Sunday, November 18, 2007

Passionate Minds

After recently claiming that I don't read much non-fiction I now find myself in the strange situation of reading not one, but two collections of essays at once. I'm part of the way through The Grave of Alice B. Toklas by Otto Friedrich and after I posted on his essay about Alice B. Toklas I picked up another book that has been sitting on the shelf for a while: Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont. I originally planned to just read her essay on Gertrude Stein but I've found myself swept up in the essays and have gone on to read several more.

Pierpont declares in her introduction that she has chosen to write about 'literary women of influence (very different from women of literary influence)', hence some surprising inclusions such as Mae West who I had never thought of as a writer (it turns out she wrote several plays, film scripts and of course her autobiography). The first section, most of which I've read now, is loosely group around the issue of sex, and includes essays on Stein, Mae West, Anais Nin and Olive Schreiner. There are two other sections dealing with politics (Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy) and race (Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty). These are interesting, diverse selections.

I had expected that the essays would be reverential in tone as sometimes is the case in these kinds of collections of writing on influential women. In fact Pierpont is quite critical of some of her subjects and does not fall into the trap of romanticising them. She acknowledges that much of Gertrude Stein's writing was incomprehensible and of Anais Nin's writing she says:
For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages through the mere act of closing a book- such a simple deliverance- relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside.

Each essay is a kind of mini-biography and I've enjoyed learning about the lives of these women who I mostly didn't know much about. Pierpont convincingly argues that each of her subjects changed the world in some way. While Anais Nin might not be the world's best writer, her writing, and her life, showed women that it might be possible to view their own sexuality in a different way, that women should acknowledge their desires in the way that men have been able to in the past. Mae West similarly showed audiences that women could enjoy their sexuality without the burden of romantic love through her creation of the bawdy character, Diamond Lil. In Stein's case she thought that a woman could achieve as much as a man by purging herself of what is expected of women and writing 'like a man'.

The essays I've read so far concern the lives of very different women but they intersect in interesting ways. All of them struggled against societies expectations and all of them had periods of hardship and mixed fortune even after they had achieved fame. Sometimes it feels as though Pierpont has tried to squeeze too much in here- it's hard to condense these rich lives into essay form- but it still makes for interesting reading.

1 comment:

Fay Sheco said...

"Such a simple deliverance!" Indeed. That was my response to Nin, as well, and this quote had me laughing. Yes, yes, she broke down barriers and is to be recognized for her courage, but I found her unreadable.