Tag Archives: literature

In Praise of Asparagus by Marcel Proust

“…but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet–still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed–with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.”

(From Remembrance of Things Past, Swann’s Way, Combray, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

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UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER: ELIF SHAFAK’S HONOR: My January “bombshell” column at Bookslut:

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On the front and back covers of the Turkish edition of Elif Shafak’s novel İskender (to be published in the U.S. as Honor), the author appears in two different poses dressed as her male protagonist İskender, a handsome, savvy-looking youth with slick hair and a five o’clock shadow wearing a stylish suit. In Shafak’s story, he is the murderer of his own mother. Honor is a sprawling saga about a Turkish-Kurdish mixed family who emigrate in the 1970s to London, a city simmering with racial tension and a hothouse for an emerging radicalism. Spanning several generations, time frames, cultures, and geographies, the narrative unfolds from the viewpoints of multiple characters and seeks to discover the myriad forces and influences that lead İskender to commit such a heinous crime.

Asked why she opted to appear so disguised on her book, Shafak explained that one of the most difficult aspects of writing the novel had been to put herself in the murderer’s shoes, “to see the world the way he sees it, without judging him from above.” Shafak wanted to emphasize to her readers that one aim of her fiction is to inhabit her characters’ otherness to the point where she is able to understand each of them as part of herself. shafak tedIn Shafak’s inspiring TED talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” she furthers this idea by discussing the restrictiveness of identity politics, challenging the notion that fiction writers should necessarily “write what they know.” She quotes James Baldwin, who recoiled at the “homosexual writer” label constantly pinned on him by critics: “There’s nothing in me that’s not in everybody else, and there’s nothing in everybody else that’s not in me.”

Shafak is disturbed by the tendency among critics, especially in the West, to insist writers — particularly “ethnic” women authors — stick to subjects that describe their own direct experience (or what the critics hold to be their experience). Shafak believes it is the fiction writer’s prerogative to use his or her imagination to go as deeply as possible into characters who are different in order to gain — and pass on to one’s readers — an understanding that goes beyond our own. She finds deep parallels between mystical traditions such as Sufism and the creative writing endeavor: both attempt through empathy to transcend the limits of the self in order to find universal truths. In her talk, she tells of when the poet and mystic Rumi met his spiritual companion Shams of Tabriz: “One of the first things the latter did was to toss Rumi’s books into the water and watch the letters dissolve. The Sufis say knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance.”

Born in France in 1971 to Turkish parents, Shafak returned to Istanbul with her mother as a young girl and was partly brought up by her grandmother, a healer. Her mother became a diplomat and Elif’s teenage years were spent in Madrid, Cologne, Amman, Ankara, and Boston. She has a degree in international relations, a master’s in gender and women’s studies, and a PhD in political science. Described by her publisher as “postfeminist, cosmopolitan, commuter, mystic, and human rights defender,” Elif Shafak is, after Orhan Pamuk, the most renowned Turkish writer in and out of Turkey. She has written eight novels and three works of nonfiction including a memoir about suffering from postpartum depression entitled Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within (2011). Her best-selling novel The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) caused the Turkish court to bring criminal charges against her under the infamous Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code for “denigrating Turkish national identity.” She was eventually acquitted.

When I asked Shafak about the “postfeminist” tag she told me, “There’s no such thing. As long as one woman is oppressed anywhere in the world due to her sex, feminism is needed, and I am a feminist.” She said, however, that she felt feminism so far hadn’t found a broadly effective way to include men and make them understand that the subjugation of women results ultimately in their own misery. By conforming to misogynistic practices, they end up harming those they love and becoming alien to themselves. Shafak also thinks women willingly collaborate in their own enslavement by not questioning their beliefs and practices. “For example, we bring up our sons as ‘little sultans.’ It’s unfair to our daughters but to our sons as well. We all suffer because of it, and we must take responsibility for that and change it.”

At the heart of Shafak’s novel is an honor killing, a concept Westerners find difficult to fathom in this day and age. We wonder how a man’s self worth can be so rigidly linked to his control of female family members that he would be driven to commit murder over the loss of it. Yet for every Gul Meena, Gastina, and Shafilea Ahmed, victims of recent honor killings that have featured prominently in the Western press as evidence of barbaric “Muslim tribal practices,” we pay little attention to our own barbaric crimes which we call “domestic violence” and shove under the rug. As the Violence Against Women Act languishes in Congress, the number of women murdered at the hands of men they knew intimately continues to rise. In the past decade, according to the FBI domestic violence statistics, 11,766 women have been killed by men close to them.

