Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter
Talking about American Women Writers

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 café 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.


  1. I just stumbled across this post and found it delightful! I especially enjoyed the photo of the house. I'm sitting here at the Schlesinger researching the topic of Gilman and California, and this was a real shot in the arm.

    Thank you for this, and for your other valuable work.

    Jennifer Tuttle

  2. This is my first time visit to your blog and I am very interested in the articles that you serve. Provide enough knowledge for me. Thank you for sharing useful and don't forget, keep sharing useful info: beer pasadena