There is no better way to learn about authors and their works than to read the works themselves. This is what editor Elaine Showalter attempts to do in her anthology, “The Vintage Book of American Women Writers.”
Showalter has collected more than 350 years worth of literary works written by women, from Anne Bradstreet with her publication in 1650 of the poem “The Prologue,” to Jhumpa Lahiri’s publication in 1998 of the short story “A Temporary Matter.”
In the introduction, titled “The Mothers of Us All,” Showalter discusses the lack of acknowledgment women receive for their work when compared with men, and noted, “But the main reason women do not figure in American literary history is because they have not been the ones to write it.”
This idea is similar to that of ‘the winners write history’—throughout history men have been seen to proclaim dominance over women, and in this men can be seen as the ‘winners,’ and therefore have written history.
Although Showalter includes 80 women in her anthology, she laments she “had to leave out many great women novelists because of limitations of space, and some contemporary writers because of the expense of copyright permission,” but that this book is “a collection of wonderful stories, essays, fables, and poems by a remarkable group of writers who have shaped out literary heritage.”
And with pieces by Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neale Hurston, Sylvia Plath and Amy Tan, one would have to agree that she has provided readers with a truly well-rounded list of females who have shaped American literary history.
Along with these notable authors, which are among the most recognized, Showalter has also included some lesser-read authors that are still of huge importance, such as Tess Slesinger, Marianne Moore, Sarah Orne Jewett and Phoebe Cary.
Wondering where women authors such as Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf are? They can be found in Showalter’s companion anthology “A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.”
Showalter says these anthologies cannot be considered “comprehensive,” but she comes really close.
Since it would be impossible to talk about every author included in this anthology, I will pick out one of my favorites, Kate Chopin. Author of “Awakenings,” perhaps her most famed work (although not included in the anthology), three of Chopin’s short stories, titled “The Story of an Hour,” “At the ’Cadian Ball,” and “The Storm” are all in the book.
“The Story of an Hour” is about a woman with a heart condition who is told her husband is dead, and after being grief-stricken for ten minutes, realizes that she is free, and is overjoyed. She releases herself from her grief and comes down to the living room, where it is discovered that her husband is indeed alive and well. The woman dies of what physicians claim is her heart disease, but what Chopin says is “joy that kills.”
Chopin’s story is a good example of a piece written by a woman that deals with what it means to be a woman in a particular time, as do all of the authors and works that Showalter chose to be in the anthology.