Read the rest of the column at Bookslut

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ÉMILIE DU CHÂTELET: THE LADY WHO WAS A GREAT MAN, My December post at Bookslut

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In a 1740 letter to an English friend, Voltaire expressed his regret at being unable to visit him, as he could not live without, even for a short period, “that lady whom I look upon as a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend. She understands Newton; she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” The famous French poet, playwright, and polemicist was then midway through his extraordinary fifteen-year love affair with the Marquise du Châtelet, a liaison that would produce works of genius from both their pens.

Émilie du Châtelet was a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who loved to bedeck herself in diamonds, attend salons and soirées, show off at court, and indulge in amorous adventures. Émilie was born into French aristocracy and showed an early aptitude for learning. Her father hired the best Parisian tutors to educate her. When she was nineteen, he arranged her marriage to the Marquis du Châtelet, a man who adored his young wife, appreciated her talents, and never interfered with her indefatigable pursuit of intellectual excellence.

At twenty-six Émilie resolved, after giving birth to her third child, to turn to the serious study of mathematics. At a dinner party in Paris, she encountered Voltaire. He was thirty-nine and after an exile in England — his controversial compositions frequently forced him to flee France — he had returned steeped in Newton’s scientific discoveries and the philosophy of Locke. He couldn’t, however, arouse in French academics — devoted Cartesians — any intellectual curiosity, much less enthusiasm, for these new ideas from across the Channel. Émilie became ignited mind and body by Voltaire and his ability to clearly express complex notions about the natural world. For his part, Voltaire found in the Marquise someone whose scientific intelligence enhanced, challenged, and eventually surpassed his own.

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Their uncommon relationship drives Nancy Mitford’s remarkable 1957 book Voltaire in Love, reissued by The New York Review Books in November 2012. In zestful prose, itself dripping with Voltarian wit, Mitford spins an account of the lovers’ incessant shenanigans, both highbrow and bawdy, and in so doing paints a flamboyant, down-and-dirty tableau of the French Enlightenment. Mitford offers hilarious and astonishing reports of the lovers’ quarrels, betrayals, and sexual appetites; their embroilments with the nobility at Versailles; Émilie’s destructive gambling habit (to repay her staggering debts she developed a financing arrangement similar to modern derivatives); Voltaire’s endless fights with fellow writers and banishments by the royal censor; the ménage at Cirey, Émilie’s husband’s country estate in Champagne where the lovers transformed a crumbling chateau into a resplendent laboratory and high-powered think tank; the myriad productions, both failures and successes, of Voltaire’s plays, many featuring Émilie as leading lady; Émilie’s desperate push to finish her masterpiece, an annotated translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, after discovering at age forty-two that she was pregnant by her young lover (by then she and Voltaire no longer shared a bed) and unlikely to survive the birth, which she did not.

Adam Gopnik, in his introduction to the new edition of Mitford’s book, calls it “a small-scale masterpiece of antiheroic history.” Mitford’s work is an amuse-bouche for at least three subsequent full-scale biographies of the Marquise: The Divine Mistress (1970) by Samuel Edwards; Émilie du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (2006) by Judith Zinsser; and David Bodanis’s Passionate Minds: Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment (2006), which details how fundamental du Châtelet’s work was to scientific development.

Read on at Bookslut

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Also new from my theater blog Addison Dewitt Says: All-Female Julius Caesar and All-Male Twelfth Night: The Most Revelatory Theater of 2012

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ZELDA: THE MADWOMAN IN THE FLAPPER DRESS My November Column at Bookslut

“Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar asked in their seminal study of women writers and the literary imagination The Madwoman in the Attic (1979, reissued 2011). Their answer was a resounding, if complex, yes, resulting in our most robust and far-reaching feminist literary theory to date.

“In patriarchal Western culture,” they wrote, “the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis. More, his pen’s power, like his penis’s power, is not just the ability to generate life but the power to create a posterity to which he lays claim.” This power further implies “ownership” over all his “brain children” — characters, scenes, and events. “As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in,’” radically reduced to stereotypes (angel or monster) that seriously conflict with her own sense of self, liberty, and creativity.

