Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë – is anyone surprised to find them on the nomination list? Like so many others, I discovered these authors as a young reader and go back to them again and again. Their books are life companions to me.
There’s a richness of women writers on our UConn Reads list. Edith Wharton and Willa Cather are there; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been nominated twice, as has Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both of these books have great related materials: the classic 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck, and Alice Walker’s “Looking for Zora,” a moving essay about her search for Hurston’s grave.
I was particularly intrigued by the suggestion of Yonnondio: From the Thirties by the American writer Tillie Olsen. Olsen was born in 1912 to Russian Jewish Immigrant parents. She dropped out of high school and worked a series of low-paying jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, and factory worker. She became a social and labor activist during the Great Depression, and also a wife and mother, but she yearned to find the time and resources to write. In reviewing Olsen’s book Silences, about the challenges that face writers because of their gender, race, or class, Margaret Atwood wrote, “She did not write for a very simple reason: A day has 24 hours in it. For 20 years, she had no time, no energy and none of the money that would have bought both. It may be comforting to believe that garrets are good for geniuses… [but] society cannot be absolved from the responsibility for what it produces or fails to produce in the way of literature.”
Yonnondio: From the Thirties, is an unfinished novel. The title comes from a Walt Whitman poem and is meant as a cry of grief. The novel follows the story of the Holbrook family. as they struggle to survive, moving from a Wyoming mining town to a city slum in Omaha, Nebraska. They struggle with income, class, gender roles, and a constant nightmarish anxiety about their power to survive. Although written during the Great Depression, the story takes place in the 1920s, and some critics have contrasted it with The Great Gatsby’s portrayal of that era.
A very different nominee is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by the brilliant nineteenth-century writer Mary Shelley. Shelley was just eighteen years old when she started writing the story of the monster created during a scientific experiment gone awry. It’s considered both a masterpiece of the Gothic novel and one of the first examples of science fiction. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the story’s many pop-culture incarnations, but there are serious themes, too: the danger of knowledge, power and responsibility, the nature of beauty and monstrosity, the human need for family and community.
I first read the book during a long train ride in Germany and Austria, and what I remember most vividly about it is the almost unbearable pathos of the monster, who seeks love and companionship but suffers nothing but rejection, and becomes a terrible murderer as a result. Perhaps, as I was traveling alone, the monster’s isolation resonated with me. I’m going to read it again next week, on family vacation in the Berkshires – where I will be anything but alone!
From high Gothic fantasy to social realism: what other works by women writers belong on the nomination list?
Please feel free to share your ideas here or nominate a book at the UConn Reads website.
Julie Bosman, “Tillie Olsen, Feminist Writer, Dies at 94,” New York Times, January 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/books/03olsen.html (retrieved July 6, 2012)
Margaret Atwood’s review of Tillie Olsen’s book Silences, appeared in the New York Times on July 30, 1978.