restricted access The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual, and: Female Pastoral Women Writers Re-Visioning the American South (review)
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Reviewed by
Ann Romines. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992. 319 pp. $45.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.
Elizabeth Jane Harrison. Female Pastoral Women Writers Re-Visioning the American South. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 166 pp. No price given.

Taken together, these books go a long way toward redefining much American women's writing. As a culmination of very good investigation over the past fifteen years by such critics as Annis Pratt, Elaine Showalter, Nina Baym, Patricia Spacks, Josephine Donovan, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and others, these works focus specifically on narrative patterns previously left in the shadows. Both Harrison and Romines have contributed in major ways to the project of both expanding and defining the canon.

Romines locates an entirely new pattern in women's fiction, that of housekeeping, the domestic plot that has been so frequently denigrated (if not overlooked entirely). By a careful weaving of authorial biography, text, and critical approach, she convinces the reader that such a plot does exist intentionally, and that the "capacious female life, centered in housekeeping" deserved the valorization nineteenth-century American women writers gave it. Beginning with Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island, in 1861, Romines reads Jewett and Freeman, and brings her study into the twentieth century with excellent commentary on the work of Willa Cather and Eudora Welty.

She begins by attacking stereotypes about domestic ritual, saying early on that "when a writer turned to domestic life and its recurring rhythm as a primary subject, placing her central characters inside, not outside, this world, she found herself in a literary and psychic realm with few precedents and little terminology, a domestic realm that traditionally privileged privacy and unwritten texts." Her contention is that some of the best American women writers took "the home plot" seriously and poured their best technical efforts, and their most earnest emotional investments, into these narratives: "some of the best fiction by American women writers is dominated and shaped by the rhythms and stresses of domestic ritual, by the complex of domestic-literary concerns I have called the home plot." Rather than The Country of the Pointed Firs, Shadows on the Rock, Losing Battles and A New England Nun and Other Stories being anomalies, Romines proves that they are "works that probe a complex human activity by which many women have shaped their lives and within which they have discovered their powers, limits, restrictions, and connections as female and human creatures."

Romines' prose is succinct and suggestive, and although her argument covers wide ground the reader has no difficulty following it. In speaking of the "capacious and problematic oeuvres" of Cather, Welty, Jewett, and Freeman, Romines notes that they have achieved canonical standing almost despite their attention to the domestic. Her extensive and imaginative readings of "A Wagner Matinee," "The Bohemian Girl," O Pioneers!, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," "Livvie," [End Page 943] and the texts mentioned above are the means by which Romines teaches her readers new concepts and languages. As she says, "I argue that the story of housekeeping . . . has generated forms and continuities very different from those of the patriarchal American canon and pushes readers to attend to texts that are not inscribed in conventionally literary language. Domestic language often seems invisible to those who have not learned to read it."

Professor Harrison's aim in Female Pastoral is another kind of definition, that of expanding the stereotype of "pastoral" so that it includes wider narrative experience. Using some of Annette Kolodny's premises, Harrison extends that view of land as metaphor into the twentieth century: her subjects are the fictions of Ellen Glasgow, Margaret Mitchell, Willa Cather, Harriette Arnow, Alice Walker, and Sherley Williams. Harrison sees each of these writers as breaking through the rigidity of the romantic Southern literary tradition, one which reified patriarchal control and tradition built upon it. Cather's O Pioneers! was a successful attempt to "change the relationship between women and landscape," but for black women writers, the task of re-defining the pastoral was more difficult.

Harrison's attention to Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Pauline Hopkins's Contending...


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