Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Guest Post by Anna: Literary Canon of American Women Writers

The American literary canon is still often considered to consist largely of male writers-Twain, Whitman, etc. Yet there are many American women who have contributed greatly to the literature of the country. In order to help give them the recognition they deserve,and to help those searching for female American writers (for example, in teaching or taking an American literature class), I haveassembled this list of American women writers I believe belong in the canon, from my earlier "literary canon of women writers" series.

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first published African-American poet and the first African-American woman whose writings were published.

Born in Gambia, Senegal, she was made a slave at age seven. She was the slave of the Wheatley family of Boston, though they did teach her to read and write English, and helped encourage her poetry. In 1768, Wheatley wrote "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty" in which she praised George III for repealing the Stamp Act. However, as the American Revolution gained strength, Wheatley's writing turned to themes from the point of view of the colonists. In 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim. Wheatley's poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes.

Many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that an African woman could write poetry, and Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral", which was published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text.

The publication of Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" in 1773 brought her fame, with figures such as George Washington praising her work. Voltaire stated in a letter to a friend that Wheatley had proved that black people could write poetry. John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver some of his personal writings to "Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [muses] and Apollo." Wheatley also visited England for five weeks accompanying her master's son and was praised in a poem by fellow African-American poet Jupiter Hammon.

Wheatley was emancipated by her owners after both her poetic success and the death of her master, and she soon married. However, when her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into poverty and died of illness. Her collected work, including her letters as well as her poetry, is available in English in “Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings”, by Phillis Wheatley.

Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli, commonly known as Margaret Fuller, (May 23, 1810 – July 19, 1850) was an American journalist, critic, and women's rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first full-time American female book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States.

Born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was given a substantial early education by her father, Timothy Fuller. She later had more formal schooling and became a teacher. In 1839, she began overseeing what she called "conversations": discussions among women meant to compensate for their lack of access to higher education. A number of significant figures in the women's rights movement attended these "conversations", including Sophia Dana Ripley, Caroline Sturgis, and Maria White Lowell.

Margaret Fuller became the first editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial in 1840, before joining the staff of the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley in 1844. By the time she was in her 30s, Fuller had earned a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female, and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College.

Her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was published in 1845. A year later, she was sent to Europe for the Tribune as its first female correspondent. She soon became involved with the revolution in Italy and allied herself with Giuseppe Mazzini. She had a relationship with Giovanni Ossoli, with whom she had a child. All three members of the family died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, as they were traveling to the United States in 1850. Fuller's body was never recovered.

Fuller was an advocate of women's rights and, in particular, women's education and the right to employment. She also encouraged many other reforms in society, including prison reform and the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Many other advocates for women's rights and feminism, including Susan B. Anthony, cite Fuller as a source of inspiration. Many of her contemporaries, however, were not supportive, including her former friend Harriet Martineau. She said that Fuller was a talker rather than an activist.

Shortly after Fuller's death, her importance faded; the editors who prepared her letters to be published, believing her fame would be short-lived, were not concerned about accuracy and censored or altered much of her work before publication. “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” is widely available in English, as are her letters.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet whose work became widely known and critically acclaimed after her death. She spent most of her life as a recluse in her Amherst, Massachusetts home. After her death in 1886 her younger sister Lavinia discovered her poems, and in 1890 Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Louis Todd published a heavily edited collection of her poems. A complete edition was not published until 1955, and an edition arranged in the way she originally arranged her poems was not published until 1981.

There were initially unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, but now Dickinson is considered a major American poet. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation.

Some scholars have suggested that the numerous letters and poems that were dedicated to Susan Gilbert Dickinson indicate a romance, but this is difficult to verify as Lavinia and Susan burned some of Emily's letters, as Emily had asked them to. Emily Dickinson's complete poems are available in English in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and designer. Although wealthy and female, she was also one of the few American civilians who traveled to the front lines in France during World War I. She wrote a series of articles about that experience, and in 1916 was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

Wharton was divorced from her husband in 1913, but rather than view a divorce as scandalous she saw it as a “diploma of virtue.” For her novel The Age of Innocence (1921), Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature. She remained in France until her death in 1937, but she did return to the United States on one occasion to get an honorary doctorate degree from Yale. Despite the time she spent away from the United States, Edith Wharton is celebrated for her novels that perfectly captured (and gently criticized) the upper class in America. Her works are widely available in English.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was an American author who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, in works such as her “prairie trilogy” of O Pioneers! (a 1913 novel about a family of Swedish immigrants), The Song of the Lark (a 1915 novel about an ambitious young heroine, Thea Kronborg, who leaves her hometown to go to the big city to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous opera star), and My Ántonia (a 1918 novel about Ántonia Shimerda, as told by her friend Jim to another friend). In 1923 Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), a novel set during World War I.She is considered one of the leading figures of American literary Modernism.

