Virginia Woolf sitting in an armchair at Monk's House.

Letters from the Front is the final volume of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s trilogy No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.1 It succeeds The War of the Words (1988) and Sexchanges (1989), and, like them, is a deeply exasperating book, containing some good literary criticism and much cultural-historical nonsense. Virginia Woolf must take her share of the blame for the latter, on account of her invention in A Room of One’s Own, cited in The War of the Words, of the “man’s sentence”:

All the great novelists like Thackeray and Dickens and Balzac have written a natural prose, swift but not slovenly, expressive but not precious, taking their own tint without ceasing to be common property. They have based it on the sentence that was current at the time. The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: “The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.” That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use.

Taken literally, such a claim is entirely meaningless—as if one could speak of “the” nineteenth-century sentence, let alone of a “man’s sentence”! What Woolf seems to be saying, in a tediously arch way, is that the Latinate syntax in which the eighteenth-century classics were written (formed on models which the authors had studied at school and university) was not a suitable style for the emerging genre of the novel. Gilbert and Gubar, however, take Woolf’s point very seriously, lamenting the lack of “serious research into empirical linguistics” which might have laid bare the special features of men’s or women’s sentences. There has been some work done, they inform us, on “notably different male and female speech behaviors and vocabularies,” but linguisticians have not yet decided “whether women speak a distinctive language or whether they are perceived to speak such a language.” The cast of mind which believes that language can be approached in this way is really frightening, but in its unplumbable ignorance it is characteristic of one side of Gilbert and Gubar’s work.

When confronted with a literary work, by a writer of either sex, the first question we ask is: is it any good?

At the heart of their enterprise has been, they say, the question: “How can a woman achieve personhood?” That is easily answered: she can’t, for no such thing exists. Women achieve womanhood, and men, manhood. Such a reply, however, is viewed by Gilbert and Gubar with pity—mixed, to be sure, with tolerance, for even Freud, they concede, “seemed to believe that there was such a quality as ‘womanliness.’ When he asked, ‘What do women want?’ he implied that there were, ontologically, such beings as ‘women.’” Well, if Freud could make such an absurd mistake, what hope for the rest of us? It was not entirely Freud’s fault; he lived too early to profit from the realization that “the very concepts woman and man have been rendered increasingly fictive by a century of sex wars and sexchanges.” The use, in the sentence quoted above, of “ontologically” rather than “biologically” is a significant sleight-of-hand—or perhaps it isn’t, perhaps they really believe it. Just possibly they also believe their constant recourse to military metaphor (“sex wars”) to describe the relationship between men and women has some foundation in reality. But one can never be sure, since, like most theorists, they don’t recognize a literal level of meaning for words but see everything as figurative or symbolic. They quote, without protest, Andrea Dworkin’s statement that “intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior.” That is an outrageous insult to human nature, a brutal and reductive denial of the possibility of love; yet, amid the overheated talk of warfare, it becomes almost axiomatic.

Perhaps the most helpful way in which to present No Man’s Land is in terms of the concept of literary history which underpins it—which enables Gilbert and Gubar to make some of their best points as well as some of their worst. In their first volume they have a mind-boggling travesty of T. S. Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” attributed to John Guillory but apparently endorsed by them, according to which “an implicitly masculine aesthetic of hard, abstract, learned verse” is “opposed to the aesthetic of soft, effusive, personal verse supposedly written by women and Romantics.” Eliot could be misogynistic enough, Heaven knows, but I do not think he would have recognized this as a summary of his views. Thankfully, the final volume in the trilogy offers a subtler account of how literary inheritance is transmitted and transmuted. The chapter on Virginia Woolf, for example, reasonably points to her mockery of Carlyle and Gibbon in To the Lighthouse, linking this to her suspicion of concepts such as periodicity and historical “laws,” against which she championed the importance of private, inner histories; while constructive use is made of the fact that Sylvia Plath’s last home was a flat in a house once occupied by Yeats—a striking coincidence in view of Plath’s admiration for, and debt to, him. Equally valuable is the observation that an “aesthetic of renunciation” practiced by nineteenth-century women poets became, in the hands of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore, an “aesthetic of self-dramatization” aiming, but failing, to negotiate successfully the balance between attracting publicity and preserving integrity.

