An ingenious sweep of literary sisters

The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United Stages - The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States
February 14, 1997

These two volumes represent an anything but exclusive, "for women only" American literary plenty. The Companion is an assiduous archive of 700-plus annotations and genre-studies by over 400 contributors. The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States yields a resourceful, and at times boldly ingenious sampler to match. Scrupulously, too, Davidson and Wagner-Martin underscore their dual project with the avowal that "if there is a single point to makeI it is that there is no one 'women's point of view'". Thus a genuine eclecticism marks both volumes.

The Companion offers a gallery of now canonical names: Massachusetts' metaphysical, proto-feminist "domestic" Anne Bradstreet through to a dramatically "confessional" Sylvia Plath, along with Betty Friedan whose The Feminine Mystique (1963) galvanised modern feminism as "the problem that has no name", and Susanna Rowson, whose Charlotte Temple, A Tale of Truth (1791) became America's first bestselling popular novel.

Others enter the circle from related angles. 19th-century entries do well - Harriet Beecher Stowe is revealed as a writer altogether fuller and more demanding than simply the abolitionist begetter of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Emily Dickinson, the authoritative, truly antipatriarchal genius of American poetry is discussed along with Kate Chopin, the Cajun-regional but always exquisite stylist of feminist self-dream The Awakening (1899).

For the 20th century there are equally excellent synopses of Gertrude Stein as the voice of same-gender, autonomous literary-creative womanhood and Marianne Moore as (in T.S. Eliot's celebrated phrase) "durable" imagist as well as Lillian Hellman, the underestimated dramatist of, say, The Children's Hour (1934) and the once black-listed and controversial memoirist of Pentimento (1973).

The Companion in no way slights multicultural female America in its massive, not to say exhilarating diversity of word. The book celebrates African-American and Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison and resolutely "womanist" Alice Walker as well as Native American crossblood Chippewa-Ojibway Louise Erdrich and Laguna-Pueblo Leslie Marmon Silko. Theirs has been writing to challenge, to subvert any assumed notion of "mainstream" be it of gender, sexuality, language, region, class or community.

For here, in its every historic ethnic nuance and virtuosity, resides the "other" America. One of the very best features of the Companion lies in its run of composite entries, cross-referencings or lineages of, typically, Native-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, Latina or Asian-American women's writing. These, together with microhistories of other kinds of legacy like "Women's Newspapers", "Women's Presses", "Lesbian Writing", "Male Gaze", "Motherhood", "Witchcraft" or an especially helpful and informed "Stereotypes" and "Women's Movement" (though, oddly, no entry on "theory" as such), make for vintage coverage. Here is scholarship to applaud and savour, a likely standard reference work of the future.

The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States amounts to something less. The short story runs from Sarah Orne Jewett's portrait of a marriage in "Tom's Husband" to Willa Cather's young woman's coming-of-age portrait in "Old Mrs Harris"; the poetry from Anne Bradstreet to Carolyn Forche; and the polemic from Margaret Fuller's New Englandish Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) to Gloria Steinem's "If Men Could Menstruate" (1983).

There is drama by Susan Glaspell whose anatomy of gendered anger in her one-acter, Trifles (1916) has made it a feminist landmark, and Sojourner Truth's "performance piece" "Ain't I A Woman?" which would become a key anthem for both black womanism and white feminism. "Private life" diaries and letters span birth-of-the-nation Abigail Adams and the bilingual chicana poet-storyteller Pat Mora.

Finally, the editors offer a playful juxtaposition of written-up "bodily pleasures"; on the one hand recipes like "Bass for Picasso" from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1933), and on the other, erotica like Emily Dickinson's tumultuous "Wild Nights-Wild Nights".

A. Robert Lee is professor of American literature, Nihon University, Tokyo.

The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United Stages

Editor - Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson
ISBN - 0 19 508706 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 596

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