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Écritures dans les Amériques au féminin

Dante Barrientos-Tecun
Anne Reynes-Delobel

Higher Education and the Teaching of American Women Writers

Deborah Clarke


L’étude des écrivaines américaines à l’Université (envisagée à la fois comme sujet d’enseignement et de recherche) peut servir à mettre en lumière les politiques universitaires, les politiques culturelles et les choix faits en matière de relations internationales. L’étude des écrivaines américaines n’a jamais été une question isolée ni fermée. Fruit d’un effort collectif, elle a subi plusieurs transformations successives : tout d’abord redéfinie sous l’effet des critiques (légitimes) soulevées par les femmes de couleur et la nécessité de prendre en compte les questions de classe et d’orientation sexuelle, elle a été recontextualisée par les études culturelles (cultural studies), puis s’est mondialisée. En d’autres termes, enseigner l’œuvre de ces écrivaines revient à prendre part à une entreprise qui touche à un grand nombre de questions. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, ce sujet est au cœur des préoccupations de l’Université et de la culture contemporaine.

Texte intégral

1The 2003 Conference of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) included a plenary panel on the climate surrounding the teaching of American women writers. It’s an issue that continues to resonate, though the conditions of higher education have changed, bringing both challenges and opportunities in navigating the academic politics to advance the field. How can organizations such as this one and SSAWW be employed to facilitate, expand, and re-imagine this enterprise? The study of women writers has never been a closed or isolated project; it was born out of a collective effort, re-shaped by the well-deserved rebukes from women of color, further influenced by issues of class and sexual orientation, contextualized by cultural studies, and globalized. In other words, to teach and study American women writers is to participate in a venture that resonates in a wide range of arenas. Now, more than ever, women writers are relevant to the academy and contemporary culture.

2The 2003 SSAWW conference occurred the year after the conclusion of the first phase of Oprah Winfrey’s vastly popular and influential Oprah’s Book Club, which ran on American television from 1996 to 2002 to a predominantly female audience. Of the forty-eight texts presented, roughly three quarters were by women. While this project made women’s literature visible, it did not necessarily make women’s literature respectable from a “literary” perspective. I’d like to explore how this cultural moment intersected with higher education and literary study and how it may provide a broader context for considering the role of women writers in the profession and in the university. In 2003 we were in an allegedly “post-feminist” world, strongly under the influence of post-structural theory which de-emphasized the essential sexed body, and making the shift from women’s studies programs to gender studies programs. One major question we faced was how to justify what often seemed a retrograde category, that of women writers. The emphasis in most English departments was on defining and justifying a curriculum and then making sure the core courses were covered. While the fight for the legitimacy of the study and teaching of women writers had largely been won, that victory did not necessarily translate into more courses on the topic or greater respect for publication in the field. Sometimes it felt like we had moved from being radical to being outdated, as post-colonialism, cultural theory, and Foucault took center stage.

3Ten years later, declining financial support for education and a significant recession have altered the U.S. academic climate. Now, in public institutions, we fight each other for student credit hours or what we call more crudely, “butts in seats.” Departmental budgets depend at least partly on the numbers of students taught; if courses on women writers pull in students, then women writers get taught. If the English Department’s offerings can lure students away from History, Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, or anything else, then English manages to squeeze a few more resources from its rivals. There is a finite financial pie; it’s a question which departments get the largest share. In addition, the larger field of the humanities are under attack, and students are urged to pursue degrees considered more likely to lead to jobs: business and engineering.

4I’d like to suggest that, in fact, the study and teaching of women writers is admirably suited to prosper in this environment. Because of the nature of what we study and how we study it, we should be able to position ourselves to capitalize on the enduring popularity of women writers so forcefully illustrated by Oprah. We need to take advantage of the move toward seeing education as job training and the triumph of more vocationally defined programs of study, along with the growing realization that the future will workforce will be dealing increasingly with a global economy. Such awareness is, after all, embedded in the work of American women writers from Louisa May Alcott’s Work to Helena Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. This is not to suggest that those in the humanities surrender, ceding the field to business, science, and engineering. Rather, it is to argue for a multi-pronged approach, both articulating the continued relevance of humanities study in confronting the challenges of today’s world and also in seeking ways to integrate the humanities in general and women writers in particular into wider disciplinary arena.

