In A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter has compiled an astonishingly complete literary history of the work of American women, beginning in the early 17th Century and covering through the 20th. She has written this book, she explains, because literature by American women has been consistently ignored or omitted from criticism, anthologies, and scholarly works. She points out that even novels and poetry that were very popular and widely read in their own times sank like a stone into oblivion afterwards because the works were left out of volumes of literary analysis and anthologies and not taught in literature classes. Her work is an attempt to bring attention back to many of these writers.
Showalter starts with the metaphor of a jury of her peers from a play of the same name by Susan Glaspell, written in the 1970’s. In the play, a woman has murdered her husband. While the sheriff and his male helpers loudly make jokes and judgments about the crime, their wives quietly observe the evidence that the woman has been abused. Showalter’s message is that women writers deserve judgment by their own peers–whom she defines as people who will read and think about their work on its own terms and with open minds.
She shows how works that were highly respected during their times were repeatedly trivialized or criticized as dealing with “women’s issues.” She also shows how consistently through history women have been unable to devote time to writing because of their household responsibilities or have been attacked for not devoting most of their time to those responsibilities.
Showalter’s task was monumental. She has written a short biography, career history, and description of the work of literally every serious American woman writer–and some not so serious–putting the work in context of events and themes of the times. She has even briefly covered the works of many genre writers.
Written in a readable and interesting manner, the book made me wish I had time to read it along with my Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (if I could find the works there–I know some of them are). It also made me painfully aware, avid reader though I am, of how few of these writers I have read.
As a side note of interest, the Amazon.com page for this book includes Showalter’s list of her top ten books by American women writers that you probably haven’t read. We used this list one time for one of the meetings of my book club, each person picking the one he or she wanted to read. I can personally recommend The Country of Lost Borders, a collection of stories by Mary Hunter Austin from her life in the California desert east of the Sierras, and for an entirely different experience, We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson, a chilling gothic novel.