Silences

041815_tillieSilences
I was foolish to think I could read this book curled in an armchair instead of at a desk with laptop nearby. Sitting comfortably in my chair, I scribbled notes of the names of writers I hadn’t heard of and then decided to create a labor of love and list all the women writers referenced in the book (199 by my perhaps flawed count). For this, I needed laptop close by, so it was read, add to spreadsheet, then back to reading. Disjointed, yes, but so is the work itself. Its structure is centered around a 1962 talk, Silences in Literature, the topic taken up again in a 1971 talk, One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century. The bulk of Part 1 is then devoted to a deep dive into the life and writing of Rebecca Harding Davis, the completely ignored writer whose work has been revived with the help of Olsen. Part 2 encircles Part 1 by bolstering the argument with supporting quotations from varied writers. Part 3 is a mishmash of excerpts from Rebecca Harding Davis, Baudelaire, and an essay on the creative potential wasted by first generation who must struggle.
The silences explored are not just those of women– she begins with examples from Rimbaud, Melville, Thomas Hardy. Melville’s Pierre is filled with the agony of having to struggle to make a living as a writer. In the end, Melville gives it up and stops writing for 30 years until he retires from the custom house. “The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine” and “… most of the great works of humanity, their authors had given not weeks and months, not years and years but their wholly surrendered and dedicated lives.” Kafka’s struggle to make ends meet is documented in a few diary passages. Henry James: “The terrible law of the artist, the law of fructification, of fertilization. The old, old lesson of the art of meditation. To woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation.”
Going into the question of why so few published women writers (amazing, after dissecting the social causes, constraints, restrictions, devaluing, that there are any at all), of course the question of children arises. H.H. Richardson asked why she doesn’t have kids, “There are enough women to do the childbearing and childrearing. I know of none who can write my books.” But beyond that, how much it takes to become a writer:

Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft- but what beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.
The leeching of belief, of will, the damaging of capacity begin so early. Sparse indeed is the literature on the way of denial to small girl children of the development of their endowment as born human: active, vigorous bodies; exercise of the power to do, to make, to investigate, to invent, to conquer obstacles, to resist violations of the self; to think create, choose; to attain community, confidence in self. Little has been written on the harms of instilling constant concern with appearance; the need to please, to support; the training in acceptance, deferring… But it is there if one knows how to read for it, and indelibly there in the resulting damage. One–out of twelve.

What else causes silences? Those virulent destroyers of capacity: alcoholism, drugs, suicide. A beautiful/frightening quote from Antonin Artaud:

I am suffering from a frightful malady of the mind… a kind of erosion. My thoughts evade me in every way possible. There is something that is destroying my thinking, something that does not prevent me from being what I might be, but which leaves me in abeyance; a something furtive which takes away the words I have found, which step by step destroys in its substance my thinking as it evolves, which diminishes my intensity, which takes away from me even the memory of the devices and figures of speech by which one expresses oneself. What will restore me to the concentration of my forces, the cohesion that my mind lacks, the constancy of its tension, the consistency of its own substance?

Not to slog on continually is not to progress. Constant toil is the law of art, as it is of life (Balzac, yes I changed the pronouns):

If an artist does not spring to her work as a soldier to the breach, if once within the crater she does not labor as a miner buried in the earth, if she contemplates her difficulties instead of conquering them one by one, the work remains unachieved, production becomes impossible, and the artist assists the suicide of her own talent… The solution of the problem can be found only through incessant and sustained work… true artists, true poets, generate and give birth today, tomorrow, ever. From this habit of labor results a ceaseless comprehension of difficulties which keep them in communion with the muse and its creative forces.

The point that Plath’s Bell Jar is a portrait of the artist as young woman and one of the few that we have. We are exhorted to “read, listen to, living women writers; our new as well as our established, often neglected ones. Not to have an audience is a kind of death.”
This book is not without a few great new vocab words. Olsen cattily gives us one when dissecting a review of Harding Davis’ book by the Nation:

The Nation goes on to say: …”The intention has always been good, but the execution has, to our mind, always been monstrous. She drenches the whole field beforehand with a floor of lachrymose sentimentalism, and riots in the murky vapors which rise… It is enough to make one foreswear for ever all decent reflection and honest compassion, and take refuge in cynical jollity and elegant pococurantism.”
Pococurantism. I looked it up. It means caring little, being indifferent, nonchalant.