They show how the pen — indeed mightier than the sword — has for millennia excluded and silenced half the human race. Paradoxically, the author “silences [his characters] by depriving them of autonomy (that is, of the power of independent speech) even as he gives them life.” The authors quote the literary scholar Albert Gelpi: “The artist kills experience into art, for temporal experience can only escape death by dying into the ‘immortality’ of artistic form. The fixity of ‘life’ in art and the fluidity of ‘life’ in nature are incompatible.”

Gilbert’s and Gubar’s book explored how women, increasingly becoming authors themselves in the nineteenth century, coped with ubiquitous literary paternity. A distinctively female literary tradition emerged: “images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors — such patterns recurred throughout this tradition, along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia.” In response to being both locked up in, and out of, language, “female art has a hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness.”

Nancy Milford’s fascinating and disturbing biography Zelda (1970, reissued 2011) tells the tragic story of a young woman from Montgomery, Alabama who had great self-confidence, ambition, intelligence, artistic talent, and sex appeal, and who was, in effect, “killed into art” by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, the patriarchal culture she lived in, and herself. Her failed attempts to find artistic self-expression lead her to suffer from debilitating asthma, eczema, and mental illness.

Born in 1900, Zelda was the cleverest, prettiest, wildest, and most talented girl in town. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom she fell in love at seventeen and married at twenty, began his immortalization of her as the quintessential “Jazz-age” flapper in his first novel This Side of Paradise (1920) as Rosalind: “She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love letters… She was perhaps the delicious inexpressible, once-in-a-century blend.”

Much later Scott told Malcolm Cowley, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda isn’t a character I created myself.” To create that character, however, Scott made a regular practice of using his wife’s persona, experience, diaries, and letters, often verbatim, for his work.

Early in the Fitzgerald’s marriage, George Jean Nathan, editor of the magazine The Smart Set, read Zelda’s diaries. “They interested me so greatly,” he said, “that… I later made her an offer for them. When I informed her husband, he said that he could not permit me to publish them since he had gained a lot of inspiration from them and wanted to use parts of them in his own novels and short stories.” Zelda didn’t object. Scott was the Great Male Writer, the chronicler and prophet of the age. She was his helpmate.

Asked to review Scott’s The Beautiful and Damnedfor the New York Tribune, however, Zelda expressed her ambivalence toward Scott’s thievery: “It also seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar… In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald… seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” When Zelda wrote stories and essays herself, they were often published either under Scott’s name alone or jointly.


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THE (IMAGINED) WOMAN READER AND MALE ANXIETY: My September Column at Bookslut

Recently, in The New York Review of Books, Elaine Blair wrote, “Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers — specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.” The novelists she uses to illustrate her trenchant and entertaining theory are Michel Houellebecq, Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Richard Price, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace. She sees their fiction as a reaction to their immediate predecessors — John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth — dubbed by Wallace as the “Great Male Narcissists.” The Contemporary Male Novelists, asserts Blair, are neurotically conscious that the contemporary Female Reader — who, the statistics prove, keeps publishing economically afloat — finds the near-total self-absorption of the GMNs repugnant: for the FR, Wallace imagines, Updike is “just a penis with a thesaurus.” The CMNs fear the FR is no longer willing to interpret rampant misogyny as searing self-portraits of mangled masculinity, but rather as just more misogyny and who needs it? Their livelihoods threatened, the CMNs are doing the utmost in their narratives to tell the imagined female reader that they are at least hyperaware of their own utter self-absorption. So nowadays “female characters get to remind the hero that he’s a navel-gazing jerk, but most of the good lines, and certainly the brilliant social and psychological observations, still go to the hero.”

Male anxiety about the woman reader is as old as reading itself. In Belinda Jack’s new book The Woman Reader, she meticulously explores the manifestation of this anxiousness historically. Some men encouraged and cultivated their women readers: Ovid created characters such as Byblis and Philomela to show his empathy for the female plight. Others, such as Lucian and Juvenal, wrote biting satires expressing their disgust for literate and intelligent women. During the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and John Knox "all corresponded extensively with well-read women, whose knowledge of letters and tracts exerted significant influence on the reformers' positions," especially regarding what women should and should not be allowed to read. Rousseau, in his Emile: Or, On Education, wrote that women should read and "cultivate their minds" but only enough to please their husbands. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Richardson had an extensive female readership and kept up correspondence with them, often asking for their input and opinions. "My acquaintance lies chiefly among the ladies," he wrote, "I care not who knows it." William Makepeace Thackeray condemned Richardson as an inferior writer of "sentimental twaddle," read only by "old maids and dowagers."

In our time, the complex anxiety the male author feels vis-à-vis his female reader reentered popular consciousness with Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah fiasco when Franzen, upon the publication of The Corrections in 2001, expressed in an NPR interview his misgivings about a future appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, her audience almost entirely comprised of women: “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience,” i.e., the legitimate and legitimizing male audience he imagined was enjoyed by the GMNs and all the literary luminaries before them. Upon the publication of his next book, Franzen buried his disdain for his imagined female readers deep in his pockets and eagerly appeared on Oprah. Yet this powerful economic force of female readers has not altered the great disparity in publication between men and women writers; sadly, the VIDA Women in Literary Arts statistics continue to prove this year after year. The legitimizing White Male Standard Approval Franzen desires maintains its iron grip on all of us.

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THE SULTANA OF SUBVERSION: THREE HARD-BOILED NOVELS BY DOROTHY B. HUGHES: My July Column at Bookslut

The serial killer Dix Steele in Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 noir classic In a Lonely Place professes to his friend Brub Nicolai, an LAPD detective assigned to the “strangler” case, to be writing a detective novel. Brub responds: “Who you stealing from, Chandler or Hammett or Gardner?”

Hughes herself stole brilliantly from her fellow pulp writers, added her inimitable twist, and became the “Queen of Noir,” the “Mistress of Dark Suspense.” She, in turn, was stolen from by the likes of Jim Thomson, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and Sara Paretsky. She wrote thirteen novels, of which three were adapted to film, most famously Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place
starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

An award-winning poet and critic, Hughes worked for a time in Hollywood, including a stint on Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Her influences ranged beyond the masters of the genre to Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, and Shakespeare, but also to more obscure authors such as Anne Petry and Nella Larsen. For Hughes, any encounter with another writer’s work contributed to the shaping of her own, reading itself being the supreme influence.

The above exchange between her characters Dix and Brub is, of course, self-referential, but the inward nod is particularly Hughesian because she’s identifying with her murderous protagonist and because Dix’s novel doesn’t exist. His imaginary opus is a ploy to pump Brub for information. Yet the novel we’re reading is a detective novel narrated from Dix’s point of view. Whose novel is it? In exquisitely noir fashion, Hughes’s fiction and Dix’s fiction become darkly entangled, and readers are compelled to question subjective reality. As a writer, Hughes is dead set — stylistically, thematically, narratively — on destabilizing our expectations and preconceptions as readers, as human beings. She is the Sultana of Subversion.

As will happen with women writers, Hughes’s books fell out of print, nearly forgotten until 2004 when The Feminist Press launched the fabulous new series Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp, including informative essays by literary scholars. Two of Hughes’s novels The Blackbirder
(1943) and In a Lonely Place were the lead titles.
This month, New York Review Books is publishing Hughes’ last novel, The Expendable Man
(1963), with an afterword by Walter Mosley. (Also available in the UK from the wonderful Persephone Books.)
Whether Hughes’s name will ever be said in the same breath as Chandler and Hammett remains to be seen, but her revival is significant, not least because her books, from within a masculine, often misogynist literary genre, offer an alternative vision that might be described as feminist. (Hughes, who rejected classification, hated the term.) Her books not only refuse to cater to the “male gaze” so prevalent in popular culture, they include a critique of that gaze using the tools and tropes of popular fiction to expand our ways of seeing.

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BLOOD ON THE PAPER: THE BARBED LEGACY OF LILLIAN HELLMAN–My June Column at Bookslut

Filmmaker Elia Kazan, venting his fury against Lillian Hellman’s memoir Scoundrel Time
in which she skewers him and other liberal artists and intellectuals for their lily-livered performances during the McCarthy Era, raged against “this bitch with balls” who “went after what she wanted the way a man does.” What Kazan once considered a vitriolic attack might now in our post-third-wave-feminist age be perceived rather as a compliment.

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris's intriguing new biography A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman offers a reassessment of Hellman through the lens of “gender as an ideological force.” Hellman’s life is not examined chronologically but by theme, and Kessler-Harris’s spiral structure produces a richly layered approach, despite suffering from repetition.

