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Theory and Cultural Studies
Holly Laird.Women Coauthors. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000. x + 329 pp.
When admitting authorial identity as a concern at all, literary studies have tended to privilege a vision of the author as singular, drawing on multiple meanings of the word: unique, original, solitary. Yet such a view may overlook the varied and various circumstances of a text's production, which can comprise not only the more indirect influence but the actual excisions, insights, or details contributed by editors, patrons, rivals, partners, mentors, or collaborators. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne has been excoriated as prim and interfering for the revisions that she made to her husband Nathaniel's notebooks after his death. Those who would dismiss Ted Hughes as self-interested for his editorial choices in posthumously publishing the writings of Sylvia Plath would probably not recognize these poets' sometimes competitive, often conflicted, but nonetheless mutual inspiration during their marriage. By the same token, many readers would not care to avow that an apparently isolated, ahistorical genius like Emily Dickinson existed not only beyond but within her nineteenth-century American culture, even consulting her sister-in-law Susan about her poems and actually positing changes in texts according to [End Page 1068] Susan's documented recommendations. Providing an engaging corrective to such unilateral views of the multivalent phenomenon known as authorship, Holly Laird's Women Coauthors lucidly delineates a deromanticized group portrait of the multiple artists under her consideration. In essence, by assembling this vital cast of "approximate" and also more self-identified collaborators, Laird urges her readers toward "two kinds of heightened awareness: first of the power, frequency, and interest of coathorship and literary collaboration, and second of single authorship as itself not solitary, as participating rather in the wide range of kinds and degrees of multiple authorship."
Accordingly, Laird surveys a parallel range of writing "partnerships"--sometimes transpiring between two women, sometimes between a woman and a man. Beginning with the early Victorian collaboration between John Stuart Mill and his eventual wife Harriet Taylor, Laird's study culminates by elaborating the more contemporary interactions between Louise Erdrich and the late Michael Dorris, two mixed-blood Native American writers, and of African-American memoirists like the Delany sisters and Ossie Guffey and their inflections by a white narrator or interviewer. Along with Mill and Taylor in a section titled "Literary Alliance of Two," Laird re-examines Harriet Jacobs's completion of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself under the editorship of abolitionist and author Lydia Maria Child. A second section on fin-de-siècle female coauthors, "Coupled Women of Letters," considers the shared work in poetry and drama by British writers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote under the pseudonym Michael Field, and of novelists Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as E. Œ. Somerville in a collaboration that Laird terms "Anglo-Irish Big House Gothic." Laird's following section, "Revisionary Collaborations," looks not only at poet H. D.'s textual relationships to Sigmund Freud and to her intimée, Bryher, but links their overarching dynamic by its focus on the uncanny to Penelope Shuttle's coauthored texts with novelist-poet Peter Redgrove, which include a feminist study of menstruation. To exemplify other modernist and post-modernist practitioners of the unique manifestations of collaborative creativity, Laird reconsiders the more familiar partnership of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein juxtaposed against that of contemporary Canadian poets Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland. Having oriented her readers from the first chapter to anticipate revisitations of the works of canonized authors alongside finely-theorized [End Page 1069] introductions to texts by novelists such as Joyce Elbrecht and Lydia Fakundiny (who write together as author/subject Jael B. Juba), Laird completes her study with another such illuminating pairing of pairings in "Rewriting America."
Whereas Laird opens her text by recreating a model of "collaborative desire" informed by but not limited to a psychoanalytical perspective, the integrative pluralism of her approach permits her to conjoin subjects and modes...