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"I Can Dare to Generalize": Celebrating "Literary Women"

Author(s): Sharon O'Brien

Source: Signs, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Spring, 1999), pp. 757-761
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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S haron O' Br i en

"I Can Dare to Generalize": Celebrating Literary Women

llen Moers's Literary Women (1976) is a classic feminist critical work

of the 1970s that, like Kate Millett's SexualPolitics(1970), inspired and
guided a generation of feminist scholars in asking the simple and then
profoundly unasked question, How does the fact of gender shape a woman
writer's literary imagination? I look back on my own work in the 1970s
and 1980s, when I was asking that question about Willa Cather, and I see
the generating texts that gave me new questions to bring to her life and
work. The first of these was LiteraryWomen,published in 1976; after that
came Nancy Chodorow's ReproductionofMothering (1978) and SandraM.
Gilbert and Susan Gubar'sMadwomanin theAttic: The WomanWriterand
the Nineteenth-CenturyLiteraryImagination (1979). But that originating
status of LiteraryWomen- boldly lacking a subtitle, laying claim to great
and unmarked territory--still strikes me as remarkable.Moers's book is
one of the few that truly deserve the overused accoladegroundbreaking.
Moers's study of women writers evolved from work she began as early
as 1963. In that year I was entering Radcliffe, about to major in English.
During my four years at Harvard, while Ellen Moers was plunging into
her study of the female literaryimagination, I never saw a woman profes-
sor, read a woman writer in an American literaturecourse other than Emily
Dickinson and Anne Bradstreet,or thought that an abstractconcept called
"gender" had anything to do with my life or my education. In these early
years, even before the women's movement emerged publicly in the late
1960s, Ellen Moers was asking the kinds of questions about gender and
creativity that we are still exploring today. She made the radical and risky
decision to consider women writers as a separatecategory - a decision, she
admits, that once she would have found "insulting" but that she came to
find necessary (1976, xiii). This was the only way she could explore the
patterns that connected writers across time and cultures and isolate the
variableof gender. Placing women writers in conversation with each other
allowed Moers to open several directions of inquiry that would influence
later critics: she could see what patterns connected women's plots, meta-
phors, and imaginations; she could explore the significance of women's

[Signs:JournalofWomenin Cultureand Society1999, vol. 24, no. 3]

? 1999 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/99/2403-0009$02.00
758 1 O'Brien

literary inheritance and illuminate the intersection of tradition and the

individual female talent; she could create groups of writers like Colette,
Cather, Woolf, and Dinesen and then observe the creative sparksset off by
what we now call "intertextuality."
Like all synthesizers, Moers strove to weave patterns from the threads
of particulartexts and lives. In discussing the bird metaphors women writ-
ers use to represent confinement and freedom, she writes "The more femi-
nist the literary conception (if I can dare to generalize), the larger,wilder,
and crueler come the birds" (246). If her book were to have a subtitle,
perhaps it should be "I can dare to generalize."As I reread it I love the
confidence with which she ascends from the specific to the level of abstrac-
tion we rather inelegantly call "meta" I love the risks she takes on this
flight, the lack of the measured and perhaps defensive caution I learned
in graduate school, when the adjective "nuanced"was one of the highest
accolades you could gain from a professor (a delicate word meaning, I
think, that you qualified your generalizations and didn't come across as
too feminist).
Well, there's a time to qualify, but what I learn from Ellen Moers as I
rereadLiteraryWomenis that there's also a time to fly, a time to really let
it rip, a time to hang a generalization out there like a banner and watch it
ripple and snap in the wind.
If there is one ruthless activity that seeks to dominate and shape
life itself, it is writing. (xvi)

Literature is the only intellectual field to which women, over a

long stretch of time, have made an indispensable contribution. One
cannot talk rationally of the English novel, or of French Romanti-
cism, or of the American short story and modern poetry, without
discussing women writers. (xi)
Each of the four [Stein, Cather,Colette, Woolf] did something to
the prose of her native tongue from which it has not yet recovered.

Memory itself is an act of possession in Willa Cather'swork. (238)

In our own time there has been no clear index to the revival of a
specificallyfemale impetus to literature than the return to women's
writing of a crucial scene, the maternal deathbed. (239)
If there is anything the recent wide availabilityof printed pornog-
raphyhas taught us, it is the meagerness in layman'sEnglish of sexual
terms. (256)
S IG N S Spring 1999 I 759

Sometimes critics who generalize like this make me uneasy when they deal,
in any detail, with writers I know well. I look admiringly up at the canopy
of their overarching theories but balk when they turn to the specifics, too
aware of the evidence they leave out, the details from the life and work
that don't prove their points. Then I begin to wonder whether the theoreti-
cal canopy is resting on unstable supports, about to spin off in a high wind.
Reading Ellen Moers on Willa Gather,I do not feel this disquiet. Usu-
ally she's right on target, as when she says, of Gather'stransformativetrip
to the Southwest in 1912, "from it we date her serious beginnings as a nov-
elist" (259). Or when she gives us her brilliantdescription of Cather'sland-
scapes, suggesting--long before we were talking about camouflage, sub-
texts, displacement--how much "unguarded sexuality" Cather projected
into the topography of canyon, mesa, desert, plateau (258). How many of
us could read The Song of the Lark again without being influenced by
Moers's reading of the Panther Canyon sequences, which she gives us sim-
ply by making the remarkabout sexuality and then quoting Gatherwithout
comment: "One of those abrupt fissureswith which the earth in the South-
west is riddled. ... It was accessible only at its head. The canyon walls, for
the first two hundred feet below the surface, were perpendicular cliffs,
striped with even-running strataof rock. From there on to the bottom the
sides were less abrupt, were shelving, and lightly fringed with pinons and
dwarf cedars. The effect was that of a gentler canyon within a wilder one.
The dead city lay at the point where the perpendicular outer wall ceased
and the V-shaped inner gorge began" (258).
In reading Moers on Gather,I sometimes confront generalizations that
make me uneasy, times when the theoretical canopy begins to slip from its
moorings. "All the fiction from Willa Gather'sgreatest period centers on
the death of a mother-figure" she writes (239). All the fiction?MyMortal
Enemy, yes, A LostLady, yes, but what about The ProfessorsHouse?Death
ComesfortheArchbishop? These are not novels featuring prominent mother
figures. But then I start to think metaphorically,because I know Moers is
worth listening to, and wonder if she's thinking of the sewing dummies
we meet at the beginning of TheProfessor's House, the "forms"to which the
professor is inordinately attached. Are these representations of the child's
thwarted desire for the mother who would never abandon her? One form
seems "ample and billowy (as if you might lay your head upon its deep-
breathing softness and rest safe forever)," yet "if you touched it you
suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it
before. It presented the most unsympathetic surface imaginable ... very
disappointing to the tactile sense, yet always fooling you again" (Cather
1990, 107). Could there be any better description of our desire for the
760 1 O'Brien

