- Reviewed by
Elizabeth Ammons' new book, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century will undoubtedly and deservedly take its place beside other important works of feminist criticism. Ammons' book is altogether as brilliantly conceived and executed as, for example, Gilbert and Gubar's two volumes of No Man's Land, Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader, and Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction.
Ammons argues that the turn of the century "saw the artistic triumph or emergence and maturation of the seventeen women whose work forms the primary focus of this book." She examines the life and work of these seventeen women, many of whom, because of their color, nationality, or class, wrote outside mainstream American culture—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ellen Glasgow, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, Gertrude Stein, Mary Austin, Humishuma, or Mourning Dove, Anzia Yerzierska, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Edith Summers Kelly, and Nella Larsen. Conflicting Stories is a particularly welcome addition to feminist literary criticism because of its multicultural perspective that provides readers access to the lives and works of many minority women writing in America at the turn of the century.
Ammons' thesis is that the body of work these seventeen women writers produced during the transition between the Victorian and modern era is important because of its "radical experimentation with narrative form" and "[its] focus on issues of power." One of these issues is the difficult one of racism, and the most significant aspect of Ammons' book is that it takes a hard and necessary look at racism—both as a issue that minority women wrote about and also as a concept that informed and permeated the work of women writers like Willa Cather and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose work has become part of the canon of American literature. [End Page 729]
The two most compelling chapters in Ammons' work are those of Sui Sin Far, born Edith Maud Eaton, and Willa Cather, the former perhaps the least written about writer in the book and the latter perhaps the most written about. Both chapters explore Ammons' primary concern in Conflicting Stories—the way in which women writers struggled with "how to say what they had to say" because they were often, because of their race, class, or gender, silenced in profound ways. Ammons' discussion of how the forces of racism both attempted to silence a writer like Sui Sin Far and also gave her a voice is fascinating and compelling. Ammons provides a brief outline of Sui Sin Far's life and an analysis of the themes of "racist/sexist abuse and discrimination [and] tremendous pride in her mother" that informs her only published book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Interesting too are Ammons' speculations about the significance of the "gray-green, lightly imprinted" paper with "Chinese-style painting[s]" on which Sui Sin Far's book was printed, or as Ammons' puts it "the literal encoding of difference into every page of the book." Further, by making comparisons between Sui Sin Far's work and that of her "spiritual great-granddaughter Maxine Hong Kingston," Ammons acknowledges Sui Sin Far's importance to the Chinese-American literary tradition and to twentieth century women writers like Kingston and Amy Tan.
Although few woman writers have received as much attention as Willa Cather in the last ten to fifteen years, no one has faced the problem of Cather's racism as squarely as Ammons does in her chapter on Cather. Indeed, most Cather scholars have shied away from looking at this uncomfortable aspect of Cather's work. Examining works like The Professor's House, The Song of the Lark, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, (which Ammons surprisingly calls "one of the most important books she [Cather] wrote"), Ammons asserts that "Cather silenced women of color even as she attempted...