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Mentoring feminist literary critics.

Sandra M. Gilbert, REREADING WOMEN: THIRTY YEARS OF EXPLORING OUR LITERARY TRADITIONS. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2011. 380p. bibl. $29.95, ISBN 978-0393067644.

This new volume by well-known feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert addresses the feminist literary practice of rereading, and does so on multiple levels. On the autobiographical level, Gilbert recalls significant personal and professional events along the way of her own highly influential career. As part of the Gilbert-and-Gubar duo of feminist scholars, co-authors, and co-teachers, Gilbert added much to the landscape of contemporary feminist literary criticism. Although she and Gubar are each accomplished scholars individually, reading about their shared, groundbreaking teaching along with a "re-reading" of what they accomplished together in their highly experimental classes offers insight into the challenges that face feminist scholars. Much has changed in women's studies and feminist literary criticism since the publications of Madwoman in the Attic, Shakespeare's Sisters, No Mans Land, and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, but Gilbert's insights about her experiences will benefit future generations of feminist scholars, as we can never have too many mentors. Rereading her own lived experience is very much a part of Gilbert's collection of essays.

On the textual level, feminists looking through history for "grand-mothers" have often visited the works and recorded histories of women like Christine de Pizan, but feminist critical inquiry has often been sparked by thinking about motherhood in a self-reflexive way while the feminist scholar /close reader is herself a mother. Rereading Little Women, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with her nine-year-old daughter compelled Gilbert to team-teach with Susan Gubar:

"Rereadings led to reinterpretations, and my revisionary impulse became so strong that I was delighted when Susan Gubar, a colleague who was also revising her ideas about these books, agreed to team-teach a course in literature by women with me" (p. 47).

Like Sylvia Plath, Gilbert was once a guest editor for Mademoiselle. She describes the experience as an initiation ritual: "The magazine offices were pastel, intricately feminine, full of clicking spiky heals. One could almost believe that at midnight they mopped the floors with Chanel No. 5" (p. 115). There is something very lighthearted in Gilbert's reflections on her own work experiences, yet one can also see the serious effects of the pressure to conform to work expectations in her descriptions of peers responding to the narrow constrictions of cultural expectations. The personal is political, and this highly self-reflective collection of essays abounds in examples of injustice to Gilbert's colleagues.

"Dare You See a Soul at the White Heat? Thoughts on a 'Little Home-keeping Person,'" includes Gilbert's own first poem about Emily Dickenson --"Emily's Bread" (p. 199)--as well as another one she wrote that became an "invocation of transformation": "The Emily Dickinson Black Cake Walk" (p. 200). These poems, along with her close textual analysis of a Dickinson poem that "only pretends to be about a blacksmith and a forge" (p. 201), support Gilbert's assertion that "my Emily Dickinson has always inhabited a kitchen, though not perhaps a very ordinary one" (p. 198).

The publicly available private life of Emily Dickinson and Dickinson's self-conscious creation of a persona provide yet another text to be read closely. This is a great example of star studies, with Dickinson, the author, Dickinson, as a star. There is no limit to what can be counted as a "text" to be closely read.

In "'Life's Empty Pack': Notes Toward a Literary Daughteronomy" Gilbert asks, "Apart from fictions like Silas Marner and Summer, what evidence have we that father-daughter incest is a culturally constructed paradigm of female desire?" (p. 264). The essay discusses the exchange of women between men, as well as the significance of the fact that Freud was well aware that daughters were not merely fantasizing about their fathers, but often were engaged in unwanted sexual relationships that caused their alleged neuroses.

Rereading Women presents a diverse collection of writings over a thirty-year period that manages to touch upon many issues of concern, but unfortunately it is missing an index, which would have made it highly useful as a reference source. Nevertheless, this work is highly recommended for colleges and universities with women's studies programs and graduate programs in literary criticism. While its tone is sometimes very conversational, as if a senior colleague is telling a junior colleague about her professional and personal-but-political challenges, this work also exposes the reader to examples of feminist approaches to reading.

The value of this collection of works can be found in its examples of how to look at any text from a feminist perspective. With the insight that "women writers have frequently responded to sociocultural constriction by creating symbolic narratives that express their common feelings of constriction, exclusion, dispossession" (p. 50), feminist scholars can look at works anew for signs or symptoms of oppression, for example, in dreams of escape. In her analyses of texts by women whose works can be called feminist, Gilbert observed that these great authors asked, "[W]hat has caused the cultural alienation--the silence, the marginality, the secondary status of women?" (p. 51). These are questions that we still ask today.

[Stephanie H. Wical is the periodicals and electronic resources librarian and an affiliate of the Womens Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire. Her research interests include usage analysis of electronic journals and databases, camp humor, and cross-dressing in film and television. She enjoys mentoring students who are conducting research.]
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Author:Wical, Stephanie H.
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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