Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

“Oh damn,” said Julia Hedge, “why didn’t they leave room for an Eliot or a Brontë?”--Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

Woolf didn’t have children. She buttressed her disappointment by noting that none of the great four women of the nineteenth century (Austen, Eliot, Bronte, and Bronte) had children. Still, she insisted on the importance of “thinking back through our mothers.”

So, having read these two memoirs by writer-mothers a decade older than me this month (Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and Michelle Herman’s dazzling The Middle of Everything), I noticed two things: first, both write about girls playing at being the Beatles and both spend some time contemplating the significance of their own favorite Beatle. I must say, I can’t relate. I always vacillated between Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger in my fantasy life: if you’re going to rock, why be sensitive?

Second, both Maureen Corrigan and Michelle Herman celebrate the existence of mothers who write. This seems like a pantheon worth erecting, worth adding to. We all know—too well—about the generation of women who chose between writing and childbearing. It’s time, they say, to rethink that “wisdom” of either/or and to notice a new fact: that many contemporary writers are both. Corrigan wishes she had Laurie Colwin before she adopted her daughter. Herman lists Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Alison Lurie, Lore Segal in her “mental list of great women writers and artists who had managed to have children (and do right by them—for I didn’t feel comfortable including famous suicides on such a list).” I’d add Atwood, Morrison, and perhaps the once great but now loony Alice Walker.

(For more on Herman, hop over to the Collected Miscellany archives!)

Now, it seems, we can think back through our mothers by thinking back through mothers. Do you have favorite mother-writers? Do such lists, such facts matter to you?


Anonymous said...

I think these lists matter!

A random list of mother-writers, many of an older generation or two, some of them maybe not the greatest mothers, but some exemplary:

Colette (an example of the former)

Meridel Le Sueur - the great Depression era writer who left 27 great-grandchildren at her death

Anna Akhmatova

Martha Gellhorn - single mother of an adopted son

Nadine Gordimer

Carol Shields

Penelope Lively

Penelope Fitzgerald

Bharati Mukherjee

Kay Boyle

Susan Cooper

Grace Paley

Diane Johnson

Ursula LeGuin

Barbara Ehrenreich

Helen Vendler

And of course a treasurehouse of American poets, some of whom have celebrated motherhood in their poems:

Alicia Ostriker

Denise Levertov

Sharon Olds

Adrienne Rich (whose book Of Woman Born lives on)

Sandra McPherson

Jean Valentine

to name a few.

And we shouldn't forget all the nineteenth-century three-named women poets and fiction writers who had families before there was much chance not to: abolitionists, mothers of seven, mourners of their lost infants (see Janet Gray's wonderful anthology, She Wields a Pen).

Unknown said...

Wow, Valerie. What a terrific list. Thanks.

Your book arrived and it looks gorgeous. Thank you!!