The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 461-465
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A Response to Mary Poovey's "Recovering Ellen Pickering"
We want Bread and Roses Too!
--Banner carried by an IWW woman on strike, Lawrence, Mass., 1912
What is it, in the most basic terms, that we literary critics--or shall we call ourselves literary historians?--set out to do? What is the nature of the overall investigation, or investigations, to which our individual scholarly efforts seek to contribute? Mary Poovey's piece, in questioning the bases for the familiar feminist literary-critical project of the "recovery" of women's writing, makes me meditate on these impossibly large, and yet fundamental questions. The choice in terms of self-description over which my opening sentence stumbled is illustrative. We recognize ourselves as a group organized around (employed by, teaching and studying in) departments of Comparative Literature, English Language and Literature, and other national languages and literatures, but we have a choice of nouns with which to identify our intellectual vocation, with "literary theorist" providing a third option. What holds the three together is that adjective, "literary," that inflects them all. The notion of "literature" invoked in the names of many of our departmental affiliations has become increasingly vexed, as important recent work has demystified and historicized its essentializing premises; it is a decidedly dated commonplace that Poovey voices, whether ironically or nostalgically, at the end of her piece when she inquires, "If literary criticism is the servant of literature, then doesn't literature have to be worthy of our reverent attention?" (451). Reverence no longer seems the assumed order of the day. And yet we can't easily, or inconsequentially, let "the literary" go--whether it is to obtain as an attribute of a narrowly bounded or an openly defined group of texts, or perhaps, more implicitly, as an attribute of ourselves. For many, the essential aims of our scholarly investigations are historical in one or another way, as we work on literary histories of particular genres, or trace the history of the institution of literature itself, or develop "historicizing" critical readings of texts. If we might therefore be categorized as a sub-group of historians, we are nonetheless especially literary [End Page 461] historians, with literary sensibilities and skills as well as literary objects of study; we are, in the colloquial sense, "literary types." 1
In fact, those laboring in the field of literary study are now engaged in a great variety of kinds of investigations, with essentially different aims (some of them more ambitiously theoretical than any I will address here). I offer this obvious observation because Poovey's question about the value of "recovering Ellen Pickering" would be answered quite differently when framed within one or another basic kind of scholarly endeavor. In the terms of one old-fashioned kind of literary history, the value of examining and describing Pickering's novels would be straightforward, though modest; her work is part of the history of English imaginative writing and therefore usefully mapped, even if properly placed at a distance from the central line of English literary history. (Myra Reynolds performed her ground-breaking scholarly work on women writers early in the twentieth century in roughly this spirit.) One version of this kind of historical work has demonstrated that it can transcend the boundaries--and the doubts--inherent in the use of the term "literature"; Paula McDowell, for instance, recently described her own subject of study as the history of "writing practices" rather than of "literature." 2 It is in subjecting Pickering's Nan Darrell to the literary-critical enterprise of interpretation that Poovey comes to question its worthiness for "recovery." Although she rejects her audience's "disgruntled" assertions that she has "dismiss[ed] Ellen Pickering's novel on the basis of its quality or value" (451), Poovey has in fact rapidly catalogued Pickering's novels' failures in literary terms--their writing style is "inflated," their plots "both torturously complicated and conventional"--when first responding to the question of whether her works "should be canonized" (448...