Magazine | July 08, 2019, Issue

Great Writing by Women

Condoleezza Rice poses while promoting her book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, May 8, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Which is not the same category as women’s writing

Condoleezza Rice was approached by a professor of English and asked to recommend a book by a black woman, to round out the racially and sexually sensitive curriculum. Rice said, “How about my The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948–1983?”

The other woman was, of course, nonplussed, for (if an explanation is required) she did not want a book by a black woman, but a book by same about being a black woman: that Rice had other interests and excellences was moot; she was to be admired not as a writer, but as a prop.

We have long suffered through the mantra that “we need to have a dialogue about race,” in literature. Such (or a dialogue about “gender,” whatever that may be) must necessarily be written by a member of one and only one of the two groups in question.

Should that debar the writer from having opinions?

Are the opinions of one of the momentarily petted groups to be accepted only on the subject of their (supposed, arguable, or actual) oppression? Are women, for example, to be ignored (no matter how great their talent) for writing about something other than their “plight”? Does possession of a “plight” exempt authors from the traditional requirements of skill, clarity, novelty, or insight?

We have, if not a tradition, then certainly a history of excluding women writers from our literary pantheon. It’s all very well and charming to rant about “dead white males,” and it is environmentally praiseworthy, as their books are not, as of this writing, actually burned.

Literature is an approach, via fiction, to truth. Truth is useful not because it is beautiful or will prevail (it will not) but because it is true. It is both wicked and absurd to praise, as to dispraise, writing based upon genetics; this is, of course, barbarism.

A more moral and less savage approach would be to discover and enjoy the productions of great American writers, per se and irrespective of their subject or gender. 

Fashions in literature, of course, change. When I was young, Willa Cather was out of print, and generations of schoolchildren have had their interest in reading destroyed by The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.

But here is a list of women authors not “out of favor,” but, today, forgotten and unread. Their works should be cherished. Among the earliest American novels is Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson (1762–1824), a romance of the early colonial period. See also The Linwoods (1835), by Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Miss Sedgwick wrote here of the Revolutionary War and the battle between the colonials, based in Boston, and the royalists in New York. For anyone interested in Washington and that war, this is as close as you’re going to get and a smashing yarn.

She wrote at the same remove (50 to 60 years) as did Tolstoy from the Napoleonic wars, Margaret Mitchell from the Civil War, and, for that matter Mario Puzo from the Mafia turf wars. That is, they, and Sedgwick, wrote of the Grandparent Stories, which they had heard at the kitchen table and which had become part of family lore.

Imagine, in The Linwoods, one reads the impressions of people who actually knew Washington.

The great novel of the antebellum South is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mrs. Stowe wrote the hell out of it. It is an indictment of slavery, which, as Lincoln said, “started the Civil War”; it has been overlooked and, indeed, excoriated (by those who cannot have read it), as the phrase “Uncle Tom” has come to mean an appeaser. But his character is nothing of the kind; he is a Christian trying to live a godly life in the midst of human horror. (See also Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.)

Per contra, there is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, a compilation and reimagining of the Grandfather Tales. I find it unreadable, but there is certainly nothing in American law or culture to debar women, like men, from writing badly.

On the subject of race I will mention Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her beautiful Little House on the Prairie books, which, I understand, have recently been denounced by the American Library Association, or some other ship of fools, on the basis of racism; Miss Wilder, it seems, having used some of the language of the pioneer days in referring to Native Americans.

That association and its like will not, yet, have gotten around to banning the two authors below, their reserve, I am sure, borne not of sloth but of ignorance. And it may be that I, in these notes, am exposing these two superb authors to a notice that can only end in (may it be but momentary) anathema.

Perhaps when the transfer of human knowledge from print to electronics is complete, and when the Internet inevitably crashes and is commandeered by some central authority, perhaps, some cached remnant will remain, to be discovered by a future generation, which will find itself charmed by historic evidence of free expression.

These two women were pioneers, crossing the plains in covered wagons and living well into the 20th century. Mari Sandoz (1896–1966) grew up in a log cabin in Nebraska. See her reminiscences in Old Jules and her beautiful novels. I mention in particular Miss Morissa, Doctor of the Gold Trail.

Miss Sandoz was the state historian of Nebraska. Her pioneer sister, in New Mexico, was Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Her No Life for a Lady is a thrilling report of a cow-woman, rancher, genteel gun-toting rustler, and if that don’t get you running to Amazon I don’t know what all.

Further, on the subject of race, I recommend Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), a harrowing tale of Jewish immigrant women in New York’s Lower East Side ghettos. And recently reprinted by Penguin are two classics on race worthy to sit beside Native Son: See Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928), by Chicago’s Nella Larsen.

The greatest war correspondent of the 20th century was Martha Gellhorn.

Collier’s sent her, just out of Vassar, to Spain, after which she covered the fall of Czechoslovakia, all of World War II, and Vietnam. She is the only woman to have landed on D-Day. She dressed as a man, bribed her way onto a hospital ship, and landed among the first waves, working as a stretcher-bearer. She was at the liberation of Dachau.

No one wrote better than Martha Gellhorn.

Here is a list of her books that would take you through a winter you’d hold in memory. War correspondence: The Face of War; short stories: The Trouble I’ve Seen, The Heart of Another, The Honeyed Peace; novels: A Stricken Field, The Wine of Astonishment. This brings us well into the 20th century, which gave us the (currently) acknowledged masterpieces of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and the southern fiction not only of Kate Chopin and Ellen Glasgow but of Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor. 

I also mention Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), next to whose work Salinger’s stuff reads like a greeting card; the heart-wrenching tragicomic novels of Dawn Powell (1896–1965) and of Renata Adler (b. 1937), and, of course, the superb novels of Joyce Carol Oates, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, etc. See also Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, both stunning reports from lesbian life, and the wicked wisdom of Fran Lebowitz. Here are three outliers: the hit Broadway plays The Drag, Pleasure Man, Diamond Lil, and Sex, by Mae West; the whodunit by her literary sister Gypsy Rose Lee, The G-String Murders; and the magnificent monologues of Ruth Draper (1884–1956), among the best dramatic writing of the American Century.

I had the privilege of growing up in the open stacks of fiction, in the Chicago Public Library. I was free to browse, to take down now this and now that, to read a bit, and, if the novel did not please, to replace it and try again. The books there were classified not by characteristics of the author, but by subject.

This is the enchanting freedom of the used-book store, where one can browse unhampered by the idiot hucksterism of publishers, politicals, or academics.

Please God, may it continue.

This article appears as “Women Writing” in the July 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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