When Elaine Showalter's study of English women writers, A Literature of Their Own, appeared in 1977, Patricia M. Spacks hailed it in The New York Times Book Review as "provocative....thoughtfully argued," and certain to "generate fresh social and literary understanding." Now Showalter--who also edited the influential New Feminist Criticism (for which the New York Times Book Review found "cause to celebrate")--turns her critical insight to a wide range of American women authors in order to explore the diversity of our culture and question the concept of a single national literature or identity.
After a lucid discussion of recent African-American, feminist, and post-colonial scholarship, Showalter provides provocative readings of classic and lesser-known women's writings. The focal points of this study are the delightful chapters on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Not only are Showalter's interpretations full of wit and subtlety--as when she compares Chopin's novel to a piece of music by the composer Chopin--but her imaginative invocation of these popular works makes us curious to rediscover them. The range of Sister's Choice is spectacular--from Alice Walker's The Color Purple (Celie's quilt provides Showalter's title--an allusion to the multiple destinies of American women) to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (which is compared to the popular Log Cabin pattern quilt of the 19th century). Along the way we find chapters on rewritings of Shakespeare's Tempest by American women, on the Female Gothic (from Anne Radcliffe to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Joyce Carol Oates), on Harlem Renaissance writers such as Nella Larsen and Zora Neal Hurston (who died in a welfare home, only to have her work rediscovered decades later), even on the history of the patchwork quilt in literature and in women's lives, which ends with a moving description of the Names Project, the quilt which memorializes people who have died of AIDS.
The broad scope of Sister's Choice (which is based on the prestigious Clarendon lectures from 1989) testifies to the multiplicity of cultures which make up the United States. In her approach to literary works, Elaine Showalter helps to envision a new map of America--one which charts the struggles, suffering, and enduring creativity of women's writing.