5In the remainder of this paper I will pursue these claims, examining the role of U.S. women writers in U.S. universities, and how we can use that role as a springboard to further our interconnections locally, nationally, and internationally, as well as to professional communities. In particular, I anticipate exploring issues of popularity and consumerism, primary concerns of both women writers and higher education. As education becomes increasingly modeled on the corporate world, the study of women writers may provide us with a way of humanizing global commercialism, forming a bridge between the perceived split between the vocational and knowledge-based aspects of the university. The future of education, I would argue, depends upon the kinds of knowledge generated by the teaching of women writers.

6Oprah’s Book Club brought into the open a longstanding scholarly debate about popular fiction and “literary” fiction. The majority of authors featured on the initial incarnation of the show were established writers who had produced well-respected books: from Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who had several novels featured, to Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Edwidge Danticat, Ernest Gaines, and Andre DuBus III. Nonetheless, the Oprah’s Book Club logo displayed on the covers of selected books generally translated into an assumption of lesser literary value, of the dreaded label of “popular fiction,” or, even worse, “chick lit.” It also, of course, translated into significantly higher sales; nearly all the featured books sold over 750,000 copies and spent significant time on the bestseller lists (Hall 647). This commercial success, however, reinforces the lesser literary status; great books, as we all know, are not just written primarily by men, they are also unappreciated by the masses. As Scott Stossel of the The Atlantic suggested:

  • 1 When William Faulkner, the epitome of a disturbing writer, was featured in a second round of Oprah’ (...)

There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it (qtd. in Minzesheimer1).

7Serious literature, in other words, does not belong on a television show pitched to women; it belongs to the realm of high culture, not popular culture, a point recently reinforced by Canadian novelist David Gilmour, who noted that he teaches only “serious heterosexual guys” in his literature courses at the University of Toronto (Chew).

  • 2 Much work has been done on 19th century American women writers, reclaiming sentimental popular fict (...)

8This situation posed a new set of challenges for feminist scholars. Having worked hard to establish women writers as the intellectual, formal, and imaginative equals of men writers, we now often felt compelled to re-fight the low/high culture battle. It was no longer enough to argue that women writers deserved to be taught; we prevailed in that battle. But now we had to make the case that not only did writers such as Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Toni Morrison match up to William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Ellison, we also needed to embrace the popular women writers made so culturally visible by Oprah. Had we not done so, we would have replicated the kinds of hierarchy that devalued women writers in the first place. We needed students to understand that traditional assumptions about literary value had created a system of evaluation inherently inhospitable to a wide range of women writers by suggesting that their popularity proved their inferiority2. Most importantly, we needed to challenge the idea that economic success is incompatible with excellence. Popular reception and marketing are key components in establishing a literary presence; they may not be sole criteria for excellence, but they are certainly part of the larger package. We cannot afford to ignore marketability as a key issue in the classroom. After all, we increasingly work to market our courses to students; they understand the power of consumerism — even in academia — very well.

  • 3 Hawthorne, in a follow-up letter, exempted novelist Fanny Fern, who wrote “as if the devil was in h (...)

9How did the presumed disjunction between high and popular art become both vexed and gendered? Shakespeare, of course, was popular, his appeal acknowledged by Ben Jonson in his slightly barbed tribute noting that old Will had “little Latin and less Greek,” thereby implying that Shakespeare was not truly educated, was not part of the upper crust, was not, as Jonson was, a member of the elite, a court poet. Charles Dickens’ vast popularity spanned two continents, with crowds waiting on the docks of America for the ships carrying the latest installment of his serially published novels. But the rise of female authorship put additional pressure on the differentiation, illustrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous complaint in an 1855 letter to his publisher, William Ticknor, about what he termed the damned mob of scribbling women: “worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100.000” (304)3. While some of Hawthorne’s vitriol is undoubtedly linked to pique — his own books were not selling nearly as well — he overtly links popular fiction both to trash and to women.

10This association, argues Andreas Huyssen, is further codified in what he terms the great divide of modernism, which aligned mass culture with women and high culture with men. Many have challenged this divide and Rita Felski complicates it in particularly useful ways, linking consumerism with female desire (Felski 64-65). The consuming woman was both an agent of modernity and a threat to male autonomy and authority. Feminist scholars such as Ann Douglass, Jane Tompkins, and Janice Radway have made various cases for the importance, impact, and significance of so-called popular women’s writing, thus helping to legitimize such writers as acceptable subjects of scholarly inquiry. But as Oprah’s Book Club illustrated, the stigma remains. When Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections was selected for the show, expressed some reservations about the honor, all hell broke loose. As David Kirkpatrick noted in The New York Times,

After Mr. Franzen publicly disparaged Oprah Winfrey’s literary taste — suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ‘the high-art literary tradition’ and might turn off some readers — he found that he may have inadvertently damaged his own reputation in the literary world. Ms. Winfrey did not revoke her selection but politely withdrew the invitation to appear on her show. And instead of rallying to Mr. Franzen, most of the literary world took her side, deriding him as arrogant and ungrateful. (Kirkpatrick, nd)

11That Franzen failed to garner widespread support illustrates both the weakening claim of literary elitism and the commercial power of Oprah’s Book Club, which virtually guaranteed authors a spot on the bestseller list.