Hellman’s literary, cultural, and political significance remains disputed, elusive, and of keen interest nearly thirty years after her death. Was she hero or traitor, artist or sell-out, truth-teller or liar? Unrepentant Stalinist, misogynist, and self-hating Jew? Or champion of civil liberties, feminist icon, and advocate of redemptive self-assertion?

Her long, highly successful career as a playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist brought her considerable fame and fortune. She spoke up for her beliefs: individual freedom and active commitment to upholding that right. For Hellman, asserts Kessler-Harris, “silence in the face of evil, the cowardly refusal to act when inaction will promote injustice, is the real sin.”

Hellman is renowned for being demanding, greedy, ambitious, loud, bad tempered, ugly, and a sexual predator. Fiercely protective of her writing, she often refused to alter a word in her plays and rarely allowed her work to be excerpted. She insisted on being well paid for anything she wrote, and scrupulously monitored her royalty receipts, including those for reprints, permissions, performances, and readings. She developed, writes Kessler-Harris, “a range of qualities generally considered in the early and mid-twentieth century to be the province of men. These included a robust vocational commitment, the capacity to identify as a worker who made a living by the pen, and the self-confidence that she had something to say to the larger world.”

For many Hellman’s behavior seemed “a travesty of womanhood.” She was often masculinized, lesbianized, or hyper-sexualized by her critics, supporters, and friends. Leonard Bernstein called her “Uncle Lillian.” Referring to her unconventional, sexually non-exclusive liaison with the writer Dashiell Hammett, the press dubbed her “She Hammett.” A 1941 New Yorker profile described her as a “tough broad… who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth.” Morris Dickstein saw her as “at once a perfect lady and at the same time… obscene.” Jane Fonda, who played Hellman in the film Julia (based on her memoir Pentimento), told an interviewer, “Lillian is a homely woman and yet she moves as if she were Marilyn Monroe. She sits with her legs apart, with her satin underwear partly showing.”

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“Arm Yourself Against My Dawn”: Revisiting Jean Strouse’s groundbreaking biography of Alice James

In a colorful, chatty, and ironically self-aggrandizing letter to her Aunt Kate, Alice James concludes with a quip: “Forgive me all this egotism but I have to be my own Boswell.” Alice James had to wait nearly a century, but she eventually found her Boswell in Jean Strouse. First published in 1980, Strouse’s dazzling, bold, and formidable Alice James: A Biography has recently been reissued as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series and justly so. Strouse’s study, composed in radiant prose, is easily a classic of biography, deftly and elegantly incorporating social history, family history, the history of the science of psychology, and literary criticism. Above all, the book is a paragon of feminist literature in which a marginalized life is brought into focus and examined from multiple perspectives, validating a previously neglected experience and suggesting alternative ways of approaching the past. Like Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson , Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James represents a major advance in the development of the genre, and is as relevant and powerful a piece of writing today as when it was first published.

Alice James was born in 1848, the fifth child and only daughter of Henry and Mary James, and sister of William James, the psychologist and philosopher, and Henry James, the novelist. Her father, who had lost his leg as a young man, was an eccentric writer and philosopher who devoted himself to his children’s moral instruction. He thought travel the best education and much of Alice’s early childhood was spent traipsing around Europe. This impermanency made an already insular family even more codependent. The family eventually settled in Newport and then Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alice’s father doted on her and encouraged her learning but was adamant that she adhere to her true nature and duty as a woman. In an article entitled “Woman and the Woman’s Movement” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1853), he wrote “Woman is… inferior to man… She is his inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect, and his inferior in physical strength… Her aim in life is… simply to love and bless man.”

Alice’s mother did her utmost to comply with this ideal of maternal and wifely devotion. With the help of her unmarried sister Katherine, she ran a smooth household, shielding her husband and sons from any domestic worries while pursing their higher intellectual callings.

Alice exhibited superior intelligence, pungent wit, marked ambition, and competitiveness. At first her precociousness fit in with the peculiarities of the James family universe. But, as is typical of so many girls, when Alice hit puberty, her own desires and expectations clashed dangerously with both the family ethos and that of the world at large. Life’s lesson, she later wrote in her diary, was “to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” Her solution to the problem of her existence took a violent, yet socially acceptable, form. She became chronically ill.

Read the rest of my May column here at Bookslut

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