Literary Landmarks: A History of American Women Writers

Author Elaine Showalter discusses the lasting influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe and why Gertrude Stein is overrated

Gertrude Stein is an American writer who made her home in Paris, France. Her first book was published in 1909 but her autobiography, titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was the only one to reach a wide audience. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)

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You write about early American writers turning to Europe for inspiration. George Sand, Maria Edgeworth, and of course George Eliot all seemed particularly influential in the nineteenth century. Did European writers ever turn to American writers for inspiration?

Harriet Beecher Stowe is at the top of the list. You have Stowe, and then you have a huge gap before you get to anybody else [who influenced European audiences]. It wouldn’t be until the end of the century, when you have a lot of Americans going over to Europe. Stowe was read all over the world. She was reviewed by Tolstoy. She was reviewed by George Sand. You really cannot find an American writer whose influence was more profound. And of course Stowe had this correspondence with George Eliot that I think is very delightful. She’s always writing to George Eliot, “my darling” and “my dear”—nobody talks to George Eliot like that. I just love it. Stowe is one of the women I wish I could have known.

I was struck by the extent to which American women writers—from Louisa May Alcott to Sylvia Plath—recurrently referred to The Tempest. Why?

The Tempest was the Shakespearean play that spoke to them most directly. If you say to people, “which play do you think influenced women writers?” I think people would probably say Romeo and Juliet, or something like that. But no, it was The Tempest. As far as I know, each woman writer who used it found it for herself. Because there was no literary history, there was not really any way for women writers to know what other women writers had done. They were drawn to The Tempest first of all because it is a myth of a new world, and it is a myth of starting over again in a new place. They powerfully identified with the figure of Miranda…. Miranda is a woman who grows up in a totally male world. She is a woman who is educated by her father, is tremendously intelligent, never sees another woman, and has to define what it means to be a woman for herself.

You write that Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening was the first novel by an American woman that was completely successful in aesthetic terms” What did you mean by this?

Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but I don’t know that people would say that it’s completely aesthetically successful. There are a lot of parts of Moby Dick that people skip if they read it now. I happen to love Moby Dick, but we Moby Dick fanatics are the ones that read everything about whaling. The Awakening is a real work of art, completely satisfying—in that sense more like a European novel of the time… So I wanted to put that [statement] in. You can’t fault The Awakening on any grounds whatsoever. I think [Harriet Beecher] Stowe is still the most underestimated American novelist. But I would have to say that there are things you can criticize in terms of structure.

Read Elaine Showalter's list of Top 10 Books by American Woman Authors That You Haven’t Read (But Should).

About Chloe Schama
Chloe Schama

Chloe Schama is deputy editor of the New Republic and writes regularly about books for Smithsonian magazine. She recently published Wild Romance, a critically acclaimed nonfiction account of a Victorian-era marriage scandal.

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