12Franzen’s belief in the sanctity of the author is predicated upon a largely defunct assumption about the role of the artist. When critic Harold Bloom, one of the staunchest supporters of the great tradition, says he would be honored to be invited onto Oprah’s show, it’s clear that a sea change has occurred in how literary worth is evaluated. According to Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine, Franzen’s position “was part of the avant-garde literary tradition that came out of the 20s — that the writer was this genius in whose presence one behaved oneself, that a hush fell over the room. It still had some force through the 1960’s, but now the garret is a thing of the past. A good writer is a rich writer, and a rich writer is a good writer” (Kirkpatrick).

13This claim — that a good writer is a rich writer — opens the door that Hawthorne tried to slam shut about the value of women writers. And, for my purposes, this association between consumerism and literature, so publicly heralded, has significant implications when applied to higher education. While the university has historically presented itself as non-commercial, academics have been railing about the corporatization of the university for the past quarter century. Just as Oprah’s Book Club, as Trish Travis has pointed out, both “undoes the traditional elitism” of the classic public sphere by making knowledge accessible to those often excluded, and also functioned as a “hypercapitalist” venture, so higher education dances between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of resources (Travis 1017). Universities are under increasing pressure to market a college degree as a solid economic investment, a difficult sell for those in the humanities when the focus is so intensely focused on job-training. What the Book Club and the discourses surrounding it illustrated so powerfully is the double bind and double standard that still vexes the teaching of American women writers. On one hand, the taint of popularity associated with women writers — only a few American women authors, particularly in the contemporary period, are exempt — still devalues the field academically. I can personally attest that teaching a book with the Oprah’s Book Club logo attached causes both students and colleagues to raise their eyebrows, a challenge rarely associated with teaching postmodern American fiction, a genre largely peopled by white men. On the other, teaching popular fiction identifies one as being attuned to the world beyond the university, renders education more “relevant” as it acknowledges the culture the students and their families live in. It allows the students to understand that the commercial is not necessarily incompatible with the academic.

14Ten years ago, then, higher education was still adjusting to the realization that the university was rapidly evolving into a corporate model. Sports arenas increasingly displayed scoreboards paid for by corporations such as PepsiCo — who paid Penn State University $14 million in 1992 to provide a branded scoreboard and exclusive rights to all beverages sold on campus for ten years (DePalma). With state support dwindling, university officials determined that corporate sponsorship helped to reduce the shortfall. Just as Oprah’s hypercapitalism reminded us that the literary enterprise was a commercial one, so higher education acknowledged the necessity of corporate partnerships. The current financial situation is even more dire. The budget cuts of the 90s paled in comparison to the draconian defunding of the past five years. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are spending 28% less per student on higher education now than in 2008. My own state of Arizona leads the way in slashing funding; we’re down over 50% (Oliff et. al.). Corporate assistance, however one feels about it, cannot keep pace with this level of financial need, and even though universities are aggressively pursuing philanthropic gifts, budgets are tighter than ever.

15So what do Oprah’s Book Club, the emergence of the corporate university, and the financial crisis in higher education have to do with the teaching of American women writers? I think there are several answers to that question. First, as I’ve tried to indicate, the Book Club both shone a light on the appeal of books written by women and fueled the debate between the popular and the literary. Oprah brought thousands of women closer relationship to books, particularly those by women writers. Women’s literature offers fertile ground to allow students to talk about those intersections and their larger implications, which I’ll get to shortly. Women’s fiction also provides a lens to talk about commercialism and consumerism and the changing shape of the educational climate. For we are not simply dealing with a financial crisis; an understandable concern about the marketability of a college degree has also led to a multi-pronged attack on the study of literature and the humanities in general. Now, as never before, students are urged to focus on “practical” fields such as business and engineering. STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — are touted as the training ground for the 21st century. I support whole-heartedly the study of STEM fields, especially for women. But the charge against the study of humanities is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least because literary studies and feminist studies are bearing the brunt of the attack. In the conservative on-line journal, American Thinker, Jeffrey Folks attributes the uselessness of the humanities precisely to its focus on gender and race, claiming that “the splintering of the humanities into discrete disciplines such as women’s studies, men’s studies, gay studies, Latino studies, and the like” constitute the “real” problem with the humanities. Students are poorly served, he notes, by “the antagonism of many academics toward the capitalist society that supports them” (Folks).

