American Women Writing Fiction

American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space

Mickey Pearlman Editor
Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    American Women Writing Fiction
    Book Description:

    American literature is no longer the refuge of the solitary hero. Like the society it mirrors, it is now a far richer, many-faceted explication of a complicated and diverse society -- racially, culturally, and ethnically interwoven and at the same time fractured and fractious.

    Ten women writing fiction in America today -- Toni Cade Bambara, Joan Didion, Louise Erdrich, Gail Godwin, Mary Gordon, Alison Lurie, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, and Mary Lee Settle -- represent that geographic, ethnic, and racial diversity that is distinctively American. Their differing perspectives on literature and the American experience have produced Erdrich's stolid North Dakota plainswomen; Didion's sun-baked dreamers and screamers; the urban ethnics -- Irish, Jewish, and black -- of Gordon, Schaeffer, and Bambara; Oates's small-town, often violent, neurotics; Lurie's intellectual sophisticates; and the southern survivors and victims, male and female, of Phillips, Settle, and Godwin.

    The ten original essays in this collection focus on the traditional themes of identity, memory, family, and enclosure that pervade the fiction of these writers. The fictional women who emerge here, as these critics show, are often caught in the interwoven strands of memory, perceive literal and emotional space as entrapping, find identity elusive and frustrating, and experience the interweaving of silence, solitude, and family in complex patterns.

    Each essay in this collection is followed by bibliographies of works by and about the writer in question that will be invaluable resources for scholars and general readers alike. Here is a readable critical discussion of ten important contemporary novelists who have broadened the pages of American literature to reflect more clearly the people we are.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5782-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)
    Mickey Pearlman

    It is a commonplace in criticism to define American literature, in short story or novel form, as the chronicle of the solitary hero, of man alone, man against society, man as individual, endlessly testing his strength and durability against his own resources on a mythic, adventurous journey to epiphany and knowledge.

    American literature, we are taught, is about space, open space, and the ways in which hearty or hesitant, defiant or defensive, American heroes experience both its potential and its limitations. American heroes live beyond society, and they are both freed by, and victimized by, the lack of entrenched behavior...

    • The Enclosure of Identity in the Earlier Stories
      (pp. 9-28)
      Frank R. Cunningham

      Joyce Carol Oates was in her late teenage years in upper New York State in the mid-fifties when John Cheever sensed the onset of the postwar dissolution of value and coherence since noted by so many men and women writing in America. Perhaps it was this sense of almost overwhelming social and international forces that seemed to minimize our human stature, to displace and diminish us in relation to the vast organizational structures brought about by the war effort and the postwar institutionalization of the corporate way of living, that contributed to Oates’s fascination over nearly the last three decades...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by JOYCE CAROL OATES
      (pp. 28-35)
      Anne Hiemstra
    • A Bibliography of Writings about JOYCE CAROL OATES
      (pp. 35-45)
      Anne Hiemstra
    • The Struggle with Love
      (pp. 47-60)
      John W. Mahon

      Mary Gordon’s third novel,Men and Angels(1985), introduces, for the first time in her fiction, a family in the ordinary sense of the word. Also for the first time, she eschews the Irish Catholic subculture that permeates her earlier novels,Final Payments(1978) andThe Company of Women(1980). Despite this change in focus, Gordon seeks in all her work to explore how people love, or fail to love, each other in a world where belief in God is either a memory or an inconceivability. While the conventional family unit occupies the center of Men and Angels, Gordon’s real...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by MARY GORDON
      (pp. 60-63)
      John W. Mahon
    • A Bibliography of Writings about MARY GORDON
      (pp. 63-67)
      John W. Mahon
    • The Bond between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy
      (pp. 69-86)
      Katherine Usher Henderson

      When Susan Stamberg told Joan Didion in a 1977 radio interview that she would never win the Nobel Prize for literature because her novels were too pessimistic, Didion readily agreed.

      I think that’s probably true. . . . One of the books that made the strongest impression on me when I was in college wasThe Portrait of a Lady.Henry James’s heroine, Isabel Archer was the prototypic romantic idealist It trapped her, and she ended up a prisoner of her own ideal. I think a lot of us do. My adult life has been a succession of expectations, misperceptions....

    • A Bibliography of Writings by JOAN DIDION
      (pp. 86-89)
      Katherine Usher Henderson
    • A Bibliography of Writings about JOAN DIDION
      (pp. 89-93)
      Katherine Usher Henderson
    • Of Cars, Time, and the River
      (pp. 95-108)
      Marvin Magalaner

      Love Medicinemarks a new approach to the treatment of the American Indian in fiction. Louise Erdrich’s Chippewa families on a twentieth-century reservation in the West bear no resemblance to the solemn “braves and squaws” of cowboy and Indian days. There’s not a horse in the novel, not a peace pipe, and only a brief reference to nonfunctioning tribal gods. Where there is religion, it is Catholic; where there is hunting, it is by white police seeking Indian escapees from prison; where there is violence, it is from Indian family squabbles, husbands against battered wives, fathers caught in child abuse,...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by LOUISE ERDRICH
      (pp. 108-110)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • A Bibliography of Writings about LOUISE ERDRICH
      (pp. 110-113)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • The Uses of Adultery
      (pp. 115-128)
      Katharine M. Rogers

