College Literature 32.3 (2005) 172-181
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The Making of a New Virginia Woolf Icon
Virginia Woolf achieved a level of public recognition and popular success in her lifetime; her novel The Years was a 1937 bestseller in the United States and she appeared in the same year on the cover of Time magazine. It was not until the 1960s, however, that Woolf became a celebrity, even a household name, thanks in large part to [End Page 172] Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As readers of Brenda Silver's richly detailed study of Woolf's emergence as a cultural icon have been made aware, Albee's play managed to create a public image of Woolf largely independent of her life and writing, an image that has given rise to a proliferation of multiple and often hotly contested other images that link Woolf to social anxiety and fear about the changing significations of gender, class, art, and sexuality. One of the most important stories that Silver tells about Woolf's debated status as an icon is the way the intellectual media responded to 1970s academic feminists who succeeded in canonizing Woolf as an opponent of patriarchal society. During the culture wars of the 1980s, the New York Review of Books, among other media that critiqued the academy and feminism, laid claim to Woolf as a representative of Western civilization. In this version, Woolf circulates as a priestess of the power of great books and universal values; she is made to appear, in Silver's words, "as a preserver of a high culture threatened by both the academy and popular/mass culture" (1999, 25). Silver is certainly right in arguing that Woolf's ability to cross borders defies any effort to limit or fix her image in a story that has far from ended, and whose latest chapters render her as fashion icon, postfeminist, and emblem of queer culture. Nevertheless, the representation of Woolf that has proven most resistant to revision both inside and outside the academy may well be the image of a cultural highbrow whose literary achievements are thought to be immune from ideological, political, and commercial contaminants.
It is this lingering construction of Woolf as an rarified aesthete, an image recently reiterated by Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Woolf in The Hours, as marvelous as that portrayal may be, that three well-established Woolf scholars variously seek to challenge. In contesting the characterization of Woolf as an ivory-tower elitist, these critics move away from a study of the literary works that limit her to high modernism and focus, instead, on a number of her other personal and public projects. They offer diverse accounts: Woolf appears in Humm's book as an enthusiastic participant in the popular cultures burgeoning around photography and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s, in Black's account as a radical feminist connected in important ways to British women's political and social organizations, and in Cuddy-Keane's analysis as a public intellectual engaged in widely debated issues about highbrow intellectualism, reading, and education. These studies do more than contribute to our knowledge of the extra-literary facets of Woolf's life and work; when considered together, they create a remarkably uniform image, a Woolf icon for our time that reveals a much more democratic and socially engaged woman than has previously been thought, a writer committed not only to aesthetic pursuits but also to the most pressing domestic and political issues of her day. [End Page 173]
Of the three studies, Humm's Modernist Women and Visual Cultures has the most relevance for our understanding of Woolf...