  • 4 There are numerous studies on the value of the humanities, both intellectual and economic. The most (...)

16According to this position, those in the humanities are not only betraying their discipline’s classical roots, but are also responsible for students graduating with scant job prospects and little hope of economic security, antagonistic towards the society that “supports” them. Other more neutral entities, such as The New York Times, may not agree with the rants about women’s studies or Latino studies, but are still anticipating the death of the humanities, announcing in October, 2013, the decline of humanities majors at Stanford (Lewin). This conclusion is sharply refuted by Michael Bérubé in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he notes that the decline in humanities majors occurred prior to 1980 (before the advent of most women’s studies and ethnic studies programs) and has remained reasonably stable since then4. I do not intend to re-hash the details of the debate here, except to point out that all the hoopla about a crisis in the humanities, at least part of which is attributed by some observers to attention paid to women’s studies and women’s literature, offers the opportunity to refute the charge not just with numbers, as Bérubé does, but by exploring how the study of American women writers can shed light on the issues. It’s not a question of who is right or wrong, but how one can use women writers in the classroom to enable students to make their own decisions about how they choose to use their college experience.

17Women’s literature allows us to think outside the box, to question hierarchy, to understand a little better what difference means. One reason that American women writers were excluded from the canon for so long is their frequent focus on the personal, on family, on religion. It’s hard to imagine issues that resonate more fully in today’s political and cultural debates. By reading this literature, students can better understand how the controversies surrounding the intersection of politics, religion, and the individual have been an integral element of American culture since its inception. The presence of women writers in the classroom challenges the whole notion of the mainstream. In particular, by teaching a writer such as Dorothy Allison we can open up discussion not only about changing the ways we value literature but also about the role of consumerism and how it defines identity — an issue of critical importance to college students across the globe.

18We all know the reasons that, in direct contradiction to the warnings that majoring in the humanities will render you unemployable, professional fields are increasingly seeking out those with humanities degrees: writing skills, research skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to adapt, to recognize there may be many ways of thinking about a problem. In fact, a 2014 study cited in Inside Higher Ed indicates that the salaries of liberal arts majors actually catch up to, and even surpass, those with professional degrees (Grasgreen). But marketability isn’t the only advantage to studying women writers. The list of benefits has a much broader reach: an understanding of how popular culture shapes one’s life and choices; a recognition of how to value difference; an awareness of the power of consumerism, particularly on women’s agency; a realization of how citizenship, in its broadest sense, may set up a system of who belongs and who doesn’t; and, a growing comprehension that contemporary American culture is getting increasingly global, that issues confronting American women may be better understood in a transnational context.

19I’d now like to look briefly at two specific texts and talk about the ways that they can be used to educate students not just about literature, but about the cultural and economic forces shaping their worlds. Dorothy Allison’s signature work, the 1992 novel, Bastard out of Carolina, presents the story of Bone, a young girl growing up poor, illegitimate, and abused. In addition to being widely taught, it gained significant popular appeal and was made into a made-for-TV moving starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, directed by Anjelica Huston. In this analysis, I’m influenced by the work of Susan J. Douglas, particularly her 2010 book, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild. In an earlier book, Where the Girls Are, Douglas explores the impact of popular culture in shaping the women’s movement. In Enlightened Sexism, she looks at what happened to that movement and the role played by mass media and popular culture in transforming women’s liberation, or what she terms “embedded feminism,” into “enlightened sexism,” the move from the sexual revolution to young women embracing their own objectified bodies and claiming it as empowerment. The messages conveyed by popular culture, Douglas argues, “insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves” (Douglas 4).