Literary heritage is frequently presented by Gilbert and Gubar in gender terms, owing much to Freud, and it is when they stray into this area that their arguments lose force. Nobody questions that Virginia Woolf’s portrayal of Mr. Ramsay is a way of coming to terms with her relationship with her own father, Sir Leslie Stephen, but does it really follow that she therefore saw the past as patriarchal? Gilbert and Gubar themselves show that Millay learned creativity from Marvell and Keats, and Plath from Yeats; these were not enemies to be routed. The predilection of Millay and Moore for regular poetic forms, in particular the sonnet, is seen as a consequence of their femininity, in contrast to Pound’s and Eliot’s exploration of fragmented form; but here we may remember Eliot’s remark about the nineteenth-century poets who “had not the sensibility to perceive that, because they felt differently, they must use words differently.” Do Gilbert and Gubar really think modernism would have arrived if everyone had been content to go on writing sonnets? The most extreme instance of psychological interpretation comes in the chapter on H.D., who actually underwent analysis with Freud (and denounced his “tyranny” in “The Master”). Her work is seen by Gilbert and Gubar as a vital example of what they call the “family romance” or the “affiliation complex” which, they believe, has beset female writers in our time. They distinguish three stages: first, the female writer sees her literary heritage in paternal terms; then, reacting against this, she experiences a “renunciation of aesthetic desire” which leads to a kind of creative frigidity; finally, she adopts a female muse, a mother figure who releases her inhibitions. H.D.’s “efforts to achieve literary potency” contradict Freud’s belief that the attachment to the father figure is normal, that to the mother figure regressive.

The unsatisfactoriness of this lies not so much—or not only—in its vacuity but in the fact that, as applied to H.D., there may be some truth in it—and, if so, the lack of connection between Freudian sophistication and real creativity is the more sharply exposed. For H.D. really was obsessed with the significance, for her view of herself as founding priestess of a new religion, of the fact that she had been born in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania). (One remembers the comparable case of Henry IV, in Shakespeare’s plays, who planned a crusade to the Holy Land having been told he would die in Jerusalem, and ended up expiring in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey.) She built into her poems images of frigidity, drawing on The Winter’s Tale for the title character of HERmione (1927) and for the middle name (Perdita) of her own daughter. “The mother as stone statue, the exiled lost daughter,” in Gilbert and Gubar’s phrase, are significant motifs in her work. There may be a genuine correlation between her anxiety to achieve dual identity in a world which contained, as she said, “two of everybody (except myself),” and her tendency to use unrhymed or half-rhymed couplets in her poetry. But none of this will make her work any better, or rescue it from the charge of collapsing into mystical vaporing of a particularly empty kind.

And here, at last, we come to the fundamental point—the point evaded throughout these three weighty volumes of cultural history: namely, that when confronted with a literary work, by a writer of either sex, the first question we ask is: is it any good? In answering that question we can apply a number of criteria, but the gender of the writer will not be among them. I am assuming that readers of The New Criterion will share my belief in the possibility and necessity of value judgments in the old sense, not the Gilbert and Gubar sense in which everything is a tremendously profound work of art. (Still, better that than the belief that profound works of art don’t exist.) Of all the writers considered in the trilogy how many are significant creative artists? How many names could we set alongside Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath? Some would argue for Kate Chopin or Willa Cather. But when literary rather than cultural significance is in question the number must be relatively small. Gilbert and Gubar might protest that we are judging by “male” aesthetic criteria, measuring their authors against a canon and a tradition overwhelmingly patriarchal. The likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Adrienne Rich, or Erica Jong would never receive a fair hearing, they would say. Part of the difficulty of this objection is that it wants to read literary history backward. I would readily admit that the contribution of female authors to English literature has been unfairly slighted until recent times (the few classic names apart), and I am delighted that we now have the opportunity to read, in relatively accessible editions, the work of Aemilia Lanyer or Mary Wroth or Delarivière Manley, among others. But Virginia Woolf’s parable, in A Room of One’s Own, about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, sounds a cautionary note. This young lady, denied her brother’s opportunities for formal education and travel, was kept at home and trained in the domestic duties appropriate for her destiny as wife and mother. Rebelling against the marriage her well-meaning parents arranged for her, she fled to London, where her attempts to join an acting company were rebuffed. She was seduced by an actor-manager and committed suicide. Virginia Woolf’s conclusion is so politically incorrect that it had better be quoted in her own words:

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. But … it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people.

Woolf is arguing that women in Shakespeare’s day—with exceptions, like the Countess of Pembroke, which merely prove the rule—were denied the educational and social opportunities which foster creative power. This was to a large extent true, and we can only rejoice at the fact that it is true no longer. But in terms of what our classic authors read—which is what matters when we are estimating the growth of a tradition —it’s also a fact that until the last hundred and fifty years or so the works that counted were by male authors.

