April 22, 2009
Just finished reading an interview w/ Elaine Showalter on her new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the Chronicle. I’m wondering if my utter bewilderment at this assessment is the result of a generation gap or a discipline gap–I don’t think you’d meet a lot of writers who would say that Stein is overrated and Plath underrated. I think I know more people who would at least think the reverse, and a few who would… well, let’s just be honest, they’d rather put a spoon down their throat than recommend Plath. I wouldn’t be one of those, but I’d also no longer put Plath in my personal Pantheon. Stein, on the other hand, I’ve grown more driven to read as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps just grown more pretentious. Showalter’s declaration that Stein is “just not readable” is one that I frequently made as a 20 year old stuck reading Tender Buttons in my spring semester Modernism course. That changed as my MFA workshops dragged me away from narrative as the only coherent way to write a poem. At the very least, a lot of my shift in admiration has come from wanting to hear from female writers who had decentered the daddy drama in favor of more cerebral projects that resulted in compelling, reflective intersections between being a writer and being a woman. Must think about this. But seriously, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?
Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a “sister”: That doesn’t sanctify her work. We can criticize it.
I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don’t think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don’t feel any male poets do either.
Underrated: In the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her reputation got overwhelmed by the political debates over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but you need to look at Stowe as a novelist. Dred is a powerful analysis of the possibilities of violence and insurrection.
In the 20th century, Jean Stafford has become known for her venomous attacks on the women’s movement in the 1970s. (I once got a really rabid letter from her denouncing my work.) But accounts of her frustrations, childhood anxieties, bewilderment over finding her own voice are worth reading. We also need to pay more attention to Shirley Jackson. She wore the public face of a best-selling novelist, wife of a distinguished literary critic, happy mom. But the private face of a “bad girl” — morbidly obese, alcoholic, agoraphobic — revealed in a series of her writings is compelling.