Pearl Buck (1892-1973) was an American writer who spent most of her time until 1934 in China. Her novel The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the U.S. in 1931 and 1932, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; it caused considerable popular sympathy for China. It concerns family life in a Chinese village before World War II. In 1938, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her works are widely available in English.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American writer, poet, and art collector who spent most of her life in France. Her Paris home became a legendary salon after World War I, attracting artists including Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. Stein’s most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), purports to be the memoirs of Stein’s partner (she was a lesbian) but is actually a history of Stein’s own life. Her works are widely available in English.

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and political activist. Her 1962 novel Ship of Fools (which concerns people sailing from Mexico to Europe aboard a German freighter and passenger ship) is an allegory that traces the rise of Nazism and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its "voyage to eternity."

It was the best-selling novel in America that year, but her short stories received much more critical acclaim. She is known for her penetrating insight; her work deals with dark themes such as betrayal, death and the origin of human evil. Her works are widely available in English.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, which she was a part of. Of Hurston's four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel about the life of an African-American woman in her forties named Janie Crawford.
Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel garnered attention and controversy at the time of its publication, and has come to be regarded as a seminal work in both African American literature and women's literature. Her works are widely available in English.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was an American author of short stories and novels about the American South. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter (about a woman named Laurel Hand who travels to New Orleans from her home in Chicago to assist her aging father) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. Her works are widely available in English.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an American poet and short-story writer. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956 and a National Book Award Winner for Poetry in 1970. Elizabeth Bishop House is an artists' retreat in Great Village, Nova Scotia dedicated to her memory.

She is considered one of the most important and distinguished American poets of the 20th century. She was a lesbian and considered herself to be a “strong feminist.” Her works are widely available in English.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was an American novelist, short-story writer and essayist. An important voice in American literature, O'Connor wrote two novels and 32 short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries.

She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. O'Connor's writing also reflected her own Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics.

Her two novels were Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She also published two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published posthumously in 1965). She had lupus throughout her life and eventually died of it. Her works are widely available in English.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was an American poet, known for her highly personal, confessional verse. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die. The book’s poems, written between 1962 and 1966, are arranged in the book in chronological order. Their subjects are Sexton's troubled relationships with her mother and her daughters, and her treatment for mental illness. Themes of her poetry in general include her suicidal tendencies, long battle against depression and various intimate details from her private life, including her relationships with her husband and children.

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and they lived together first in the United States and then England, having two children together: Frieda and Nicholas. Following a long struggle with depression and a marital separation, Plath committed suicide in 1963.

Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two published collections: The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In the 1965 edition of Ariel, Ted Hughes changed Plath's chosen selection and arrangement by dropping twelve poems, adding twelve composed a few months later, and shifting the poems' ordering, in addition to including an introduction by Robert Lowell.In 2004 a new edition of Ariel was published which for the first time restored the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had left them; the 2004 edition also features a foreword by Plath and Hughes' daughter Frieda Hughes.

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, for The Collected Poems. She also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death. Her works are widely available in English.

Toni Morrison is an American writer. She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970, about a year in the life of a young black girl, named Pecola, in Lorain, Ohio, against the backdrop of America's Midwest as well as in the years following the Great Depression), received mixed reviews, didn't sell well, and was out of print by 1974. Critical recognition and praise for Toni Morrison grew, however, with each novel.

She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel Song of Solomon (1977) and the Pulitzer prize for Beloved (1987, about Sethe, a runaway slave who kills her daughter and tries to kill her other three children when a posse arrives in Ohio to return them to Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky from which Sethe had recently fled. The daughter, Beloved, returns years later to haunt the house in which she was killed, Sethe's home.) Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for, in the words of the Swedish Academy, her "visionary force and poetic import" which give "life to an essential aspect of American reality." Her works are widely available in English.

Diane DiPrima (born 1934) is an American poet of the Beat Generation. Her major work is the long poem Loba (meaning She-wolf in Spanish), first published in 1978, with an enlarged edition in 1998.The poem is a quest for the reintegration of the feminine, and is considered by some critics as the female counterpart to Allen Ginsberg’s famous Beat poem Howl. DiPrima was one of the few women in the Beat inner circle. Her works are widely available in English.