It would be interesting to examine why this was so—and why it occurred at a fairly specific period. Medieval literature does not lack female authors (Christine de Pisan, Marie de France) although they are relatively few; but, as is often observed, there was not much of a Renaissance for women. It was with the growth of the novel as a form that they gained in real influence, and even then were not always sympathetic to one another. Jane Austen learned as an artist from Fanny Burney but her favorite author remained Dr. Johnson; while it was George Eliot who, in 1856, produced a sustained piece of demolition work called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” which insisted that over-production by female authors debases the currency. Gilbert and Gubar mention this piece in observing Edith Wharton’s preference for James over the kind of fiction George Eliot derides, but they do not quote Eliot’s essay. They might ponder this:

Every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will, on principle, abstain from any exceptional indulgence towards the productions of literary women. For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature, that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer’s art… . The foolish vanity of wishing to appear in print, instead of being counter balanced by any consciousness of the intellectual or moral derogation implied in futile authorship, seems to be encouraged by the extremely false impression that to write at all is a proof of superiority in a woman. On this ground, we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature, and that while the few women who write well are very far above the ordinary intellectual level of their sex, the many women who write ill are very far below it. So that, after all, the severer critics are fulfilling a chivalrous duty in depriving the mere fact of feminine authorship of any false prestige which may give it a delusive attraction, and in recommending women of mediocre faculties—as at least a negative service they can render their sex—to abstain from writing.

Gilbert and Gubar note that Edna St. Vincent Millay maintained a more active correspondence with male writers than with female ones, and that Marianne Moore reviewed books by male authors far more often than by female authors; and they quote Moore’s words in a letter to Kathleen Raine: “Yes, I know they did say I was the best woman poet in this country; but, you see, Miss Raine, that means nothing, just nothing at all; because here in America not more than two, or perhaps three, women have ever even tried to write poetry.” In echoing George Eliot, Moore points to the need for any artist, male or female, to be able to draw on a tradition which supplies agreed standards as well as artistic models. The greatest writers, of either sex, have always needed this; and it is the ability to use it which makes a Dickinson, a Wharton, or a Plath a major writer, rather than the fact of her being female.

The case of Plath provides a strong illustration of this point, which I use the more eagerly because the best chapter in Letters from the Front is, I think, the one devoted to her. (That on Woolf, despite my earlier strictures, is almost as good.) Already in Volume 1 Plath has been mentioned in an interesting context, for the poem “Burning the Letters,” which was begun on the back of a draft of “The Thought Fox,” the celebrated poem by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Plath’s poem seems to express rage against Hughes’s creativity; it ends with the death of a fox whose cry (Hughes’s poem?) nonetheless resonates unendingly. In Letters from the Front Gilbert and Gubar trace Plath’s addiction to images of warfare. As is well known, the death of her German father in 1940 was an event whose psychological significance for her is hard to overestimate. Conflicts of many kinds, some of which had been years in forming, were catalyzed by this loss. Plath’s exploration of her relationship to her father, in imagery drawing on the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, gives to her last poems an unbearable ferocity; yet to see her primarily as the author of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” is to narrow her gift.

Gilbert and Gubar are excellent on Plath’s debt to Yeats, the male modernist who, despite his scoffing at the “vague Utopia” of feminism (his phrase), was still, as they say, the “most fascinated … by women’s creative as well as procreative power.” Plath, dwelling in Yeats’s house, felt able also to take possession of his literary inheritance; thus a number of her poems remodel his. Yeats and Virginia Woolf became Plath’s creative “parents” and, unlike some of the other women considered by Gilbert and Gubar, she worked with rather than against her exemplars.

Adaptation was the keynote, too, in her use of traditional poetic form. Citing these lines from “Lady Lazarus”

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Gilbert and Gubar draw attention to the echo of “Kubla Khan” and to the closeness of the cadence to that of the heroic couplet:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer, beware, beware.
Out of the ash I rise with my red hair …

“Behind the apparently ragged, defiantly irregular lines of the ‘real’ text,” they conclude, “we sense the rhythm of a kind of ghost text, so that Plath’s poem is at many crucial points written simultaneously in blank verse and in ‘free verse.’” Later, having made a similar point about the last two stanzas of “Stings,” which are “recast as shreds of traditional lineation,” they note the combination of Plath’s “mastery of conventional norms” with her confidence in her “autonomous power” to do something significantly new with them. So too with her subject matter: had she not died when she did, Gilbert and Gubar speculate, she would have carried further the ambition, already evident in her last poems, to construct a personal and literary future independent of the experience and image of warfare.