unattainable mother that gets channeled into the form of relationships,

into a pattern (even the terminology of sewing and yearning intermingle)
that we keep seeking and finding, even as it fails to satisfy, even because it
fails to satisfy?
When I turn to Death ComesfortheArchbishop,though, I have to disagree
with Moers. She might point me toward the Virgin Mary and the womb-
like cave where the archbishop finds troublesome refuge, but I think it is
distorting the novel to fit it into the "primal mother" paradigm. Here
Moers's generalizing aim and verb ("centers on") need to be questioned.
But this is all to the good: her sweeping statement sends me back to Cath-
er's fiction, and in the interplay between text and generalization I find
room for Moers's perspective as well as my own. Her daring generaliza-
tions are useful even when they are not wholly explanatory because they
are rooted so strongly in the particularsof texts and writers. And because
they make me think.
What I find so satisfying about LiteraryWomenis the way Moers moves
back and forth between provocative synthesizing generalizations and tac-
tile patterns of particulars, as she does in her final chapter, "Metaphors."
Here she asks us to consider the ways in which women writers both chal-
lenge male-authoredmetaphors and construct their own, often telling their
rebellious stories through metaphor more than direct statement, as if fol-
lowing Emily Dickinson's advice to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."Her
discussion of the metaphors of the jewelry box and the open "oceanic"
landscape in Cather's writing sparked my thinking about Cather's use of
metaphor to mirror the woman artist'sdiscovery of her creative power, and
when I wrote my biography I traced Cather's artistic growth through her
configurations of space and landscape. Cather used the metaphors of the
box and the drawer-suggesting, in their closed or open states, repression
or self-expression--in her letters as well as her fiction. If it had not been
for Ellen Moers's brilliant reading of women's metaphors, I am not sure I
would have ended my biography where I did, with an image from a letter
Cather wrote to her editor: if she wanted to find the West again, she told
Ferris Greenslet, she could always go back and open TheSongofthe Lark-
she would only have to lift the lid.
Like the expansive landscapes she explores, Moers is open to the com-
plexity and multiplicity of women writers' lives and work. She sees gender
as the major force shaping literary expression- this is her focus - but she
is open to other readings as well, as when she observes that in Cather's
landscapes we perceive "not the woman in the writer so much as the mys-
tic- an aspect of Willa Cather'stemperament that requires, I believe, more
examination" (260). She is right, and I think that the second half of Cath-
SIGNS Spring 1999 I 761

er's life, which I have yet to write, will be more illuminated if I ask more
questions about spirituality than about gender. It's impressive to me that
in this early feminist study- devoted, after all, to the question of gender -
Moers could make that observation, acknowledging that important terri-
tory exists outside her paradigms.
Moers's refusal to qualify her exuberant and insightful generalizations
in part seems strategic: she knew she was taking a risk in grouping women
writers by gender and she believed this was a risk worth taking. She had
the confidence to support her claims, and she did not want to weaken a
work that I believe she also knew was groundbreaking by offering too
many "on the other hands."And in part her generalizations connect to the
historical moment at which she was writing: not having a long tradition
of feminist literary scholarship that mapped out the territory, Moers was
conveying to her readers the widespread patterns she had discovered that
linked the work of women writers.
Moers considered her book a "celebration"of women writers' lives and
work. "I have made no effort at all to avoid praise,"she writes (xvi). I find
that statement refreshing, having been brought up in a critical era when
we are supposed to expose writers' blind spots, ideological compromises,
and unconscious contradictions. In writing of Ellen Moers I also have
made no effort to avoid praise. In fact, I want to walk right up to praise
and offer it to her, along with my gratitude. She wrote an important book,
inspiring and provoking and challenging, a book that made a difference
for me and other feminist literary scholars who came of age in the 1970s
and 1980s. I am thankful that LiteraryWomenwas there for us, one of the
lanterns guiding the way and letting us know we were on the right path.


Cather,Willa.1990. TheProfessor'sHouse.New York:Vintage.
Chodorow,Nancy.1978. TheReproduction ofMothering: andtheSoci-
ologyofGenderBerkeley:Universityof CaliforniaPress.
Gilbert, SandraM., and Susan Gubar. 1979. TheMadwomanin theAttic: The
WomanWriterand theNineteenth-Century LiteraryImagination.New Haven,
Conn.: YaleUniversityPress.
Millett,Kate. 1970. SexualPolitics.
Moers, Ellen. 1976. LiteraryWomen:The GreatWriters.Garden City, N.Y.: