrida too had a shock of strikingly silver hair, but he was immune from such attacks on his vanity or sexuality, and  he did not have to contend with  the inner sense that to display genius was in some way to be unmanned, or that he had to live his life in a way that daily proclaimed his deep seriousness and commitment to high culture. . Like his Algerian fellow countryman Camus, he cherished the dream of being a professional footballer; he unashamedly adored  television from news to soap opera, while Sontag, despite her reputation as a champion of popular culture, refused ever to own a TV set, let alone an IT bag.
No doubt future generations of intellectuals are now being born and coming along to take the places of those who have passed. To prosper, they would do well to follow three rules: 1) Found a school. 2) Affiliate with a powerful institution 3) If possible, be French. And for women, perhaps the third of these is the most important.  For even in the 21st century, the French seem to be the only people who can imagine a female genius who is not abnormal as a woman.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Montana: The Missing Link

When I finished writing A Jury of Her Peers, I checked through   and discovered that I had discussed women writers from every state except Montana. Montana didn't seem to have many women writers to choose from. In the early 20th century, Bertha Muzzy Bower (1871-1940) published sixty-eight popular novels set in the Old West. A few more contemporary writers, including the poet Patricia Goedicke, passed through Montana while they were teaching creative writing at the university. Anyway, I left Montana open.

Now I can fill that space. I had read the remarkable short story "Wild Plums," published in 1929 by Grace Stone Coates, in John Updike's anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, in 1999, but I had forgotten it. Rediscovering Coates's name in Montana Women Writers: A Geography of the Heart (2006), I ordered a copy of the collection in which "Wild Plums" had first appeared, Black Cherries, reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press (2003), with a very good introduction by Mary Clearman Blew.

        The life of Grace Stone Coates ( 1881-1976) is both sad and paradigmatic. She was born on  a Kansas wheat farm to Heinrich and Olive Sabrina Stone,  on whom the unhappy  parents in the stories of Black Cherries are clearly based. Heinrich Stone was a gambler and speculator in farming equipment, and often travelled, leaving his family behind.  Grace managed to get a year at the University of Chicago. When her mother died in 1904,  she went to Butte, Montana with her sister Helen, and taught school for six years. In 1910,l she married Henderson Coates, and moved with him to the small ranching community of Martinsdale, Montana where he kept a general store. She lived there until 1962, when she moved to a retirement home in Bozeman..
The couple did not have children and for  many years Grace found the harsh environment an “alien land.”  She spent some time in the Mayo  Clinic for nervous disorders. But she also  published a poem about the loneliness of the West in Poetry in 1922, and during the 1920s, other poems followed.  She took a correspondence course from the University of Chicago and wrote the first of her autobiographical stories about a little girl, Veve  (Genevieve)  growing up within a sexually troubled and secretive family. Then in 1927, she met H.G. Merriam, an extraordinarily gifted and visionary English professor at the University of Montana, who had come there to start a creative writing program. Merriam was also  starting up a  literary journal, The Frontier, and asked her to become the assistant editor.  Coates’s opportunity to work with the brilliant and cosmopolitan  Merriam (he had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford) , and to make contact with a literary community, was a marvelous creative impetus and rebirth.  During the  next seven years,  she published more than 100 poems and short stories, and two books of poetry.  In 1929, her story “Wild Plums” was selected by Edward O’Brien for his collection of the  best short stories of the year.
Merriam encouraged her to revise and put together several of her autobiographical short stories and send them to New York publishers. Coates found the project  very difficult. “Trying to rearrange these stories,” she wrote to him, “is like rebuilding an old house, changing one thing throws something else out of kilter.”  But Knopf accepted Black Cherries and published it as a novel in 1931. After the publication of Black Cherries he  urged her to write a second novel: “Of you are to continue as a writer—and you must do so—it is time that another book by you should appear.” But she could not make the transition  to being a professional writer. During 1935, she finished a manuscript called Clear Title, which she described to Merriam as another novel closely based on her family history. Knopf turned it down, “questioning its saleability,” she wrote to friend; but it’s not clear whether she ever confessed the truth to her mentor. She sent the manuscript to at least one other press, but then packed it away in a box in the general store. It has not survived and is not among her papers at the University of Montana or the Montana Historical Society.
In November 1935, Coates was appointed district head of the Federal Writers’ Project in Montana, but she soon became disillusioned about its possibilities: “a waste of misdirected energy,” she wrote to Merriam.”   Gradually, her writing dwindled away to local newspaper articles  and correspondence; her friendship with Merriam  also declined. Lee Rostad, a younger woman who got to  know Coates in Montana in the 1950s, has provided the fullest account of all these matters in her biography Grace Stone Coates (Helena, Montana: Riverbend Publishing, 2004).
Grace Stone Coates’s life sounds painfully like those of the thwarted and isolated women writers in the short stories of Rebecca Harding Davis, Constance Fenimore Woolson,  and Mary Austin in the  19th century, or  like the doomed and mysterious Canadian woman poet invented by Carol Shields in her haunting novel Mary Swann. But Coates did have the mentorship of H.G. Merriam; she did have the backing of Knopf.  Something besides loneliness or discrimination or self-doubt destroyed her as an artist. Her husband may have opposed her writing;  she also had both physical and mental health problems.
Martinsdale, Montana
            Her poems, in my view, are skillful but not exceptional. She sounds a lot like Louise Bogan  or a number of other women who wrote tough, cynical  poetry in the 1920s and 1930s. But Black Cherries is an original and sophisticated  book, and Veve, the protagonist, a  memorable character.  In her laconic style and interest in  a limited narrator, Coates is something of a missing link in  American women's fiction of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Monday, January 10, 2011


 My anthology is out!  80 writers from 1650 to 2000, paperback & e-book, and very reasonably priced, from Vintage.

So today seemed like an auspiciuous one to announce my blog on American women writers. I started writing it in early fall, and have been experimenting with the format and content. My plan is to keep posting  about writers I couldn't fit into A Jury of Her Peers;  writers I've only recently learned about; writers who are in the news; and the general state of reputation and criticism for American women writers. It's also a personal blog, so sometimes there's a bit about me.

Friday, January 7, 2011


In 2004-2005,  I lived in Pasadena, California as a research fellow at the  Huntington Library. English and I drove slowly across the country in September, stopping at all kinds of  exotic Red State places, from Branson, Missouri and Roswell, New Mexico, to Waco, Texas. When we finally arrived in Pasadena it seemed like a blissful oasis. We had rented a two-bedroom apartment near Old Town, and also rented furniture from CORT to fill it; miraculously the truck arrived on time  and swiftly unpacked our new sofa and bed and bureaus and tables and desks. The Huntington with its luxurious and brand-new Munger Research Center and magnificent botanical gardens,  was the most comfortable work-place imaginable. At our first Fellows  meeting, the director Roy Ritchie, to my delight,   announced that there would be no obligatory brown-bag lunch seminars where we bored each other with our research in progress. We had come, he said, to do our own work. He was so enlightened that he gave academic spouses offices in the  research center too—the poshest one he had ever had, English said.
And every morning we woke up to sun through the palm trees, the various kinds of which I set to learning; and to the views of the  San Gabriel mountains.  In the spring there were the gorgeous purple-blue blossoms of the jacaranda trees. My schedule was idyllic. I wrote for a few hours at home, and then we had lunch at the cafĂ© of the California Culinary Institute, where the students served the dishes they were learning to make; and  spent the afternoons in the lavishly appointed manuscript library, stacks, and offices of the Munger. A renewing and stimulating year. Since I had always had to think about English’s  schedule, and the family,   it was the first time I had ever been able to spend a year at a research center, and English and I took full advantage of our recent retirements to enjoy it. And it was a joyful experience to write without any sense of having a professional c.v. to add to, or a quota to fulfil.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman's Pasadena Cottage
I  thought often during the year of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had also had an intellectual rebirth in Pasadena, where she lived from 1888 to 1891. “With Pasadena,” she wrote,” begins my professional ‘living.’ “She reveled in “the vivid beauty of the land, its tumultuous growth of flowers and fruit, the shining glory of the days and nights, [which] gave me happiness and health.” In Pasadena too, Gilman wrote her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” during a hot week in June 1890.  English and I searched out  the site of her beloved white cottage at the corner of Orange Grove Avenue and Arroyo Terrace, now gone.
There’s been an enormous amount of  work on  Gilman published since she was rediscovered by feminist literary  critics in the 1970s.  “The Yellow Wall-Paper” alone has generated over 800 articles.