      By entitling her first novelLove and Friendship,Alison Lurie invited comparison with an author whom she resembles in her area of interest, in her disenchanted view of human nature, in her coolly ironic puncturing of pretension. Like Jane Austen, Lurie characteristically focuses on the development of a woman’s identity, through increasing self-knowledge and decisionmaking, and portrays this through her character’s relationships with men. But while Austen shows her heroines maturing as they move toward their proper choice in marriage, Lurie shows them maturing afterward, as they try other life choices, typically represented by an adulterous affair. Thus, she can...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by ALISON LURIE
      (pp. 128-130)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • A Bibliography of Writings about ALISON LURIE
      (pp. 130-135)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • The Power of Memory, Family, and Space
      (pp. 137-147)
      Mickey Pearlman

      Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is known for a certain kind of long, elaborate, complicated novel—what used to be called a saga—where reading “is rather like falling into a time warp . . . experiencing events through total immersion in the mind of the protagonist.”¹ She writes of gentile families in nineteenth-century New England inTime in Its Flight,where “she livens [things] up with epidemics, marriages, a suicide by hanging, insanity, a murder trial, philosophy via daguerreotypes, reports of the American Civil War and twenty or thirty deaths.”² She writes of Jewish families in Brooklyn inLove,her fourth...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by SUSAN FROMBERG SCHAEFFER
      (pp. 147-149)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • A Bibliography of Writings about SUSAN FROMBERG SCHAEFFER
      (pp. 150-153)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • The Dance of Character and Community
      (pp. 155-166)
      Martha M. Vertreace

      The question of identity—of personal definition within the context of community—emerges as a central motif for Toni Cade Bambara’s writing. Her female characters become as strong as they do, not because of some inherent “eternal feminine” quality granted at conception, but rather because of the lessons women learn from communal interaction. Identity is achieved, not bestowed. Bambara’s short stories focus on such learning. Very careful to present situations in a highly orchestrated manner, Bambara describes the difficulties that her characters must overcome.

      Contemporary literature teems with male characters in coming-of-age stories or even female characters coming of age...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by TONI CADE BAMBARA
      (pp. 166-168)
      Martha M. Vertreace
    • A Bibliography of Writings about TONI CADE BAMBARA
      (pp. 168-171)
      Martha M. Vertreace
    • The Odd Woman and Literary Feminism
      (pp. 173-184)
      Rachel M. Brownstein

      At the age of four or five, Jane Clifford, the protagonist of Gail Godwin’sThe Odd Woman,was already concerned with the representation of women in fiction. She asked her mother, Kitty, a college teacher who wrote love stories on weekends:

      “Why don’t you write a story about a woman who teaches school at the college and writes love stories on the weekend and has a little girl like me?”

      “It wouldn’t sell, that’s why.”replied Kitty.

      “Oh, I think it would be very interesting to read,” said Jane.

      “It would be interesting to people like you and me,” Kitty said,...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by GAIL GODWIN
      (pp. 184-187)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • A Bibliography of Writings about GAIL GODWIN
      (pp. 187-191)
      Mickey Pearlman
    • Women’s Narrative and the Recreation of History
      (pp. 193-206)
      Phyllis Lassner

      At the conclusion of “Rayme,” a story in Jayne Anne Phillips’s new collection calledFast Lanes,the narrator recalls her experiences with a group of drifting students in the early seventies. She names specific addresses and dates, as well as the objects her friends use, destroy, or just throw away—their drugs, their food, their ramshackle furniture. Yet what fixes their identities and stories in the reader’s mind are not these details but our experience of following the narrator as she transforms her memory of these characters’ chaotic lives into a pattern of continuity and connection. In her narrative each...

    • A Bibliography of Writings by JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
      (pp. 206-207)
      Phyllis Lassner
    • A Bibliography of Writings about JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
      (pp. 207-211)
      Phyllis Lassner
    • “Ambiguity of Steel”
      (pp. 213-225)
      Jane Gentry Vance

      Mary Lee Settle’s claim to be a major contemporary novelist rests onThe Beulah Quintet (Prisons,1973;O Beulah Land,1956;Know Nothing,1960;The Scapegoat,1980; andThe Killing Ground,1982), the epic story of Beulah Valley in West Virginia. Subtract that work from her ten novels and those remaining (The Love Eaters,1954;The Kiss of Kin,1955;The Clam Shell,1971;Blood Tie,1977; andCelebration,1986) are narratively accomplished, thematically wise, but still not remarkably cohesive or substantial as a body of work. In the quintet the destinies of several pioneer families of divergent backgrounds (indentured...

    • A Selected Bibliography of Writings by MARY LEE SETTLE
      (pp. 225-226)
      Jane Gentry Vance and Mickey Pearlman
    • A Selected Bibliography of Writings about MARY LEE SETTLE
      (pp. 227-230)
      Jane Gentry Vance and Mickey Pearlman
  14. Notes on the Writers
    (pp. 231-234)
  15. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 235-238)