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?

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