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6 / SZMURLO RECLAIMING GERMAINE DE STAËL KARYNA SZMURLO Madelyn Gutwirth's work has been instrumental not only in bringing to the attention of the American academe the illustrious, yet too long neglected, woman writer of postrevolutionary France, Germaine de Staël, but also in nurturing her fellow scholars. I had the good fortune to meet Madelyn in the late 1980s while still teaching at Rutgers University. Madelyn and I, together with Avriel Goldberger, organized the first international Staël conference on the American continent: "Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders." Our efforts resulted in a volume in which, indeed, borders were crossed: geographical, because we succeeded in reuniting three generations of researchers from both sides of the Atlantic, and above all, methodological, for the volume became a breakthrough in new approaches to Staël's work. An event of this magnitude would not have been possible without the groundwork Madelyn Gutwirth provided in her pioneering study Mme de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman, which incited the outburst of feminist interpretations over the next two decades.6 Gutwirth wrote Mme de Staël, Novelist to dissent from the view of authorities who had banished Staël's fiction from the list of authors to be read; for generations, work on Staël indulged primarily in the scandals of the private life of Necker's daughter. Her study belongs, as Nancy Miller proclaimed after its publication, "to the new literary history of feminist scholarship: a revision of the canon with sympathetic and deliberate attention to the female artist."7 In an assessment of her own efforts today, Madelyn goes further in emphasizing the transformative objectives of her work. By a feminist challenge she understands not only changing the past but also altering the future perception of history. Her crusade to dismantle the long held myth of the eighteenth-century cult of women and to unmask the social failure of their aspirations originates in "Staël's strong arraignment against the men of her time," who "since the Revolution, had found it useful to reduce women to the most absurd mediocrity."8 At many levels of Staël's thought Gutwirth found her own fascination with the dichotomy of stasis and movement. Her best pages depict this tension: talent versus society, voice versus silence, Sybils versus Madonnas. They also unveil how Staël represents women's ambitions through images of closure, how she destabilizes the esthetics of cameos and friezes, typical of Empire art, or distorts the static neoclassical forms through flowing lines of the Romantic style. Madelyn Gutwirth lent new life to a marginalized proto- The Career and Work of Madelyn Gutwirth I 7 romantic writer waiting to be moved out of the shadow of her famous male contemporaries, Chateaubriand, Constant, and her own father, Jacques Necker. Through a meticulous demonstration of Staël's pursuit of passion and accomplishment against paternal prohibitions, against the repressive tides of society, and against the exile imposed by Bonaparte, Gutwirth restores Germaine de Staël as a symbol of resistance to woman's domestic role in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, Gutwirth's treatment of Staël's novels, in particular her passionate chapters on Corinne 's fury inherited from the Racinian Phedra or on Corinne's prophecies of women's ability to change the world, endow Staël's fiction with mythic dimensions unperceived by generations of critics. Gutwirth draws heavily on the comparative, inclusive methods embodied in Stael's life. Banished from Paris, Staël organized at her family estate in Coppet, Switzerland, a multinational circle of literary and political dissidents. Probing Staël's limitless connections, Gutwirth structures her own study as a dialogic interdisciplinary enterprise. A polyphony of voices from the long eighteenth-century participate in her reconsideration of the female genius, its genesis and development. As the door to Jacques and Suzanne Necker's Parisian salon opens, we see the precocious Anne-Louise Germaine surrounded by the best minds of the Enlightenment: Diderot, Voltaire, Condorcet, Grimm, Marmontel, Mme Geoffrin, Buffon, Hélvetius, the abbés Raynal, Thomas, and Galiani. The quest for the origins of the young prodigy's "singularities" leads Gutwirth to explore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 6-9
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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