20For Allison, popular culture does not just re-teach girls their role as sex objects and consumers, as Douglas establishes; it lays out with devastating clarity the process by which consumer culture differentiates between the haves and have-nots. In Bastard out of Carolina Allison reveals the dangers of consumer culture as well as its overtly classist underpinnings. While reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, complete with photographs from the academy award winning movie, Bone loves it until

I looked up from Vivien Leigh’s pink cheeks to see Mama coming in from work with her hair darkened from sweat and her uniform stained. A sharp flash went through me. Emma Slattery, I thought. That’s who I’d be, that’s who we were. […] I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death. (Bastard 206)

  • 5 It’s particularly important to remind students that women writers are not always progressive or fem (...)

21Realizing that popular culture — along with the state of South Carolina — has defined her as trash, and thus as a thief, she embraces that role. As Bone understands, once popular culture shuts you out, you belong nowhere and anything can happen to you. This is an important moment for talking about the way representation — in this case, an iconic popular novel written by a woman, Gone With the Wind — defines what it means to be lesser, a lesson that Bone recognizes goes beyond the covers of the novel. She sees in her mother and herself their place within the larger culture. To what extent, we need to ask students, do such representations still prevail? How do cultural messages shape our perceptions of people, particularly those who might be racially, ethnically, economically, or socially different from ourselves5?

22When Bone steals tootsie rolls from Woolworth’s, her mother, determined to teach her a lesson, forces her to return them to the store. “We’re gonna go in there and give the man his candy, pay for what you ate, and that will be all there is to it. It will be over, and you’ll be glad it’s settled” (Bastard 96). But this presumes that consumerism is about exchanging money for goods, about a simple economic transaction. As Allison knows well — and Bone learns — consumerism is about how we are defined in relation to the state. The manager, who looks like “he was swallowing an urge to laugh” at them, infuriates her with his power, his patronizing attitude, and his threat of perpetual surveillance. “‘What we’re gonna do,’ he announced, ‘is say you can’t come back in here for a while. We’ll say that when your mama thinks you’ve learned your lesson, she can come back and talk to me. But till then, we’re gonna remember your name, what you look like. […] You understand me, honey?’” (97).

23Bone understands all too well.

I understood that I was banned from the Woolworth’s counters […] I looked around at the bright hairbrushes, ribbons, trays of panties and socks, notebooks, dolls, and balloons. It was hunger I felt then, raw and terrible, a shaking deep down inside me, as if my rage had used up everything I had ever eaten. After that, when I passed the Woolworth’s windows, it would come back — that dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back. (97-98)

24At other points in the book she suffers from physical hunger for food, but nothing generates this powerful metaphysical hunger like being exiled from consumer culture. Nothing reinforces consumerism like exclusion from it. Here, too, is a moment for students to think about what it means to want — both physically and metaphorically. Such a moment could be integrated into discussions of public assistance and the insistence that the poor focus on the basics, not things like dolls and candy, the goods are constantly marketed and advertised to the nation at large. In other words, to be deprived of fun stuff is to be denied an American cultural identity. This is a novel not just about an abused child; it invites one to reconsider government regulations and how they function. It is a novel that resonates far beyond its literary status.

25But this book offers more than a content lesson. It is in this searing representation of the power of consumerism that Allison’s work gains much of its literary sophistication. Later in the novel, Bone breaks into the Woolworth’s store and comes to a different realization of its meaning. In the description of Bone deliberately breaking a case of nuts, Allison’s rhetorical strategy highlights this new awareness.

The glass shattered and the nuts poured out. I felt a shock of electricity shoot up my arm to my shoulder; a river of nuts was flooding out of the case, a tide of nuts, an avalanche. I started to giggle, a high-pitched nasal laugh. When the sound stopped I saw that the case was a sham. There hadn’t been more than two inches of nuts pressed against the glass front, propped up with cardboard. (224)

26You can feel the build of the sentence — a river, a tide, an avalanche — before Allison deftly deflates it, first with the nasal giggle and then with the realization that the rivers, tides, and avalanches, in fact, have been manufactured by Bone based on her assumptions of the plentitude of what Woolworth’s offers. She now looks with new eyes:

Junk everywhere: shoes that went to paper in the rain, clothes that separated at the seams, stale candy, makeup that made your skin break out. What was there here that I could use? I remembered the rows of canned vegetables at Aunt Raylene’s place — rows of tomatoes and okra, peaches and green beans, blackberries and plums that stretched for shelf on shelf in her cellar. That was worth something. All this stuff seemed tawdry and useless. (224-225)

27Here, the rhetorical structure, rather than building to a false climax, instead extends methodically through a litany of fruits and vegetables. There are no false promises, no crescendos, just simple worth. This sophisticated rhetorical representation provides a way to talk about how art helps us to understand these social nuances, the kind of awareness that fiction offers as opposed to government documents or journalism. It is Allison’s skill as a writer, and our skills as readers, that enable us to understand the impact of business and government decisions and how they can brand a store or a product. Thanks to Allison’s art, we gain insight into the complicated role played by the retail industry. Woolworth’s is no longer a store specializing in cheap merchandise; it is a gatekeeper for consumer culture. Such understanding is invaluable for anyone looking to move into a business environment. It also, of course, reflects the critical importance power of language, whether in literature or in the marketplace, knowledge gained in a course on women writers. So we need to make sure we talk about the book from numerous angles, the vocational as well as the literary.

