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Reviewed by:
  • Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper."
  • Miles F. Shore
Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper." By Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010) 251 pp. $24.95

Using journals, letters, published works, and personal reading lists, Horowitz aims to understand the experiences, mind-set, and emotional life that served as the background for Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Horowitz's study includes the context within which Gilman lived—the standards of care for mental disorders, popular science, attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and the legal context of women's rights. The result is a rich depiction of the interplay among innate talent, family dynamics, biological predisposition, life events, and the demands of culture. The book gives welcome depth and complexity to a life that has often been shrunk to a simple account of the travails of a feminist icon whose "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been unfairly tagged as her primary accomplishment.

Wild Unrest documents Gilman's tumultuous life, which was marked by recurrent depressions and feverish activity in the pursuit of a fame that was at first more aspiration than accomplishment. Although related to the famous Beecher family, Gilman had few immediate models to guide her. Her father, eventually a well-known library director [End Page 481] and short-story writer, abandoned his family when she was a little girl, sentencing them to a hard life of poverty and dependence on the kindness of others. The marriage of a girl friend that she adored left her longing for that lost relationship, only partially replaced by her marriage to her first husband, Walter Stetson—a marginally successful artist who gave lip service to her ambitions but demanded that she be a traditional wife.

That she felt increasingly stifled by Stetson's demands triggered incapacitating depression and desperate attempts to succeed as a writer. Feelings of powerlessness were intensified by the birth of Katherine, her only child. Her literary talent slowly crystallized around gender inequality, offering her a framework to understand her chronic distress, providing a few professional relationships, and the first hints of the status that she craved. But still suffering and fearing madness, she sought treatment from Dr. S. Weir Mitchell whose publicized success treating female hysteria made him an authority. Although the treatment lasted only a month, it ultimately made both her and him famous because of the eventual success of "The Yellow Wallpaper."

After a period of solitary, but intensely productive, writing and lecturing that finally brought the fame as a public intellectual that she had always sought, she entered into a successful second marriage, with George Houghton Gilman, her first cousin, a man whose kindness and admiration for her talents supported her ambitions and moderated her depressions. He could tolerate her depressive periods and was a good provider. Her lifelong demand for independence and autonomy had a last chapter. Diagnosed with cancer in 1932, after her husband had unexpectedly died, she moved to California with her daughter and in 1935, at the age of seventy-five, took her own life with an overdose of chloroform.

Wild Unrest portrays convincingly the emotional turmoil and the relentless energy that characterized Gilman's life through a judicious mining of the voluminous record left by her, her first husband, and their contemporaries—some of it offering separate accounts of the same events. The approach creates a de-politicized version of a life that inevitably has been viewed through an ideological lens. Her story illustrates with great fidelity the modern psychiatric understanding that both biological predisposition and toxic life experiences are necessary to produce the immensely painful clinical state of depression. Gilman was recurrently depressed, likely with a biological predisposition. Her family life inclined her to mistrust intimacy and emotional commitment, thus triggering her depressions, and her demand for independence and autonomy, which followed from these multiple factors, as well as her awareness of her talents, clearly influenced the content of her intellectual life. Yet her accomplishments are in no way diminished by acknowledgment of her personal situation. She was fortunate that the energy and the talent that projected her ideas...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 481-483
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-29
Open Access
No
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