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  • Rewriting Literary History:An Interview with Elaine Showalter
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

In her introduction to The Vintage Book of American Women Writers (Vintage, 2011), Elaine Showalter writes, "The main reason women do not figure in American literary history is because they have not been the ones to write it." She has spent much of her career remedying that, from her first monograph, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton UP, 1977; rev. ed. 1998), which recast the field of British literature, to her survey, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf, 2009), which is the first comprehensive history of its kind. As she remarks at the conclusion of Jury of Her Peers, "we need literary history, critical judgments, even a literary canon, as a necessary step toward doing the fullest justice to women's writing."

Showalter's first book was an anthology, Women's Liberation and Literature (Harcourt, 1971), and an important dimension of her work has been editing anthologies and collections of women writers, such as These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties (Feminist P, 1978). In the 1980s, she turned to writing a cultural history of the psychiatric treatment of women, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (Pantheon, 1985), and to creating feminist theory, in her landmark collection The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (Pantheon, 1985) and the subsequent Speaking of Gender (Routledge, 1989). Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, she capped off work on British literary history with Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Viking, 1990) and the anthology Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (Rutgers UP, 1993).

Through the 1990s, Showalter gradually shifted to a focus on American literature, in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (Oxford UP, 1991) and in the edited volumes, Alternative Alcott (Rutgers UP, 1988) and Scribbling Women: Short Stories by 19th-Century American Women [End Page 355] (Rutgers UP, 1996). She also continued her work on the cultural history of medicine with Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (Columbia UP, 1997). In the 2000s, she culminated her work on literary history with Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (Scribner, 2001), as well as A Jury of Her Peers and The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. In addition, she reflected on forty years of teaching with Teaching Literature (Blackwell, 2003), and an interest in campus fiction with Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (U of Pennsylvania P, 2005).

Showalter's career was not guaranteed. When she started out, as she recalls in the introduction to a new edition of A Literature of Their Own, there were few jobs for women, but that freed her to work on what she was really interested in—women writers. And she began, she reports, as a "faculty wife." But that soon changed. Born in Boston in 1941, Showalter attended Bryn Mawr College (BA, 1962) and Brandeis University (MA, 1964), but, after marrying English Showalter, a French scholar, she moved to the University of California, Davis, where he had gotten a job. She worked on her PhD there, moving back east when he got a job at Princeton. In 1970, she finished her PhD and was promoted from adjunct to assistant professor at Douglass College, which at the time was the women's college of Rutgers University. In 1981, when it merged into the university, she became a professor of English at Rutgers. In 1984, she moved to Princeton, where she taught as the Avalon Professor of the Humanities until her retirement in 2003. She currently researches and writes in London and in Washington, DC.

This interview took place on 25 August 2011 in Elaine Showalter's apartment in Washington, DC. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Merrill Miller and Jacquie Harris, MA students in the Literary and Cultural Studies program there.

Jeffrey J. Williams:

A Literature of Their Own is a signal book of feminist criticism...