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Biography 23.4 (2000) 767-771

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Silver, Brenda R. Virginia Woolf Icon. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. 353 pp. ISBN 0-226-75746-3, $19.00.

While reading Brenda Silver's new book, I happened to hear an N.P.R. interview with linguist Robin Lakoff, during which a listener called in to complain about the over-use of the word "icon." The caller insisted, somewhat incoherently, that referring to Hollywood celebrities as icons was a blasphemous corruption of the word's traditional association with sacred Christian images. Professor Lakoff noted that icon's primary meaning--an image or pictorial representation--makes it suitable for a broad range of applications, including its current usage as a name for the little objects we [End Page 767] click on our computer screens. Although moderator Ira Flatow quickly moved on to the next question, the caller's obvious discomfort with the proliferation of icons in contemporary culture, and indeed with the proliferation of the term itself, is a symptomatic response to the shift from religious to cultural icons. We still venerate icons, but they are no longer eternal, fixed images; our icons are multiple, and constantly changing. Some icons last a summer, while others persist, like Greek gods, and become archetypes: the rebel, the cowboy, the sex symbol. Because so many cultural icons are movie stars, pop singers, or super-models, it might seem odd to include a writer, particularly a "high" modernist writer, among this company. And yet this is precisely what Brenda R. Silver does in her compellingly readable book Virginia Woolf Icon. Like the word icon itself, Virginia Woolf is everywhere: her image or her name is invoked by movies and TV shows, shows up on posters and t-shirts, is referenced in advertisements and fashion. But the meaning of these appearances varies according to audience, context, and era: one of the great strengths of this book is the careful analysis Silver provides of the contingent material and historical circumstances surrounding different invocations of Virginia Woolf icon.

Woolf's process of iconization began, Silver argues, with her appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1937, after The Years became a best-seller in America. This image established Woolf as a celebrity, while its accompanying article presented Woolf as a "sensitive, cloistered, literary woman," the theme that was to predominate Woolf's early media appearances. Such an image, of course, was reinforced by her suicide in 1941. Silver shows how Woolf's posthumous image was always and already outside of the family's control, despite Leonard Woolf's carefully planned release of The Writer's Diary in 1953, and Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of his aunt. It was Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that made Woolf, as Silver says, "a household name." Although Albee found the title-phrase scrawled on a blackboard in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, indicating an early underground association of Woolf with homosexuality, the title's rich ambiguity associates Woolf with a range of social anxieties addressed by the play, its academic setting, and the combination of intellect and childlessness in the marriage of its central characters. Silver argues that the different versions of Virginia Woolf that proliferate thereafter reveal her position as a liminal entity, suggesting that Woolf occupies multiple and contradictory positions on the borders between "high culture and popular culture, art and politics, masculinity and femininity, head and body, intellect and sexuality, heterosexuality and homosexuality, word and picture, beauty and horror" (11). No wonder she's scary: Silver finds, in fact, that fear is precisely what unites otherwise different versions of Virginia Woolf. [End Page 768]

By the 1970s, between the burgeoning shelves of Bloomsbury memoirs and biographies on the one hand, and a growing feminist presence in the academy on the other, Woolf's image and name could be attached to a wide variety of concerns and ideological positions. Silver works with a post-modern paradigm of versioning in order to flesh out the significance of the proliferation of Virginia Woolfs. In the field of textual editing, versioning involves the...