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  • The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Cynthia Murillo
The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Denise D. Knight and Jennifer S. Tuttle . Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2009. 504 pp. Cloth, $60.00.

Few women writers have attracted more attention than Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose (in)famous short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" was reprinted by the Feminist Press in 1973, unleashing a substantial amount of scholarship on her work and facilitating the republication of several of her other short stories and novels. Although the engaging biographies and reprinting of her diaries help us see a more complex individual than is revealed through her public writing, what has consistently frustrated scholars has been the inaccessibility in print of much of her personal papers, making it difficult for scholars to accurately assess her work. That is, until now. The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited and with introductions by Denise Knight and Jennifer Tuttle, fills this crucial gap in Gilman scholarship. Previously, Gilman's correspondence was made available only, and in rare circumstances, by viewing the original papers or through microfiche; however, Knight and Tuttle have methodically culled through and copied these letters, providing essential aspects about Gilman's life and work that would otherwise have remained unknown.

The letters in this collection are representative and were composed between 1867 and 1935, making them the last significant selection of Gilman's private writings to remain unpublished. Gilman supposedly destroyed the letters she wrote to Houghton after their marriage and, as Knight and Tuttle observe, any existing correspondence between Gilman and her daughter Katharine, between 1900 and 1910 has never been found. The Selected Letters [End Page 89] consists of eight chapters and is organized thematically, beginning with letters written during her early years. The middle chapters include letters written to family members and friends, including Grace Ellery Channing, who married her first husband and helped raise their daughter. Other chapters include letters written to important social and literary figures, such as W. D. Howells, and those composed during her final years to the last days before her "proposed exit." Each themed chapter discloses the events in Gilman's life and her concerns chronologically, making it easier for the reader to follow such a complex and multifaceted figure. The authors have carefully contextualized the letters by including not only a concise, yet thorough, introduction to the volume, but introductions to each chapter. In addition, the authors provide informative textual commentary through annotations that are relevant and useful.

The letters mention significant events in Gilman's life but do not pigeonhole her. Rather, the chapter introductions set the stage for a "feminist" who was really more of a "humanist." We see, for example, her concern with social activism and her support of U.S. involvement in World War I. As Gilman clearly claims, "I am a socialist, of a sort, but not of the orthodox.'" In other letters, she reveals a sense of brazenness. She chides editors for not paying her enough and then shortly after humbles herself and asks why they do not fully appreciate her work. While she "brags" about significant events in her life, she also seeks the approval of famous public figures such as Lester Ward and Charles Lummis. Where Gilman's posthumous autobiography (1935) reveals a public persona, carefully crafted to portray a strong female figure, her letters uncover a more fragile human being who sought approval from the same sex she often criticized.

Such complexity in character is, of course, not new to Gilman scholarship, but to see this contradiction in Gilman's own words is telling. This collection highlights rather than glosses over her insecurities and rather than portray an author whose utopian vision was unprecedented, Knight and Tuttle unveil a woman whose behavior and thoughts seem almost antithetical to the public woman most people knew.

Although many historians and literary scholars might find the correspondence on social theories and political topics intriguing, those written to her daughter seem the most noteworthy. In the chapter "A Mother's Love," we do not see an "unnatural mother" but one utterly devoted to supporting her child emotionally and economically. In fact, this compilation...


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pp. 89-91
Launched on MUSE
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