Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 213-214
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Why Zona Gale—a Pulitzer-prize winning writer whose novels were both a critical and popular success, a woman of immense popularity and social influence who was, at one time, known as "the most ambitious girl in New York" (66)—has fallen so far out of the realm of feminist literary studies and the United States canon of literature produced between 1910 and 1940 is the complex and fascinating subject of Deborah Lindsay Williams's book, Not in Sisterhood. Rather than a focused monograph on Gale's literary productions and life, however, Williams adopts an ambitious tripartite scheme of analysis, positioning Gale in relationship to two women writers whose place in the American canon seems now well assured, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. The primary subject of this book is why Cather and Wharton remained in the canon while Gale vanished into obscurity, despite their many similarities (all were successful businesswomen who cannily marketed their own fictions, recipients of prestigious literary awards, and popular successes). Williams's argument, spanning correspondence between and among these three writers, and including deft interpretations of their fictional productions as well as trenchant analyses of gender politics in both contemporary reviews and in the tenets of literary modernism and critical discourse, ultimately concludes that Gale's embrace (and Wharton's and Cather's explicit rejection) of "literary sisterhood" accounts for the disparity in their literary reputations. Gale sought professional affiliation with other women writers and Williams contends that she has therefore been pushed aside by a paradigm that favors individual exceptionalism as a marker of artistic prowess. Her book is an implicit argument about why Gale ought to be resurrected in feminist literary scholarship and it is made convincingly and with conviction.
Williams begins by analyzing the correspondence between Gale and both Wharton and Cather. In many ways, this is the weakest section of her book. Her analyses of letters often feels repetitive, and one senses that Cather and Wharton are being positioned, none too subtly, as foils for Gale's more all-embracing vision of a feminist community. Throughout her letters Gale makes various attempts to include Wharton and Cather within a circle of female artistic affiliation, but her two fellow novelists resist, albeit politely, the "female literary family" Gale seeks to create (42). Williams clearly prefers Gale's vision to that of Wharton and Cather, and at times her tone borders on the didactic.
Yet subsequent chapters are truly impressive. Williams offers subtle and insightful readings of Gale's early novels, and it becomes clear in her rich analyses of books such as Friendship Village (1908) and Mothers to Men (1911) that Gale's feminist, Progressive, and anti-racist politics are intriguingly woven into fictions which have been undeservedly forgotten. Equally fascinating is the discussion of Gale's friendship with Jessie Redmon Fauset (Gale provided the introduction to Fauset's 1931 novel, The Chinaberry Tree ) and her commitment to racial equality through her professional respect for and friendships with other noted Harlem Renaissance writers.
Williams really shines, though, when she turns her attention to textual analysis of Wharton's The House of Mirth, Cather's My Ántonia, and Gale's Miss Lulu Bett. Her readings of Wharton's and Cather's often discussed novels are original and provocative. In The House of Mirth, for instance, she turns her interpretive lens on a rather minor character in that novel, Carry Fisher, and argues convincingly that Carry's self-sufficiency, her ability to read people and situations accurately, and her success at staging social performances, [End Page 213] "underscores Carry's importance as a viable alternative to Lily's fate" (94). Similarly, her analysis of Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball in My Ántonia, reveals how these two peripheral characters suggest "possibilities for women beyond the backbreaking labors of prairie farming or passionless urban marriages" (101...