Mar 11, 2009

What About the Women

Just a couple weeks back, here is how "Arts and Letters Daily" summarized the issue considered in a new book on American novels: "Why is it that novels about men in boats (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn) are treated as important, while ones about women in houses (House of Mirth) are not?..." This was the Daily’s blurb to draw our attention to a review of Elaine Showalter's new book on the standing of American women writers in the standard canon, entitled A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.

Besides this book appearing to be a learned and interesting one, the Daily’s blurb drew my particular attention because Yvor Winters was one of the first critics to significantly praise the work of Edith Wharton (author of The House of Mirth), in his essay on Henry James from the late 1930s, which was collected in his early book Maule's Curse and later reprinted in In Defense of Reason. Winters took a lot of heat for decades for his high judgment of Wharton’s fiction, but for the past 20 years or so Wharton’s reputation has been rising so steadily that there is little of that sort of talk about Winters any longer (at least, critics no longer use the example of his evaluation of Wharton when they are on the attack against Winters). The House of Mirth was not one of the her novels that stood out as great in Winters’s eyes. He focused rather on the high achievement of The Age of Innocence and also mentioned The Custom of the Country, both of which I also judge to be among the greatest novels in our language. Nonetheless, I agree that Mirth is a superior novel.

Winters had little to say about Twain, though I have to say that I can only guess why. He doesn’t appear to have focused on Twain in his American Literature classes, and no former student (there are not many left) has written about the omission that I am aware of. He did consider Melville to have written one of the three or four greatest novels ever in Moby Dick. So here was a poet-critic who could appreciate the work of a woman novelist, as Showalter appears to be urging us to do more appreciatively.

Now, I’m not saying that these comments validate Winters in some way. I don’t expect Elaine Showalter to reflect a little glory onto Winters’s achievement because she happens to agree with him on this matter or any other. My point is simply that Winters had an admirable way of cutting through the fashions of his time, and his approach can help us cut through the fashions of our own time. If he could recognize the estimable excellence of Edith Wharton’s fiction long before most, perhaps it’s time that you find out why. For he might also have recognized the importance of other writers and works whom he championed but who still languish undeservedly in obscurity, such as Frederick Godard Tuckerman (especially in his truly great poem “The Cricket”) or even Wharton’s first novel The Valley of Decision, which I consider almost as great as her two finest that I have mentioned.

I hope to get a chance soon to skim Showalter’s book. I hope it contains some discussion of Winters’s wife, the superb novelist Janet Lewis. If anyone out there knows anything about this, let me know.

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