Introduction: the Genealogy of American Women’s Narrative, 1892–1995

  • Guy Reynolds


After nearly thirty years of canon-busting, critical revisionism and renewal, is it possible to generalise about American women’s narratives produced during the past century? For American women’s fiction (and associated forms of prose, such as autobiography and the diary), continual recoveries of lost works mean that the ‘canon’has hardly come into being. As soon as a canon begins to take shape, the deconstructive turn of modern criticism undermines its foundational principles. Women’s fiction, as a body of work sui generis, began to attract serious and sustained critical attention in the wake of the 1960s women’s movement. Feminist critics attacked what they saw as the ‘masculinist’ bias of American literary criticism; the motifs, topics and themes celebrated by the masculinist critics were, it was now argued, highly gendered, and took little account of the contribution of American women to the national literature. Attacks on the male bias of literary scholarship went hand-in-hand with recoveries of lost female writers and marginalised traditions (the increased attention to nineteenth-century sensational and domestic writing dates from this phase in the early 1970s). Well-known writers such as Willa Cather or Edith Wharton continued to be read; but their work was increasingly seen as a distinctively female achievement.


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  1. 1.
    Two biographies encapsulate the impact of feminism on the critical study of American women’s writing: Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  2. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    On the various paradigm shifts in American literary studies see Philip Fisher, ‘American Literary and Cultural Studies since the Civil War’, in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (eds), Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: MLA, 1992), pp. 232–50.Google Scholar
  4. Nina Baym’s essay ‘Melodramas of Beset Manhood — How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors’ remains the classic feminist attack on the theoretical structuring of the American canon (see Elaine Showalter (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism (London: Virago, 1986), pp. 63–80).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Elaine Showalter, Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 146.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Annette Kolodny, ‘A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts’, New Literary History, 11 (1980), pp. 451–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carla Kaplan, ‘Reading Feminist Readings: Recuperative Reading and the Silent Heroine of Feminist Criticism’, in Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (eds), Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 168–94Google Scholar
  8. Deborah McDowell, ‘“The Changing Same”: Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists’, New Literary History, 18 (1987), pp. 281–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 5.
    Alice Walker, ‘Dedication’ to I Love Myself when I am Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press, 1979), p. 2.Google Scholar
  10. 6.
    Susan Sontag, ‘Note on the Play’, Alice in Bed (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), p. 116.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    My discussion here is indebted to Elaine Neil Orr, Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women’s Fictions (Charlottesville, Va., and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997).Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Gillian Beer, ‘The Waves: “The Life of Anybody”’ in Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 77.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Willa Cather, On Writing, with a Foreword by Stephen Tennant (1949; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 12.Google Scholar

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© Guy Reynolds 1999

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  • Guy Reynolds

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