28We may smile at Bone’s realization that Woolworth’s sells trash, so that her exile from the store is really not a problem; after all, she comes to realize the true worth of her aunt’s home canning. But the hunger represented at being excluded is not assuaged by her awareness that there’s nothing there that she needs. Reason not the need, as Shakespeare — and advertisers — might say. Allison knows, as does King Lear, that we define ourselves not through needs but through wants, however paltry. In fact, it’s precisely because we’re talking Woolworth’s that her exposé is so apt. It’s easy to condemn the junk sold in cheap stores. By carefully setting up the reader to feel amused sympathy rather than disapproval at Bone’s transgressions, Allison brilliantly implicates us as participating in the classist assumptions about the power of consumer culture. Bone can be forgiven because she’s only robbing a Woolworth’s. This does not threaten middle class consumerism; it might be different if she robbed a Whole Foods or Saks Fifth Avenue.

  • 6 Allison does not always provide this refuge. In “Steal Away,” the speaker describes at length defac (...)

29By encouraging us to condone Bone’s criminal activity, Allison situates the reader above the fray, safely removed from the hunger that fuels Bone’s rage. We can applaud her resistance, since it’s directed against a commercial enterprise, not against us6. Allison’s novel thus forces us to confront classism within academia as well as beyond it. We may side with Bone, but many of us enjoy a socio-economic position more similar to the manager of Woolworths (though it’s important to remember that our students may not). In her presentation of consumer culture, she opens up questions critical to instructors, students, and readers, questions about how Americans react to market forces attempting to sell them goods and to define their positions in a world shaped by access to consumer products. Such issues have critical and far-reaching implications for students moving into professional lives. Their ability to read a book that falls far outside the realm of STEM or business can provide them with an ability to analyze cultural and economic realities and to understand how their future participation in such a world may help reinforce and/or transform such conditions.

30This example, of course, barely scratches the surface of what is possible in the teaching of women’s literature. Helena Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus offers a searing portrayal of the lives of migrant workers and forces us to look closely at citizenship: how it’s defined, what it means, what privileges it is assumed to convey, and how it may be linked to economic survival. And yet, if you read the back cover of the novel, we learn that the main character, Estrella, will taste “the joy and pain of first love.” Yes, Estrella is interested in a young man, but she’s more concerned that her family survive the brutal conditions of migrant labor. This cover is actually very telling in the way that the publishing industry tries to re-focus the novel as a love story, rather than one that deals with agribusiness, labor conditions, health concerns, pesticides, and citizenship. It is, in fact, a novel grounded in a realization of how marketing and advertising erase the labor that goes into food production.

31Working in the grape fields, Estrella recalls the image on the Sun Maid raisin boxes, a “woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips” (49). In reality, “Estrella’s eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth. The woman with the red bonnet did not know this” (50). This novel generates important discussions of how advertising works and why the U.S. grocery industry works so hard to distance the consumer product from its origin. Whether it be raisins in pretty boxes or meat carefully cut up and hermetically packaged, the goods available to American consumers present a very sanitized image of food. I have found that students jump on this issue, fascinated by how agribusiness controls our relation to what we eat. Such understanding is critical for anyone going into agriculture, marketing, or advertising.

  • 7 For additional information on the student debt situation, see “Student Debt and the Class of 2012.”

32In teaching these books — and so many more — we educate students to be aware that there are many ways of linking literature to larger issues and that American women writers can provide key lessons to dealing with a diverse population in a rapidly changing and global landscape. Most of us have been doing this for some time, of course, but given the current scrutiny of the usefulness of education by state legislators, it behooves us to remind them of the larger applicability. We cannot afford to overlook their financial futures; the average tuition for in-state students is now just under $9000/year; for out-of-state students the rate is over $22,000. Those going to private colleges and universities pay over $30,000 on average (“Average”). This leads, of course, to a significant rise in student debt; 70% of students graduating in 2012 incurred debt, the average amount being $29,4007. Our students need our help in preparing them for the 21st century job market.

