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“New England Innocent” in the Land of Sunshine: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and California

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 284-311 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0056

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Figure 1. 

Gilman at Las Casitas, winter 1899–1900.

Courtesy of Walter S. Chamberlin, private collection.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long been understood through her association with New England. Her Hartford birthplace, her Providence childhood, her Beecher heritage, and her life-long valorization of New England culture explain why. It is easy to find ample evidence for her claim to a New England identity in her body of public and private writing, as well as in Gilman scholarship. Equally, she may be viewed as a nomadic figure who proudly embraced her independence and mobility “at large” and who defies easy categorization by region (Gilman, Living 181). But what of her associations with the US West? Gilman was an enthusiastic participant in “Booster Era” constructions of California as what Charles Fletcher Lummis called “the new Eden of the Saxon homeseeker” (M. Davis 26; Lummis qtd. in Starr, Inventing 89), a project wherein the New England intelligentsia was mobilized to construct a tradition of authentic California literature (Starr, Inventing 92–93). Gilman played an unacknowledged but active role in this late stage of conquest, which “required the continuous interaction of myth-making and literary invention with the crude promotion of land values and health cures” (M. Davis 26). Like others of her generation, she had moved west for her health, trumpeting California’s benefits thereafter and actively calling on New Englanders to “come here and live—calmly, wisely, nobly, healthfully and happily” (“The Superior Northerner” 211). Boosters of California literary culture attempted to render her a representative of the region, and she herself demanded a visible role in Lummis’s promotional magazine, Land of Sunshine. Undeniably, California was an important part of Gilman’s personal and professional identity.

Some literary histories of California writing do mention Gilman. And some Gilman scholars have begun to recognize her affiliations with the West. Even so, and despite her avid participation in Progressive Era boosterism, her own self-construction as a “New England innocen[t]” has tended to prevail (Living 151); her role as a promoter of the Golden State, the importance of the state to her subsequent work, and the significance of her contradictory California attitudes to her larger reform project have not yet been sufficiently explored. To be sure, the question of her relationship to the West, particularly to California, has presented an interpretive challenge. On the one hand, she was an enthusiastic member of Lummis’s band of western writers and contributed to his efforts to put California on the literary map. Her writing is full of effusive praise for California’s curative properties, exhibiting a yearning for the state—as a literary identity, but also as a place associated with health, freedom, progress, and peace. On the other hand, she associated California with a regionalism that paled in comparison to New England’s cultural cachet, with the economic hardship of single motherhood, with resistance to and sometimes open ridicule of her intellectual work, and with scandal over her divorce and domestic arrangements—events that sent her fleeing eastward, “more of a ‘wreck’ when she left California than when she arrived” (C. Davis 118–19). Throughout her body of work, she is clear, ironically, on one point: California was both her heaven and her hell.

My aim here is not to resolve these contradictions but to argue that they were, in fact, key elements of Gilman’s literary and reform agenda; her residence in and opposing attitudes toward California helped to shape her writing and social philosophy. Gilman resided in California twice during her long life, for a total of a mere eight years, not counting her many visits to the state. After some waffling on the matter, she also ultimately rejected the title of “California writer”; she was a New Englander in California, something quite different indeed. In her selfserving view, it was New England Anglo-Saxons who would bring about “social improvements” in the West through their purportedly superior stock and good influence (“Woman’s ‘Manifest Destiny’” 335). Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss her California years as a minor phase of her life, to interpret the state’s presence in her work as mere...



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