The Fate of Dead American Women Writers

This weekend, as I searched the house for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, I noted with surprise the paucity of books by American women writers on our shelves. Anglophilia dominates the collection: one cannot apparently have too many copies of Middlemarch(my least favorite book by George Eliot); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (my favorite Bronte Gothic); or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the experimental masterpiece of the ’60s. As for American literature, I do know a few titles. I have repeatedly read The House of Mirth (Lily Bart and laudanum!) and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor pieces in Soap Behind the Ears… but, one wonders humbly, is that enough?

Well, I felt a little low, thinking about being an American who doesn’t much care for American literature. It’s a gap, I’ve always said cheerfully, but is it just a gap? No, really, I’ve read the American women’s canon, but what does it say that I’d rather drink cups of tea with Barbara Pym than watch Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier walk into the sea again (though I like Kate Chopin very much!)? Why are we Americans so intense?

Well, at least I have a Hortense Calisher collection, i comforted myself. Calisher (1911-2009) was a brilliant, prolific American writer, with a powerful, eclectic imagination and a wide literary range. In her novel The Bobby-Soxer, the most fascinating character, Aunt Leo, is a hermaphrodite; in Calisher’s slim novel, In the Slammer with Carol Smith, she chronicles the harrowing experiences of a woman who did jail time for peripheral activity with a bombing in the ’70s and now lives on the streets; and Sunday Jews, Calisher’s last novel, is a vast, unputdownable family saga. All three of these books, however, have vanished from my shelves: I practiced read-and-weed skills unwisely here. I did, however, find The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975 – and have discovered she is a master of the short story.

That isn’t really the point of this post, though. (I will write about Calisher’s stories later.) The point is that I wonder how often the fame of even the most lauded of American women writers outlasts their lifetime. Philip Roth’s work (deservedly) will never die, nor will the Rabbit books of John Updike, but no one talks about Calisher any more, and the fate of Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) was hanging by a thread until Library of America took her under their wing and revived her work recently. (N.B. I once attended a reading by Spencer at a book festival and got my copy of The Southern Woman autographed. I felt a kinship with her because she had a cat tote bag!)

In the U.S., Library of America and NYRB classics have picked up some of the slack with forgotten women writers: LOA is publishing more women these days, though NYRB Classics seems shaky on the gender question.

Well, we don’t have Virago here. And that’s a shame. We could do with an American women’s press. There is the Feminist Press, but alas! they publish only a limited number of titles. A limited budget, no doubt.

And so I must turn to my shelves for neglected writers. I guarantee, you will be hearing about women writers whom, well, you’ve never heard of.

I am still a confirmed Anglophile… but really, Kat, enough is enough!

Who are your favorite neglected American women writers?

10 thoughts on “The Fate of Dead American Women Writers”

  1. ” read-and-week skills ”

    I’d never heard of Calisher or Elizabeth Spencer, I’m afraid. Writers whose fame didn’t cross the Atlantic, perhaps. I’d add them to my look-for list, but I’m trying to negotiate a life-extension with His Infernal Highness to get through the books I’ve already bought.
    Never mind Middlemarch (which I rather like), I keep encountering George Eliot’s Collected Poems and feeling guilty about it. That and Herman Melville’s poems – I don’t know if it was two moments of insanity or if I bought them both in one moment of complete derangement- move around my shelves and book piles and lurk in ambush.
    Or did I buy more than one copy of each? If I did, it’s definitely time I filled out a Power of Attorney form.

    1. That should be read-and-*weed*! Eliot is such a bubbly novelist, yet she doesn’t strike me as a poetess. As for Melville, he wrote one chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale” so my money’s on Melville for poetry..

      Yes, we really need to get through the books on our shelves, and I’m waiting for a Doris Lessing biography as well.

  2. Constance Fennimore Woolson leaps to mind as a 19th century author. Valerie Martin is not sufficiently remembered. One has to make an effort to have many American women writers — or women writers in general. I have and think I probably do have more books by women in this house than by men, many more. Ellen

    1. Ah, how soon readers forget! Woolson is good, and recently reissued; Martin is sometimes great, but there is less fuss about her now. Great suggestions!

  3. I enjoyed your post, which raises some very interesting questions regarding both gender and nationality. I’m always intrigued by the extent to which American readers do, or don’t, tilt British in their selections. I’d describe my own “tilt” as mildly British, especially for works produced until, say, 1950 or so. This is particularly true for women writers. I’m afraid I know very little about 19th century American women novelists (although I have read Chopin) despite having Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers sitting on my shelves for oh-so-very-many years now.
    I hadn’t really thought how the American equivalent of Virago might serve to promote/preserve the work of American women writers. I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that both Virago and Persephone publish U.S. writers, although if so I’m sure the balance tips heavily towards the U.K.
    As far as contemporary, or semi-contemporary writers are concerned my tilt goes in the U.S. direction. Quickly checking my shelves I found perhaps a majority of U.S. women authors: Jane Smiley; Valerie Martin (a big favorite); Paula Fox; Dawn Powell; Claire Messud; Edith Perlman; Cynthia Ozick; Lily King; Mary Gordon; Susanna Moore (another big favorite) and on and on. That so many women are published doesn’t, of course, invalidate your point that women’s writing tends to fall into oblivion much quicker than men’s (I HAVE read Elizabeth Spencer, but only the shorter fiction cocntained in the Modern library edition of The Souther Woman. I’m glad Library of America is re-publishing her). One example I’d add to your list is Jean Stafford, a really marvelous writer I discovered this spring whose first novel, Boston Adventure, is finally being reprinted by NYRB Classics.
    I adore Middlemarch BTW, which, along with Daniel Deronda, is my favorite Eliot. I don’t care much for the Brontes (which speaks much more poorly of myself than it does them, I’m sure); haven’t read Lessing and put Edith Wharton among my very favorites (behind Henry James, of course, but then everyone is, to my mind).
    And, no, I’ve never heard of Hortense Calisher. I’ll have to check her out!

    1. Elaine Showalter is one of the best guides to neglected American writers. And perhaps she did British too? Probably everything on woment writers. I do like your list of American authors There are some greats, though I do prefer English lit. Who needs science fiction when we can visit Trollope’s Barsetshire?

      1. Except for very contemporary writers, I, too, prefer the Brits. Especially with respect to the 19th century — I can’t imagine a reading life without Austen (and, in the next century, Pym. And, no, I don’t think her writing is particularly like Austen’s). As for sci-fi and dear Anthony — well, I personally adore both (I shed many of my Trollope novels during a recent move and found myself re-purchasing them a few weeks ago! He has such an incredible way of creating characters).

        1. Yes, everybody is the new Jane Austen! And yet no one is. Pym and Austen: very little in common though of course I love both. I wonder who the newest new Jane Austen is? There must be hudnreds!

  4. I’m gradually rereading you’d archive. I live in Devon, UK and had never heard of Hortense Calisher, so will investigate a few book sites to see ,if I can find her books. I now have a section in my notebook titled ” Kat recommends” . The list is lengthening by the day.

    1. Clare, how funny that I am now a “Kat recommends” list. Hortense Calisher is so worth reading: great prose, great short stories.

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