33Despite the claims to the contrary, few fields offer better preparation for post-graduate success, an argument that we need to make urgently to our university administrators. In this, we are greatly aided by the students themselves. I conducted an informal survey of SSAWW members about the health of their courses on American women writers. People responded who taught at small colleges, at public universities, at religious institutions, and at community colleges. Virtually all reported that courses were taught at least once a year and most indicated greater frequency than that. Ultimately, this is the argument that seals the deal: butts in seats. Student tuition dollars — the only stable form of support still available to higher education — are paying for these classes, thereby supporting the larger mission of the university.

34Many respondents also noted that women writers have been integrated into general survey courses, which is what one would expect. But we need to go further. It’s not enough to include American women writers in courses where they should have been present all along. Just as women writers force us outside the box of traditional expectations, we, as teachers, need to think outside the box of literature and the humanities. How can we integrate the study and teaching of women writers and women’s issues not only into social science courses but also into the STEM fields and business? We need to make the arguments I’ve been making here about the relevance of these approaches to our colleagues across the university. Let’s try to get Bastard out of Carolina into courses on the retail industry; Under the Feet of Jesus would be invaluable to a course on agriculture, labor studies, or marketing. I have written extensively on women and cars, and I’d love to see some of those texts in courses on transportation or automotive engineering. Correspondingly, we need to bring those subjects into our classes. I have found students are fascinated, for example, when I indicate automobile history and technology play a crucial role in American literature. Thinking about the ways the industry has developed in relation to women’s concerns — electric cars, electric starters, SUVs (and mom cars in general), for example — reminds them that literature is a part of a larger cultural moment, not removed from it; contrary to much popular belief, women were fully invested in automobile culture. Understanding technology helps to open new angles into literary study and to think about how women’s lives are shaped by an extensive and intricate range of forces. The future of the study of American women writers lies not only in the humanities, but in the university as a whole.

35It also lies in the international community, in conferences like this one. After all, the primary concern about teaching U.S. women writers is not that it will render students unemployable or hostile to their nation, but that the focus is, by definition, American. James Baldwin, in 1951, spent some time in a Swiss village, the only black person most of the residents had ever seen. In detailing the experience in his well-known 1955 essay, “Stranger in the Village,” he muses on the lessons learned, both by him and by the villagers, that such isolation from racial others has largely disappeared, closing with the memorable line, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” The same could be said about the U.S.: “This world is American no longer, and it will never be American again.” It’s so important that this is a conference on the Americas, that our mission as scholars and teachers goes well beyond national boundaries. The writers I’ve been citing help to illuminate the nuances of U.S. culture, but we need more cross-cultural exchanges. This is not to say that women’s issues are necessarily universally understood; clearly being excluded from Woolworth’s in South Carolina is still very much a first world experience, best understood within the context of American consumerism. But we need to learn how these issues translate across nations, how to understand cultural specificity as well as global awareness. Such knowledge will be of paramount importance to our students as they go on to negotiate a global landscape. We owe it to them to think about how teaching women writers is a trans-national enterprise, one that challenges students across the world to think beyond the tradition, beyond the hierarchy, and beyond the university.

ALLISON, Dorothy, 1992, Bastard Out of Carolina, New York, Plume.

ALLISON, Dorothy, 1988, “Steal Away,” in Trash, New York, Plume, p. 73-79.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013, The Heart of the Matter, Cambridge, MA,​_pdf/​hss_report.pdf.

“Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector,” 2013-2014, Trends in Higher Education, College Board Advocacy and Policy Center,​college-pricing/​figures-tables/​average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2013-14.

BALDWIN, James, 1955, “Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son, New York, Bantam Press, p. 135-149.

BÉRUBÉ, Michael, 2013, “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July,​article/​The-Humanities-Declining-Not/​140093.

CHEW, Kristina, 2013, “No Women Writers On My Syllabus, Professor Says,” Care2, 30 September,​causes/​no-women-writers-on-my-syllabus-professor-says.html.

DEPALMA, Anthony, 1992, “Penn State got the Exclusive $14 Million, 10-Year Deal with Pepsi! Uh-hh!”, 10 June,​1992/​06/​10/​news/​penn-state-got-the-exclusive-14-million-10-year-deal-with-pepsi-uh-huh.html?src=pm.

