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Writing Carolyn Heilbrun’s Life: Susan Kress, Feminist in a Tenured Position

By (May 26, 2013) No Comment

kressIt’s appropriate for a biography of Carolyn Heilbrun to be self-conscious about the challenges of writing about a woman’s life: Heilbrun literally wrote the book on this, in her slim but influential Writing a Woman’s Life. I’ve written here before about the influence of that little book on my own thinking and writing — and I’ve written about Heilbrun often, including as recently as my post on May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep. Heilbrun always seems to be a step ahead of wherever my interests take me, or perhaps, without my really being conscious of it, she’s been leading me along — to a richer appreciation of Dorothy L. Sayers, to an active interest in Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, and to engagement with Sarton. I should add that she also helped me see my way to my current project on Dick Francis (she’s a fan and her comments about him helped shape my pitch).

But of course Heilbrun’s real significance is not in her influence on me, however much that matters personally: as a critic, a feminist, a theorist, an academic (including President of the MLA), and a novelist, she played a substantial role in the intellectual history of the last 50 years. Susan Kress’s biography (the title of which plays on Heilbrun’s Death in a Tenured Position) explores that role, contextualizing Heilbrun’s individual efforts in an account of the history of feminism, especially academic feminism, in the second half of the 20th century. It’s a smart, thought-provoking read: not just a biography, not quite a critical biography, but rather a reading of Heilbrun’s life and works both as manifestations of the political and theoretical problems with which Heilbrun herself was most concerned: split selves, androgyny, inclusion and exclusion, sexism and feminism, and especially stories — stories about women and how to tell them, where to look for (or how to create) models, what shape to give them, how to take strength from them.

Kress shows that Writing a Woman’s Life is the culmination of Heilbrun’s work on all of these questions. It’s also, she notes, a book that embraces the risk of writing not just across disciplines but across audiences: “If this is Heilbrun’s most popular critical book, it is also her most theoretically sophisticated, although she always presents the theory in clear, accessible terms.” The rhetorical simplicity of the book is deceptive, as its influence (including on me!) shows, but that simplicity is also part of an idea of feminist discourse that isn’t satisfied with separating theory from practice. Kress quotes Cynthia Ozick on “the good citizen and the wild writer,” the separation between her essays and her fiction. Heilbrun, in contrast, expresses her feminist ideas through every form of her writing.


It strikes me as interesting and also as deliberate that Kress spends a lot more time on Heilbrun’s intellectual life than on the events of her personal life: her marriage and children are mentioned but primarily as reflections of or influences on her thinking (for instance, how “the experience of motherhood [shaped] her literary point of view”). Lionel Trilling has a much greater presence in the book than Heilbrun’s husband: he’s her unwitting mentor, the vexed inspirational antagonist who “taught [her] how to approach literature” but, to her lasting bitterness, barely acknowledged her at all. A telling early incident: Heilbrun’s first published essay was “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” a reassessment of critical views of Gertrude. “Delighted with her first publication,” Kress reports, “Heilbrun sent a copy to Lionel Trilling; he did respond, on a postcard, saying that he did not realize that Gertrude’s character had been in dispute.” Ouch. Kress reads much of Heilbrun’s critical work (and some of her Amanda Cross novels too) as responses to Trilling: “Toward a Recognition of Androgyny … was conceived as an argument against Trilling’s view of women and … Reinventing Womanhood reconceives and reinvents the Trillingesque self for women.”

Kress also (rightly) pays a lot of attention to Heilbrun’s overall — and equally vexed — relationship with Columbia University, where she got her Ph.D. and then taught until her resignation in 1992. It’s easy to dismiss her complaints against this prestigious institution where, after all, she held a tenured position, one of significant privilege (Kress cites several critical or outright hostile responses including that of Christina Hoff Sommers in Who Stole Feminism?). “In 1992,” Kress notes, “to any casual observer, Heilbrun seemed anything but marginal.” Much of Kress’s book, though, has helped set the terms for an alternative understanding of Heilbrun’s position as someone who “valued acceptance and inclusion, not disruption and revolution.” Yet, as she also points out, “the seeds of struggle are there from the beginning”: Heilbrun was always an outsider as much as an insider (this is one aspect of her “split selves”). And there’es plenty of evidence of a “historical pattern of Columbia’s neglect of women.” Kress suggests that by 1992, Heilbrun “had written herself into a position where she had to act, to take risks,” and departing so publicly was a way of “[taking] charge of her story” and make sure that “she would not simply disappear without a trace.”

I appreciated the time Kress took talking about Heilbrun’s teaching career. “The pedagogical impulse is strong in her,” she says, and Heilbrun’s idea that “the classroom walls are permeable” is congruent with the kinds of books she wrote and the style she wrote them in. Her interest in team-teaching is especially interesting: she seems to have been genuinely eager to learn herself, to expose herself to new challenges and approaches. She taught a course called “The Heroine’s Text” with Nancy K. Miller, for instance: “If Miller was impressed by Heilbrun’s inside-out knowledge of literature and literary figures, Heilbrun was introduced to the arcane maneuvers of high theory and to a more intense focus on women’s literary traditions.” “Teaching was a primary aspect of her professional identity,” but she also experienced “a certain discouragement”: “Teaching as a feminist is not easy.” That hasn’t really changed.

Kress’s book ends with a section called “A Rhetoric of Risk” that is, itself, riskily unstructured — or, maybe better, structured unconventionally around different talking points. Kress is wary, I think, about coming to “a conclusion,” not just because Heilbrun’s life was not over at the time of writing but because Heilbrun had taught her that self-consciousness. In her final paragraph, she quotes Heilbrun in Writing a Woman’s Life: “We women have lived too much with closure; this is the delusion of a passive life.” It’s impossible to read the biography overall and this paragraph in particular without thinking about another major step Heilbrun took in refusing “a passive life.” How different is ending your own life on your own terms from ending your career — or your books — the same way? I expect Kress saw this last decisive act as continuous, as part of Heilbrun’s ongoing and indomitable effort to be the one who would tell her own story.