Discovered that Olive Schreiner’s 1883 From Man To Man included the unnoted predecessor to Woolf’s Shakespeare sister in Room of One’s Own, “what has humanity not lost by suppression and subjection? We have a Shakespeare; but what of the possible Shakespeares we might have had… stifled out without one line written, simply because being of the weaker sex, life gave no room for action and grasp on life?”
Also learned about the 1974 National Book Awards where badass Adrienne Rich won, yet “refused the terms of patriarchal competition,” rejecting the award as an individual, but accepting it in the name of all women in a statement written with Audre Lord and Alice Walker. And my to-read list grows ever longer.


199 women writers mentioned in Silences, in the order they appear (more or less):
George Eliot
Isak Dinesen
Dorothy Richardson
Elizabeth Madox Roberts
A.E. Coppard
Joyce Cary
Lampedusa
Maria Dermout
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Elizabeth Gaskell
Kate Chopin
Cora Sandel
Cyrus Colter
Horense Calisher
Virginia Woolf
Rebecca Harding Davis
Katherine Mansfield
Emily Dickinson
Katherine Anne Porter
Jane Austen
Emily Bronte
Christina Rossetti
Louisa May Alcott
Sarah Orne Jewett
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Charlote Bronte
Olive Schreiner
George Sand
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Helen Hunt Jackson
Selma Lagerlof
Willa Cather
Ellen Glasgow
Gertrude Stein
Gabriela Mistral
Charlotte Mew
Eudora Welty
Marianne Moore
Edith Wharton
HH Richardson
Elizabeth Bowen
Lillian Hellman
Dorothy Parker
Colette
Sigrid Undset
Kay Boyle
Pearl Buck
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Lady Gregory
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Fanny Burney
Aphra Behn
Harriet Martineau
jean toomer
edith summers kelley
elizabeth cady stanton
Viola Klein
Mountain Wolf Woman
Elaine Showalter
Mary Ellmann
Kate Millett
Dolores Schmidt
Anais Nin
Sylvia Plath
Henry Handel Richardson
Susan Glaspell
Djuna Barnes
Zora Neale Hurston
Christina Stead
Carson McCullers
Flannery O’Connor
Jean Stafford
Lillian Smith
Iris Murdoch
Joyce Carol Oates
Hannah Green
Lorraine Hansberry
Harriette Arnow
Mary Lavin
Mary McCarthy
Tess Slesinger
Eleanor Clark
Nancy Hale
Storm Jameson
Janet Lewis
Jean Rhys
Ann Petry
Dawn Powell
Meridel LeSueur
Evelyn Eaton
Josephine Johnson
Caroline Gordon
Shirley Jackson
Doris Lessing
Nadine Gordimer
Margaret Laurence
Grace Paley
Edna O’Brien
Slyvia Ashton-Warner
Pauli Murray
Francoise Mallet-Joris
Cynthia Ozick
Joanne Greenberg
Joan Didion
Penelope Mortimer
Alison Lurie
Hope Hale Davis
Doris Betts
Muriel Spark
Adele Wiseman
Lael Wertenbaker
Shirley Ann Grau
Maxine Kumin
Margaret Walker
Gina Barriault
Mary Gray Hughes
Maureen Howard
Norma Rosen
Lore Segal
Alice Walker
Nancy Willard
Charlotte Painter
Sallie Bingham
Clarice Lispector
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
June Arnold
Ursula Le Guin
Diane Johnson
Alice Munro
Helen Yglesisas
Susan Cahill
Rosellen Brown
Alta
Susan Griffin
Willa Cather
Ruth Suckow
Sarah Wright
Agnes Smedley
Marge Piercy
Elizabeth Hardwick
Marguerite Young
Theodora Kroeber
Linda Hoyer
Cid Ricketts Sumner
Annie Fields
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Mary Austin
Carolyn Kizer
Ethel Voynich
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Nelly Sachs
Anna Seghers
Rachel Carson
Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Maria Edgeworth
Grace Greenwood
Fenny Fern (Sara Willa Parton)
Gail Hamilton
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Anna Tsetaeyva (Marina Cretaena)
Louise Bogan
Gail Godwin
jessamyn West
Miriam Allen De Ford
Lillian Schissel
Mary Oxlie of Morpet (1600s)
Lillian Robinson
Adrienne Rich
Charlotte Baum
Ellen Moers
Audre Lord
Sarah Appleton
Jane Cooper
Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Stuart Lyon Phelps (daughter of ESP)
Marguerite Duras
Jane Lazarre
Kathe Kollwitz
Jane Bowles
Diana Trilling
Ann Birstein
Margaret Fuller
Anne Sexton
Amy Levy
Sara Teasdale
Rebecca West
Margaret Atwood
Susan Sontag
Rosellen Brown
Rosalyn Drexler
Carol Emshwiller
Denise Levertov
Simone de Beauvoir
Ntozake Shange
Beatrix Potter
A G Motjabai
Toni Morrison
Sarah Bagley
Lucy Larcom
And alphabetical by first name (fuck the patriarchy):
A G Motjabai
A.E. Coppard
Adele Wiseman
Adrienne Rich
Agnes Smedley
Alice Walker
Alice Munro
Alison Lurie
Alta
Amy Levy
Anais Nin
Ann Petry
Ann Birstein
Anna Seghers
Anna Tsetaeyva (Marina Cretaena)
Anne Sexton
Annie Fields
Aphra Behn
Audre Lord
Beatrix Potter
Carol Emshwiller
Caroline Gordon
Carolyn Kizer
Carson McCullers
Charlote Bronte
Charlotte Mew
Charlotte Painter
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Baum
Christina Rossetti
Christina Stead
Cid Ricketts Sumner
Clarice Lispector
Colette
Cora Sandel
Cynthia Ozick
Cyrus Colter
Dawn Powell
Denise Levertov
Diana Trilling
Diane Johnson
Djuna Barnes
Dolores Schmidt
Doris Lessing
Doris Betts
Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Edith Wharton
edith summers kelley
Edna O’Brien
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Elaine Showalter
Eleanor Clark
Elizabeth Madox Roberts
Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Bowen
elizabeth cady stanton
Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Stuart Lyon Phelps (daughter of ESP)
Ellen Glasgow
Ellen Moers
Emily Dickinson
Emily Bronte
Ethel Voynich
Eudora Welty
Evelyn Eaton
Fanny Burney
Fenny Fern (Sara Willa Parton)
Flannery O’Connor
Francoise Mallet-Joris
Gabriela Mistral
Gail Hamilton
Gail Godwin
George Eliot
George Sand
Gertrude Stein
Gina Barriault
Grace Paley
Grace Greenwood
Hannah Green
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Martineau
Harriette Arnow
Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Yglesisas
Henry Handel Richardson
HH Richardson
Hope Hale Davis
Horense Calisher
Iris Murdoch
Isak Dinesen
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Jane Austen
Jane Cooper
Jane Lazarre
Jane Bowles
Janet Lewis
jean toomer
Jean Stafford
Jean Rhys
jessamyn West
Joan Didion
Joanne Greenberg
Josephine Johnson
Joyce Cary
Joyce Carol Oates
June Arnold
Kate Chopin
Kate Millett
Kathe Kollwitz
Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Anne Porter
Kay Boyle
Lady Gregory
Lael Wertenbaker
Lampedusa
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Lillian Hellman
Lillian Smith
Lillian Schissel
Lillian Robinson
Linda Hoyer
Lore Segal
Lorraine Hansberry
Louisa May Alcott
Louise Bogan
Lucy Larcom
Margaret Laurence
Margaret Walker
Margaret Fuller
Margaret Atwood
Marge Piercy
Marguerite Young
Marguerite Duras
Maria Dermout
Maria Edgeworth
Marianne Moore
Mary Ellmann
Mary Lavin
Mary McCarthy
Mary Gray Hughes
Mary Austin
Mary Oxlie of Morpet (1600s)
Maureen Howard
Maxine Kumin
Meridel LeSueur
Miriam Allen De Ford
Mountain Wolf Woman
Muriel Spark
Nadine Gordimer
Nancy Hale
Nancy Willard
Nelly Sachs
Norma Rosen
Ntozake Shange
Olive Schreiner
Pauli Murray
Pearl Buck
Penelope Mortimer
Rachel Carson
Rebecca Harding Davis
Rebecca West
Rosalyn Drexler
Rosellen Brown
Rosellen Brown
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ruth Suckow
Sallie Bingham
Sara Teasdale
Sarah Orne Jewett
Sarah Wright
Sarah Appleton
Sarah Bagley
Selma Lagerlof
Shirley Jackson
Shirley Ann Grau
Sigrid Undset
Simone de Beauvoir
Slyvia Ashton-Warner
Storm Jameson
Susan Glaspell
Susan Cahill
Susan Griffin
Susan Sontag
Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Tess Slesinger
Theodora Kroeber
Toni Morrison
Ursula Le Guin
Viola Klein
Virginia Woolf
Willa Cather
Willa Cather
Zora Neale Hurston