DOUGLAS, Ann, 1977, The Feminization of American Culture, New York, Avon Books.

DOUGLAS, Susan J., 2010, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild, New York, Macmillan.

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1 When William Faulkner, the epitome of a disturbing writer, was featured in a second round of Oprah’s Book Club, viewers reacted with some bewilderment and commentators with considerable condescension, questioning the ability of Oprah’s readers to comprehend Faulkner’s dense prose and shifting narratives. Jesse Kornbluth commented in The Huffington Post, “I’ll be stunned if 10% of Oprah’s devotees reach page 100 of any of these novels.” But Oprah’s cultural power vaulted even Faulkner’s work to number two on the Amazon best seller list (behind Harry Potter). While the buzz was not comparable to that generated by some of the earlier writers, especially Morrison, Oprah, with the assistance of various members of the academic community did, in fact, succeed in helping thousands of readers appreciate Faulkner’s work.

2 Much work has been done on 19th century American women writers, reclaiming sentimental popular fiction as worthy of study. See Jane Tompkins in particular. My interest, however, is in late 20th century and 21st century work, which faces a similar cultural skepticism, though the presence of T.V. and mass media have further complicated the conversation.

3 Hawthorne, in a follow-up letter, exempted novelist Fanny Fern, who wrote “as if the devil was in her,” from his condemnation. But he hardly improved matters by observing: “Generally, women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly” (308).

4 There are numerous studies on the value of the humanities, both intellectual and economic. The most complete is the report generated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter.

5 It’s particularly important to remind students that women writers are not always progressive or feminist and to situate that lesson within the context of popularity. Are the most popular books those that reflect a conservative agenda? In what ways can — or should — feminist scholars claim that popularity?

6 Allison does not always provide this refuge. In “Steal Away,” the speaker describes at length defacing the books of various college professors, along with thefts from the institution itself.

7 For additional information on the student debt situation, see “Student Debt and the Class of 2012.”


Arizona State University, Professor of English,

Deborah Clarke is professor in the English department and Vice-Provost at Arizona State University. Her primary field is twentieth-century American fiction, with particular emphasis on Faulkner and women writers. In her first book, Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner (1994), she explored the ways in which Faulkner’s women characters reflect a tension between the body and language, between the literal and figurative, and how that tension characterizes her creative vision. Her second book, Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America (2007) examines the intersection of American fiction — primarily but not exclusively by women — and automobile culture, arguing that issues critical to 20th century American society — technology, mobility, domesticity, and agency — are repeatedly articulated through women’s relationships with cars. Her current research project deals with debt and credit, how living beyond one’s means plays out as a literary and cultural trope.

Deborah Clarke est professeure au département d’anglais et Vice‑Provost à Arizona State University. Sa recherche porte avant tout sur la littérature américaine du xxe siècle et particulièrement sur l’œuvre de Faulkner et les écrivaines américaines. Son premier livre, Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner (1994), explore les personnages de femmes chez Faulkner sous l’angle de la tension, source de créativité et d’inventivité, entre corps et langage, littéral et figural. Son deuxième ouvrage, Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America (2007), analyse la place de l’automobile dans la littérature américaine au féminin en défendant l’idée que les questions essentielles à l’étude de la société américaine au xxe siècle (technologie, mobilité, vie de famille et agency) gouvernent la relation que la femme entretient avec l’automobile. Deborah Clarke travaille actuellement à un troisième ouvrage portant sur les questions relatives à la dette et au crédit considérés comme tropes littéraires et culturels.

Deborah Clarke es catedrática en el departamento de inglés y Vice-Provost en Arizona State University. Su trabajo de investigación se centra especialmente sobre la literatura estadounidense del siglo XX y en particular sobre la obra de Faulkner y las escritoras de Estados Unidos. Su primer libro,
Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner (1994), explora los personajes de mujeres en Faulkner desde el ángulo de la tensión, fuente de creatividad y de inventividad, entre cuerpo y lenguaje, literal y figurado. Su segunda obra, Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America (2007), analiza el lugar del automóvil en la literatura estadounidense en femenino sosteniendo la idea de que los planteamientos esenciales en el estudio de la sociedad norteamericana del siglo XX (tecnología, mobilidad, vida de familia y agency) determinan la relación que la mujer establece con el automóvil. Deborah Clarke trabaja actualmente en un tercer libro sobre cuestiones relativas a la deuda y al crédito considerados como tropos literarios y culturales.

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