The world of scholarship on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the most influential social and feminist thinkers of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America—and the niece of nineteenth-century literary luminaries Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, not to mention Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's most famous patient—has seen substantial recent contributions through publication of two book-length works focused on Gilman's life. Cynthia Davis's Charlotte Perkins Gilman offers a comprehensive biography of her subject, while Helen Horowitz's study focuses on Gilman's early adulthood, particularly her first marriage to Charles Walter Stetson, her struggle with depression at that time, and the "rest cure" she underwent, in relation to the writing of her most famous short story.
Davis's study fulfills the need for a new biography of Gilman that takes fully into account the biographical material that has emerged in the past two decades. Noting that "rather than producing a (singular) 'life,' I have instead sought to illuminate the multiple and complex facets of what Charlotte called her 'living'" (xv), Davis sees as her task to follow the spirit of Clifford Geertz's "thick description" of her subject's life and times (xxi). Indeed, Davis's study is exhaustively researched, and attempting to encompass such an eventful life (Gilman lived to the age of seventy-five) might result in an unwieldy product. However, Davis's account more than avoids that pitfall, from the subject's beginnings as a heady dreamer to her twilight years, stricken by the cancer that finally deprived her of her greatest desire—to do good in the world. Throughout, Davis successfully holds in balance her understandings of Gilman as social theorist, creative writer, activist, daughter, friend, lover, wife, and mother. Even as Davis acknowledges Gilman's less appealing qualities (such as her later nativism), she always treats her subject humanely. Davis's study is superb in its detail and consummately assembled, with insightful quotations from Gilman serving as epigraphs throughout. Particularly impressive is Davis's incorporation of archival and contextual materials, while she is also well versed in Gilman's extensive oeuvre, allowing her to draw fruitful connections between details of Gilman's life and both the major and lesser works that Gilman published. [End Page 122]
Horowitz's book similarly relies on sustained use of primary source material and unpublished archival material. The author's stated intent is to "[put] aside the myths Gilman created about 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' to present her at the time as she understood herself and as she was portrayed by others close to her" (4). Though Horowitz's decision to read Gilman's story in relation to published scholarship on it might have been more thorough, her deep focus on Gilman's teens and twenties leads to new insights. For example, though Horowitz usefully explores S. Weir Mitchell and his rest cure in greater detail than has generally been done, she ultimately argues that "more profound than her month under the Philadelphia physician's care were the eight years of Walter's presence and the six years of marriage to him," concluding that Gilman's best-known story constitutes a protest more primarily against that union than against Mitchell's treatment (209). Also, Horowitz's discussion of Gilman's diverse early reading illuminates how this material—ranging from Herbert Spencer's works in Popular Science Monthly, to Caroline B. Winslow's reform physiology doctrines in Alpha magazine, to the novels of George Eliot—informed the young woman's views on human development, gender roles, marriage, and sexuality.
Indeed, Davis and Horowitz each offers a thought-provoking new angle on a life explored by other biographers. Davis's unifying thread of tracing Gilman's "philosophy of impersonality" (30-31), noting Gilman's curious claim that she hoped to live "mostly outside personality" (xvi), compellingly considers the constant...