Women writers' novellas is the subject of a course I am taking. The anthology we are using begins with some almost forgotten women -- or rather women forgotten until the women's studies became a part of many college's curricula. We have read authors I had not read before: Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Chopin and, this week, Nella Larsen whose name was utterly unknown to me. (We also have read Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton who have received attention continuously and the ones we will read during the remainder of the semester are more modern and more well known). Nella Larsen, in the photo above, was this week's writer. Her story Quicksand was judged by most in the class to be unsuccessful. I believed her character until the final section, many others in the class felt the same way. Apparently after this novella she stopped writing during the last 23 or so years of her life. We know that Kate Chopin also stopped writing at an early age.
I wonder did they really stop writing or did they stop trying to publish? Did manuscripts eventually become tinder for a fire? Nella Larson was a woman of mixed background, half black, half white, she wrote about trying to find her identity and being true to it. Kate Chopin wrote about seeking freedom of expression in a restrictive society. We have no idea how many women writers were never recognized. They may have published here and there in local newspapers, poems in this or that weekly publication, short stories in small magazines. Maybe many of them were not very successful. Maybe they weren't even very good. But we know, because historical societies have sought them out, that many women pioneers, homesteaders, wagon trainers, kept diaries that have become precious historical documents.
Until the women's movement of the mid-20th century women writers were more apt to disappear than be remembered unless they were lucky enough to play in "the big boys' club", as did Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and a few others. Being taken seriously was especially difficult for black women -- and still is. Yes, we have Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and a handful of others. But I spoke to two knowledgeable women after the class yesterday and asked if they had ever heard of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy. No. She was a neighbor of mine and a friend in New York. The first black woman playwright to win not one but two Obies. Her work is well known in black studies but black studies is an invisible area doubled compared to women's studies which is semi-invisible to the great male establishment that still defines American literature. Being a woman is hard in the arts; being a black woman is harder.
We have just finished black history month and are moving into women's history month. Then comes April which is poetry month. Some groups have lobbied for recognition in some way -- but, in practice they are barely recognized at all.
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