Monday, June 25, 2018

The Sewing Circle and the Whaling Ship

Over the week-end, we lost two important literary giants.  Both were old, so their deaths weren't surprises.  Still, more and more it seems an age is passing away.

I think of Donald Hall as the husband of Jane Kenyon, whose poems I loved more than Donald Hall's.  It wasn't until I read the article in The New York Times about Donald Hall this morning that I realized how many books he had written, including important books that purported to anthologize the decade's most important poets.

I was always astonished that he gave up an academic job with tenure to give his attention to writing and the family farm in New England.  I knew that he had cancer and expected to die before Kenyon--and then she got cancer of her own and died, while he had more decades than expected.

One of the most searing poems of loss I ever read was his, but I can't remember which one it was.  I was surprised to find out that he went on to love again, or at least date/have sex, even after writing that poem.  It's not the first time (or the last) that I've assumed to know too much about the author by reading an author's work.

At the end of the article about Hall, I clicked on this obituary about Nina Baym.  Her name is probably not as familiar to people as Hall's, but she's one of the reasons why our literary canon expanded in the 1970's.  She was one of many feminist scholars who asked why we read so many male writers and not females.  She set out to find forgotten female authors, and she did.

In the introduction to Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870, she wrote “I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ Yet I cannot avoid the belief that ‘purely’ literary criteria, as they have been employed to identify the best American works, have inevitably had a bias in favor of things male — in favor, say, of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community; in favor of satires on domineering mothers, shrewish wives, or betraying mistresses rather than tyrannical fathers, abusive husbands, or philandering suitors.”

I could argue that her influence was much further spread than Hall's.  She was the editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and so many of us were more familiar with her ideas than we might have realized.  And because of her work, we've recovered all sorts of works of literature that might have been lost.  Those of us who see ourselves in a widening canon may have felt permission to write.  Those of us who didn't see ourselves in that widened canon went on to widen it further.

Well done, good and faithful servants.  May we all be inspired to continue the work.

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