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WOMEN'S MASTERPIECES Josephine Donovan Did women have a Renaissance? —Joan Kelly The distinguished historian Joan Kelly opened her classic essay by charging that "one of the tasks of women's history is to call into question accepted schemes of periodization." For women, she concluded, "There was no renaissance . . . —at least, not during the Renaissance/'l Kelly's point was that women's and men's cultural histories are different. What may have been a period of growth and efflorescence for one may not have been so for the other. Similarly, ethnic and racial groups and classes have had differing histories. Although women may not have fully participated in the Renaissance in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, they have had renaissancesoftheir own. One such was the tradition of local-color realism that flowered from about 1830 to 1900 in the United States. Its main authors were Harriet Beecher Stowe (181196 ), Rose Terry Cooke (1827-92), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930). Their school produced a series of masterpiece works, which unfortunately continue to be marginalized by the gatekeepers of the American literary canon. Like many other works ofwomen's literature, they have become pawns in the so-called canon wars, because of which women's literary traditions continue to be misrepresented in leading cultural media. As recently as 1994, for example, William A. Henry 3d pronounced, "The unvarnished truth is this: you could eliminate every woman writer, painter and composer from the cave man era to the present moment and not significantly deform the course ofWestern culture."2 This benighted opinion, typical of contemporary conservative revanchism, betrays, among other things, an appalling ignorance of women's literature and art. Equally disturbing is the smug acquiescence of the New York Times s reviewer of Henrys book, Roger Kimball another conservative (author of Tenured Radicals), who observed, "It is painful to admit it, I know, but Henry is right. The only real question is what to do about it."3 Kimball concluded his review by evoking the barbarians-at-the-gates shib- WOMEN'S MASTERPIECES : 27 boleth, expressing the hope that true standards of excellence and intelligence will soon replace the corrupt "politically correct" impositions that have allegedly reigned in recent years, forcing us to read shoddy and inferior works by women (as well as by men who are deviant by reason of race, class, orsexuality). One is tempted to look the other way at such embarrassing, if pompous, assertions of ignorance, but these opinions were expressed in the ostensibly liberal New York Times and thus given a cachet of respectability. In this essay I will not extensively discuss the theoretical questions raised by Henrys comment about the historical process of canon formation, that is, the determination of what in fact is Western culture (and who determines it), but instead will respond to the challenge on its own terms. I will argue, in short, that by traditional standards of literary excellence women writershave produced masterpieces, which continue to be ignored, even though their existence has been heralded over and over by feminist critics. The "unvarnished truth" isthat works by women are still not being read, still not being seriously studied, and that is why self-appointed custodians of culture like Henry can still in 1994 proclaim that they do not exist. In fact, the women's nineteenth-century local-color movement constituted an important period in American literature, an American Renaissance, that hasyet to be fully valued. Remarking the "imaginative gain" the local colorists wrought from a culturally"impoverished" milieu, Lawrence Buell comments in his Environmental Imagination (1995): "We are only now beginning to appreciate how historically important this largely female-sponsored project was."4 Before proceeding, however, let me point out that historically,the determination of what constitute the canonical works of a culture has been done by a small politically powerful group—yes, an elite —in that culture. Never in history has a canon been chosen according to strictly "objective" criteria of aesthetic and intellectual excellence, if such criteria could indeed be determined. Rather, the terms by which canons have been selected have been, like all human decisions, historicallyand politicallycontingent.5 Often canons are selected according to thematic criteria; often these themes are chauvinistic, vaunting the virtues of a particular nation or group. A paradigmatic instance of canon formation remains the Council of Jamnia where in 90 C.E. a group of rabbis decided which of the ancient Hebraic writings were to be considered...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820343532
Related ISBN
9780820343532
MARC Record
OCLC
794306972
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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