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March 08, 2013

Heroines

Posted by: Dave Ryman

The second post in our Women’s History Month we are looking at Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.

Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist. Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is an ode to the women behind the masters. She pays tribute to the “union of forgotten or erased wives” of the modernist authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. As these “Great American (Male) Novelists” worked on masterpieces, their wives, Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, struggled to conform to the gender roles assigned to them by their husbands and society. As a result, both women suffered mentally and were ultimately committed to asylums. Vivienne died of a heart attack, possibly brought on from overdosing on her medication, while Zelda died in a fire. Vivienne and Virginia Woolf were diagnosed with the same mental disorder that doctors called “moral insanity”; this disorder was “often assigned to girls who somehow rebelled against their confined gender role (often promiscuity, in behavior or in one’s body maturing early).” As a remedy to calm Vivienne’s nerves, Leonard Woolf told Eliot to have her write. Vivienne’s earliest works, published in her and her husband’s magazine, Criterion, were “autobiographical prose” that “offered satirical and sometimes savage portraits.” Following the controversy her writing caused, she was removed form the magazine and from the writing world while her husband’s career moved on.

Fitzgerald criticized his wife for using her own life experiences in her novel, Save Me the Waltz.  Zambreno argues that Zelda’s encroachment on this privilege of the male-dominated literary world threatened Fitzgerald. Female authors who write autobiographically are seen as self-indulgent, Zambreno says. Despite male authors using the same practices, for a woman to draw from her life is seen as cheapening her writing.

With the growing world of blogs, a new literary door is opening. Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Vivienne, Virginia, and Zelda would have embraced these new forms of social media that promote self-expression and literary democratization.

              Although the blog is an emerging form, this question of women swallowing panic about the autobiographical, and often censoring themselves, or being asked to, is nothing new. The horror/shame/worry: of being discovered disciplined, ostracized….The reason why women use pseudonyms, women have always used pseudonyms. The Bronte sisters become the Bells. Perhaps Anon is a Woman, Woolf muses in Room. Perhaps this is still true. Genius is a Man, Anon is a Woman.So the decision to write the private in public, it is a political one. It is a counterattack against this censorship. To tell our narrative, the truth of our experiences. To write our flawed, messy selves. To fight against the desire to be erased. Why try to make these confessionals public? Why write one’s diary in public? To counter this shaming and guilt project. To refuse to swallow. To refuse to scratch ourselves out. To refuse to be censored, to be silent. Or to circle around that silence like a traumatic scene.

Yet the question remains: Will the proliferation of blogs and social media change the perception of women writers? Will autobiographical accounts and personal reflections from feminine authors still be seen as “self-indulgent?”

Ultimately, it is fair to wonder what has changed since the days of Eliot and Fitzgerald. Women have certainly gained greater influence in professional society and, in many cases, have finally achieved personal autonomy.  But will men and women writers ever be seen in the same light? Or will women always be tasked, in some small way, with performing in line with a prescribed role?

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