Jury of Her Peers : American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-02-24
  • Publisher: Knopf
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In a narrative of immense scope and fascination--spanning nearly 400 years and brimming with Showalter's characteristic wit and incisive opinions--readers are introduced to more than 250 female writers, both famous and little known.

Author Biography

Elaine Showalter, a professor emerita at Princeton University, is the author of numerous books, including the groundbreaking A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. A frequent radio and TV commentator in the United Kingdom, she has chaired the Man Booker International Prize jury and judged the National Book Awards and the Orange Prize. She divides her time between Washington, D.C., and London.



A New Literature Springs Up in the New World

From the very beginning, women were creating the new words of the New World. The first women writers in America, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) and Mary Rowlandson (1637–1711), were born in England and endured the harrowing three-month voyage of storm, seasickness, and starvation across the North Atlantic. In Massachusetts, where they settled, they led lives of extraordinary danger and deprivation. Both married and had children; they thought of themselves primarily as good wives and mothers. Both made the glory of God their justification for writing, but they prefigured themes and concerns that would preoccupy American women writers for the next 150 years and more—Bradstreet, the poet, writing about the intimacies and agonies of domestic life, including pregnancy and maternity, the death of three of her grandchildren, and the destruction of her home by fire; and Rowlandson, writing a narrative of her captivity by Narragansett Indians, and pioneering the great American theme of interracial experience in the encounter with Native American culture.

Both Bradstreet and Rowlandson entered print shielded by the authorization, legitimization, and testimony of men. In Bradstreet’s case, no fewer than eleven men wrote testimonials and poems praising her piety and industry, prefatory materials almost as long as the thirteen poems in the book. In his introductory letter, John Woodbridge, her brother-in-law, stood guarantee that Bradstreet herself had written the poems, that she had not initiated their publication, and that she had neglected no housekeeping chore in their making: “these Poems are the fruit but of some few houres, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments.” Rowlandson’s narrative too came with “a preface to the reader” signed “Per Amicum” (“By a Friend”), probably the minister Increase Mather, which explained that although the work had been “penned by this Gentlewoman,” she had written it as a “Memorandum of Gods dealing with her,” and it was a “pious scope, which deserves both commendation and imitation.” The author had not sought publication of her narrative out of vanity; rather,

some Friends having obtained a sight of it, could not but be so much affected with the many passages of working providence discovered therein, as to judge it worthy of publick view, and altogether unmeet that such works of God should be hid from present and future Generation: and therefore though this Gentlewoman’s modesty would not thrust it into the Press, yet her gratitude to God, made her not hardly perswadable to let it pass, that God might have his due glory, and others benefit by it as well as her selfe.

Having given a lengthy defense of the virtues of the book, the Friend concluded with the hope that “none will cast any reflection upon this Gentlewoman, on the score of this publication,” and warned that any who did “may be reckoned with the nine Lepers,” symbols of ingratitude. Apparently no one dared come forward to complain about Rowlandson after this endorsement.

We know that New England Puritans in the seventeenth century believed that men were intellectually superior to women, and that God had designed it so. They were notoriously unsympathetic to women who defied God’s plan for the sexes by conspicuous learning or reading, and they could be hostile to women who went outside their sphere by preaching or writing. The most official expression of this hostility was the trial of Anne Hutchinson in 1637. Hutchinson belonged to a dissident sect, but she had also been leading her own discussion groups for women. Tried for “traducing the ministers” and for blasphemy while she was pregnant with her fifteenth child, Hutchinson was excommunicated and forced to leave the Massachusetts Ba

Excerpted from A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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