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The three-volume project of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century began to appear in 1988, with Vol. I, The War of the Words. The project argues that the modernist crisis in literature is related to feminism, and thus the history of modernism must be told together with a cultural history of gender struggles. Vol. II, Sexchanges, and the present Vol. III, Letters from the Front, elaborate the case for such a narrative, tracing the relationships of sexual changes to literary and critical issues and presenting case studies that illustrate and complicate the history. This massive project has long since won its argumentative point: studies of modernism and gender proliferate, and the interest now has turned to the complications of the story. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar themselves put it, “it’s no longer possible to propose a monolithic ‘tale’ about the female imagination.” However, as the blurb for this volume notes, it appears “when the feminist movement is under increasing attack.” Those who would deny that feminism has anything to do with literary history need to read these books.
This third volume will help make disciplinary arguments: it gives reasons why the writers included in it must be part of a modern/postmodern canon of literary history. Gilbert and Gubar argue here that the modern women writers they discuss deserve the careful reading one gives to the “great,” not because they are politically correct writers, but because “they have a rich and fluent access to the shifting currents and contradictions of the cultural unconscious.” The book is divided by World War II. The first section, about modernist women, considers individual writers in depth. Virginia Woolf’s “history of the future” confronted cultural changes with a woman’s history. Gilbert and Gubar argue that her history of the unofficial, the everyday, is a revisionary history that becomes a structural principle for her fiction. But, they say, she can’t define the future—there’s no language—“only cryptic images, linguistic disruptions, or annunciations and epiphanies.” A discussion of the masquerade introduces “female female impersonators,” exemplified by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore. The “artifice . . . of their verse forms,” it is argued, dramatized “the artifice [End Page 395] and arbitrariness of female poetic identity.” By contrast, the Harlem Renaissance imposed double binds on African American women, represented in novels by Jesse Redmon Fauset, Nella Larson, and Zora Neale Hurston. These authors shared a skepticism about New Women and New Negroes that “undercut the ideology of the new.” The chapter concluding this section takes H. D. as representative of the female artist’s struggle with fetishization and reification. H. D., they argue, evolved beyond submission to a paternal principle, revising and critiquing Freud by her elaboration in Trilogy of a maternal model of woman’s power that turned from the erotic to the spiritual. In general, the book argues, modernist women suffered from “the liabilities, the problematics of female female impersonation.” The theoretical issues surrounding authenticity, mimicry, and masquerade therefore defined the era for women.
In the second section of the volume, which takes up the period beginning with World War II, the cultural situation and the complexities of gender seem more overwhelming for male and female writers, and authenticity seems no longer at issue. Civilians were in the war, the domestic front under attack, and men’s experiences together contributed to a “hypertrophied masculinity.” Only Sylvia Plath gets an extended analysis of her work. It seems unclear whether postwar women are in a position to benefit from those who wrote before. Plath, for example, had internalized misogyny from the modernist poets. At the same time that they write about how women lost ground in World War II, and about Plath’s terrible constraints in dealing with the new age, however, the authors do not quite seem ready to declare that the situation worsened for women with the cold war...