[(essay date August 1985) In the following essay, Rose praises Gubar and Gilbert's literary analyses in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, but is concerned about the effect of establishing a female literary canonon on future women writers.]
At more than 2,000 pages and over two pounds, [The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women] is not in any sense to be taken lightly. Intended as a textbook for courses in women's literature, it is likely to be widely used, because of the prestige of its editors, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the field of women's studies, and because of the prestige of the Norton anthology series in university literature departments. Our daughters and granddaughters will lug this book home on vacations from college. With what baggage will it freight their minds?
Happily, it should convince them that writing is not an activity alien to women. From Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in the Middle Ages to Alice Walker and Leslie Marmon Silko, women have produced a large and varied body of writing in English. This anthology includes close to a hundred and fifty authors, from many countries. The numbers are smaller the further back one goes, but the surprises are greater. In the fifteenth century Margery Kempe wrote about being tempted to commit adultery by a man who refused her when she consented. In the seventeenth century Aphra Behn wrote a poem about male impotence, called "The Disappointment." It's also good to know that women can write dazzlingly about nothing at all--like the dying Alice James, who described the seductive moment when she felt herself "floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation."
The burden that Gilbert and Gubar have imposed on women of the future is the burden of a tradition--a nurturant tradition. It used to be that women writers, working in silence, exile, and cunning, sought out other women writers to admire. Virginia Woolf wrote about Dorothy Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti, among others, and these essays helped her "self-definition as a woman writer," Gilbert and Gubar say. "For if women had written, and written successfully, women could write." To Virginia Woolf and her successors, the female literary past was, according to Gilbert and Gubar, "empowering rather than intimidating." Now that the female literary past has been enshrined in this gigantic anthology, the observation that it has been empowering in the past becomes a moral imperative for the future. Finding and loving our literary ancestors is no longer a secret pleasure and private solace but a filial duty.
In editorial comments throughout the book Gilbert and Gubar present a female tradition of support and encouragement, a literature "empowered by female community." Eudora Welty's debt to Katherine Anne Porter is noted, as is Elizabeth Bishop's loyalty to her "major female literary mentor," Marianne Moore. Not for women is the kind of literary past Harold Bloom describes, which creates anxiety and provokes rebellion. Not for women is a literary history...