What are the implications of that judgment for their attempt to rehabilitate the central role of the female writer?

It is surely no accident that this poet, about whom Gilbert and Gubar write most convincingly, “did not have an explicitly political imagination” and “rarely meditated on the future of gender in her society” as they admit. She was preoccupied with renewal, and as much as D. H. Lawrence could claim the phoenix as her symbol: but the rebirth was largely private. Only in “Wintering” does she envision a communal rebirth for women, employing one of her favorite metaphors, that of the beehive. “Will the hive survive” without the male bees? asks the poem, and returns an optimistic answer: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Plath’s importance lies in her forging an individual vision and voice out of traditional materials, eschewing public propagandizing, striving to surmount through art her personal difficulties. In “Words,” written just eight days before her suicide, she expresses a humility about language, a sense of its mysterious independence and resilience, which has always been a sign of the genuinely creative writer:

After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes traveling
Off from the center like horses …

Yet this poem concludes with a melancholy image of determinism:

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

“Her new self,” Ted Hughes poignantly wrote, “who could do so much, could not ultimately save her.”

Plath’s wish to re-create herself was far removed from the parade of ventriloquial impersonations and posings which Gilbert and Gubar document in many other writers, the “sexchanges” which express, not a deep concern for identity, but merely a shallow narcissism. Similarly, Plath’s ability to transcend images of war, to make of them something original and positive, throws into relief the hollowness of Gilbert and Gubar’s obsession with martial metaphor. Nowhere is this more distasteful than in their chapter on an actual conflict, World War II. Looking up Hitler, A., in the index, we find just one reference, citing his belief that female emancipation was “a product of the Jewish mind.” That is all the cultural historian needs to know about Hitler. As for the concentration camps, they come in handy, in Betty Friedan’s writing, as an analogy for the subjection of American women to domestic drudgery. Gilbert and Gubar hasten to add that Friedan admitted the inexactness of the parallel. That does nothing to excuse its offensiveness. They feel able to claim that the war “constituted a specifically sexual warfare directed against women,” that it was “a threat to the second sex” which “marked the demise of a dream of Herland,” and that militarism was “a logical extension of misogyny.” As pronouncements about what happened to the human race between 1939 and 1945, such statements are breathtaking in the literal sense—they leave one speechless. Even in literary-critical terms, Gilbert and Gubar seem not to find irony in their verdict that “the finest novel written about the war” is The Naked and the Dead—the work of a male author, Norman Mailer. What are the implications of that judgment for their attempt to rehabilitate the central role of the female writer?

But indeed, it’s often hard to know how seriously Gilbert and Gubar take themselves, or expect their readers to take them. One place where we can be sure we are meant to be amused is their final chapter, “The Further Adventures of Snow White,” in which they invent variants of the traditional story to illustrate, and satirize, the theoretical stances adopted by some of the authors and critics they have discussed. In one version the characters debate issues of gender identity; the wicked stepmother is bemused by the ontological nullity of Snow White and the King—“merely signifiers, signifying nothing”—and Snow White herself remains perplexed until the Prince explains to her that she is merely a language field and the King and Queen supreme fictions. Snow White then makes a daring proposal: “How about investigating the pleasure principle by disseminating your symbolic into my semiotic?”—at this point, presumably, achieving personhood. Well, I don’t know what Gilbert and Gubar would have said had this narrative been constructed by a male author. Perhaps they would have said something similar to their reading of the Genesis narrative of the Fall in Volume 1, in which they advance the hypothesis that the story, “with its linguistically powerful Adam and its anxious, tongue-tied Eve, is just a male fantasy devised to soothe men’s feelings of secondariness, sexual dread, womb and breast envy.” No doubt we are meant to find their redactions of the Snow White story wryly amusing. My reaction is to be disturbed by how they can know, with one part of their minds, the absurdity of interpretive procedures which they devote much of their three bulky tomes to taking (apparently) seriously. But this will probably confirm them in suspecting that I am incapable of understanding the arabesques the trained critical mind must perform if it is to survive in No Man’s Land.

  1.  No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume 3: Letters from the Front, by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar; Yale University Press, 476 pages, $35. The previous volumes of No Man’s Land are also available from Yale: Volume 1: The War of the Words (320 pages, $14 paper) and Volume 2: Sexchanges (455 pages, $20 paper).

A Message from the Editors

Our past successes are owed to our greatest ambassadors: our readers. Our future rests on your support, as The New Criterion Editor Roger Kimball explains. Will you help us continue to bring our incisive review of the arts and culture to the next generation of readers?

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 8, on page 16
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now