The Vintage Book of American Women Writers
Elaine Showalter
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Buy *The Vintage Book of American Women Writers* by Elaine Showalter online

The Vintage Book of American Women Writers
Elaine Showalter
848 pages
January 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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One can only imagine that author/editor Elaine Showalter agonized over the selections to be included in this delicious compendium of American women’s writing. Arranged chronologically, it starts with the often romantic and domestic poems of Anne Bradstreet - such an English name - composing in the 1600s, and ends with a sad and thoroughly modern story written in 1998 by an American author of Bengali heritage, Jhumpa Lahiri. In other words, it rings all the changes and reminds us that history is also “her story” when one takes the time to find her stories.

It’s nearly impossible for a reviewer to do justice to such a collection, so I have taken the coward’s way out and will look at some of my personal favorites in the early, late, and in-between times. I was quite amazed, I admit, to see how much real history was recorded by women. One of the more famous - and harrowing - pieces about life among the Native American tribes was set down by Mary Rowlandson. Her 1682 account of being dragged off by a hostile tribe from her home in Lancaster, Massachusetts became a bestseller in its day. For six weeks she was enslaved to people who could only seem to her to be little more than devils, as they had murdered her family and friends: “by their noise and hooping they signified how many they had destroyed (which was at that time twenty three).” Rowlandson laments, “Oh the Little that we think of such dreadful Sights, and to see out dear Friends and Relations lie bleeding out their Heart-blood upon the Ground!”

It took Mary many days to bring herself to eat the food she was offered, spiced as it was with gruesome tales of cannibalism. She tried desperately to save the life of a baby who had also been captured, but failed. Yet there were small acts of kindness, too. One Indian couple regularly offered her meat, and she was given a Bible and allowed to read it. She was finally freed and recalled , “Before I knew what affliction was, I was ready sometimes to wish for it.” Having learned clearly what affliction was, she states, “if I had had the world, I would have given it for my Freedom.”

Ursula K. Le Guin has had a profound influence on many modern women who aspire to write by taking the lead in the mannish realm of science fiction and fantasy. Her lovely, haunting story “She Unnames Them” (1985) reveals a rebellious Eve who has found a way to escape from Adam and his clear-cut, organized, godly world. She lets the names go:

“Cattle, sheep, swine, asses, mules, and goats, along with chickens, geese, and turkeys, all agreed enthusiastically to give their names back to the people to whom – as they put it – they belonged…it was with the dogs, and with some parrots, lovebirds, ravens and mynahs that the trouble arose. These verbally talented individuals insisted that their names were important to them, and flatly refused to part with them.”
Once it’s all sorted out, Eve finds it rather easy to slip away from Adam, who says, “without looking around, ‘OK, fine dear. When’s dinner?’”

In the middle period (1892) is that most mystical and horrifying of stories, apparently based on true events in the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wife of a neurologist who had invented a “rest cure” for “neurotic intelligent women” and tried it out on his wife, refusing her all intellectual stimulation. The heroine of the story is locked in the room that should have been a nursery and slowly loses her sanity as she walks around and around the perimeter of the room, with nothing to look at but the wallpaper:

I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see. Of course I never mention it to them anymore—I am too wise, but I keep watch of it all the same. There are things in the wall-paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.”
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” could be seen as well-written fantasy, were it not for the facts behind it, reminding us of how easy it can be to let society or dominant others dictate not just our actions but our thoughts.

Reminding us that we all need to go own writing our stories, our contribution to “her story” – not letting anyone hold us back.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2011

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