- The Aunt Lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers, Volume One: 17th through 19th Centuries, and: The Aunt Lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers, Volume Two: The 20th Century
While readers will surely gain upper-body strength from toting the splendid two-volume Aunt Lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers, their size also makes an argument: “Look how much we have been missing!” Academics sometimes assume that the white, male American literature canon has been corrected; after all, haven’t we been reading and writing about alternative voices for decades now? But students still commonly emerge from even good high schools nearly untouched by American women writers beyond Harper Lee, a small dose of Emily Dickinson, and perhaps a novel by Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison. The students entering our college literature classrooms may know only the narrowest range of American women’s literary voices. Further, gender and women’s studies departmental survey courses, often still canon-heavy, hardly leave room for lesser-known texts to add more than a dash of diversity to the feast of American literature. How many new voices are enough? And, O weighty judgment: Which voices?
Who could envy the task before general editors Lisa Maria Hogeland, Mary Klages, and Shay Brawn, who, along with their coeditors, set out to offer a fresh perspective on the varied landscape of American literature? The prefaces of the two volumes—Volume One: 17th through 19th Centuries and Volume Two: The 20th Century—offer conversation-sparking reflections about “how fraught” the categories of “ ‘American’ and ‘Literature’ truly are” (Hogeland and Klages 2004, xxix). The editors explicitly build on feminist scholarship that works to “make these forgotten texts breathe again, knowing that their vitality will fundamentally alter the ways we think about American literature, American history, and the cultural constructions of identity, such as gender” (xxiii). With the cultural work of literature cast this way, they also remind us that the skeptical question beneath proposed revisions to the Grand Old Canon—“Is it any good?”—sidesteps what critic Jane Tompkins argues are more significant questions: “ ‘Good for whom?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Why?’ ” (1985, 2), and, I would add, [End Page 130] “According to whose opinion? In relation to what agenda?” The editors invite students to consider these big questions as they usefully lay bare their decision to select texts that “represent ways that women’s voices enter into public discourse” (xxiv), noting that they privilege “certain themes and topics that have been underrepresented” in other anthologies, such as sexualities, disabilities, and the rights of native peoples and people of color. For instructors, the texts have been selected “with an eye toward ways they might work together in provocative and teachable constellations” (xxviii), and the editors offer a range of topics and issues that would allow students to dwell in a specific historical moment or to make connections over centuries. In sum, this is a text for teachers, made transparently inviting for students.
Volume One differs from most American literature anthologies, in which readers’ fingers trail far down a table of contents of male writers before happening upon some Anne Bradstreet poems. The Aunt Lute collection includes generous selections by Bradstreet, but opens with “The Examination of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson at the Court at Newtown,” an explosive record of the 1637 heresy trial. This fiery text makes evident that Hutchinson’s gender is on trial as well as her theology (“not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex” ), and launches this volume with apocalyptic energy. The editors include excerpts from Salem trials and a thick slice of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, along with lesser-known texts such as “The Life of Mary Read” and “The Life of...