There are many biographies, editions of letters, reprints of her utopias and novels, collections of stories and essays, and studies of her social ideas. But  there are still many gaps in the record.  In Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” (2010), Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz gives a full account of Gilman’s Pasadena experience, including her friendships and the ways she made money for herself and her daughter Katherine by writing, teaching,  and lecturing. Gilman acted in the pageant accompanying the weeklong benefit to raise funds for the Pasadena public library, a beautiful building in a small park that we used a lot during our year.
 In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography (Stanford U. Press, 2010), Cynthia J. Davis  explores the ways that Gilman “remains a polarizing figure, feted by some, lampooned or lambasted by others” for her feminist, utopian, and ideological beliefs. Davis is especially eloquent on the last chapter of Gilman’s life—her return to Pasadena in 1934, after the death of her second husband. She had chosen Pasadena “as the best place to live and to die,”  as “close to paradise as she ever expected to get.” Now, at the age of seventy-five, and diagnosed with breast cancer, she took her first ever plane flight to California from Connecticut, and over the course of a year, prepared to settle her affairs. In accordance with her philosophy of “living” rather than merely  existing,  she killed herself with chloroform when she could no longer care for herself; and chose to be cremated. The  house where she died in 1935, at South Catalina Avenue, can still be seen.
Where Gilman died.

Monday, January 3, 2011


There's a new discussion of some uncollectd short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, set in Harlem, which modify the view of Hurston as a Southern writer..


Sunday, November 21, 2010


The University of Maryland is battling with Katherine Anne Porter's estate about her archive and control of her rights (see Links). Luckily I just got the final clearance --and e-book rights!-- from Farrar Straus Giroux to use some fiction by Porter in my forthcoming anthology, The Vintage Book of American Women Writers (January 2011). What a nightmare arranging permissions has been! I had lots of editorial help and back-up from Vintage, and my patient, resourceful, and endlessly optimistic editor Diana Secker Tesdell. But it was really an education in Dicksensian bureaucracy, greed, control freakery, inefficiency, lying, and the blindness of copyright holders to realities of all kinds. I thought that many executors would be happy to have some long-forgotten story or poem by an obscure woman writer republished, and see it as an opportunity to find new audiences. With a few stellar exceptions, not the case. Permisson editors "lost" my letters, until prodded by their bosses or aggrieved authors, when they miraculously located them in a manner of minutes. They took up to five months to reply to simple queries. They asked for exorbitant sums for negligible works. The representatives of various writers wanted to vet my brief introductions, and know who came before and after in the book. (It is arranged by author's  date of birth). They demanded revisions and objected to critical generalities. I finally had to drop twenty of my original 100 writers because they were too expensive or just inaccessible.

Isn't there a way to centralize permissions and reprint requests, with some standard range of fees and a reasonable time-frame? Seems to me this is what computers are for. Ironically, almost every text is now available on the web,, so anthologies may soon be a thing of the past. The big academic textbooks are already staggeringly over-priced, and engineered for planned obsolence; they carry out some kind of revision every few years so that students have to buy new books rather than used copies. It's a bit of a racket. My anthology is a single manageable volume, reasonably priced, and available on Kindle.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I was very surprised that the American media paid almost no attention to the discovery and publication of Ted Hughes's poem about Sylvia Plath's suicide, in the New Statesman  on October 11. The British press exploded with coverage and commentary, but American papers were silent save for a few brief notices. I wrote on my Facebook page about it, and Professor Dianne Hunter of Trinity College wrote back: "Oh, those two old vampires!" I guess in some sense Ted and Sylvia are the Great Undead of literary history, impossible to keep down, always resurfacing with some new poem, or revelation, or family tragedy. And this poem was never finished; Hughes left it  in drafts and fragments. It's certainly not one of his best; Al Alvarez, a friend of both poets, wrote with uncomfortable phrasing (considering Plath's suicide by gassing herself in the oven), that is was "somewhat uncooked."

But it's not uninteresting; on the contrary, it's a poem of personal confession and strong emotion. Hughes tells that Plath sent him a suicide note which arrived too early, thanks to the efficient London post office, he rushed to her house, and she assured him that it was not serious and burned it in an ashtray before his eyes. Hughes then spent the weekend at a hotel with yet  another lover, a writer named Susan Allison  (unmentioned in the biographies of Hughes by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook)---in other words, he was already cheating on Assia Weevil, the mistress he and Plath had separated over. Yet Hughes's tone throughout the poem is angry; he is bitter that  that Plath had planned the whole event in order to torment and haunt him. The telephoned  news of her death is a deliberate, deliberated blow to his life and sanity:

"Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'"

A weapon selected by Plath? An injection of poison she had measured? Is she the victim or the vampire?