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Susan Gubar shares her journey from 'Madwoman' to 'Debulked' woman

Aug. 15, 2013

“The Western canon was not liberated overnight, but Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar certainly stuck a wedge firmly into the frat house door when they wrote 'The Madwoman in the Attic,'” book critic Maureen Corrigan observed earlier this year, when Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar received the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gubar, distinguished professor emerita of English at IU, taught in the College of Arts and Sciences for more than 36 years. In the early 1970s, she and Gilbert, professor emerita of English at the University of California, were eager young scholars at IU Bloomington at a time when there were almost no female faculty in the English department.

Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar

Undaunted by the numbers, they co-taught a groundbreaking course on women’s literature and co-wrote a book by the same name, "The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination." The book, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, unveiled a theretofore hidden and ”distinctively female literary tradition“ that took literary criticism by storm and led the Women’s Movement into new intellectual terrain.

It was the beginning of a “40-year conversation,” as Gubar describes it, one that produced numerous individual and collaborative works of feminist criticism. In 1985 Gubar and Gilbert co-edited the first Norton Anthology of Literature of Women, a work now in its third edition. They are widely regarded as giants in the field of literary criticism, opening it not only to gender diversity in the 1970s and '80s, but to the racial and ethnic diversity that soon followed.

In 2008, Professor Gubar, now 68, retired from the English department after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Nevertheless her connections to faculty and friends and to scholarly inquiry remain powerful. In 2012 she published "Memoir of a Debulked Woman," recounting her odyssey “from the world of the healthy to the domain of the ill.”

She also writes the blog, “Living with Cancer,” in The New York Times.
Recently she sat down with Deborah Galyan, director of communications and marketing for the College of Arts and Sciences, to reflect on her time at IU, her legacy as a literary critic and her recent experiences of living with and writing about ovarian cancer.

What were your first impressions when you arrived at IU as a young faculty member in 1973?

“When I came to campus for my interview in the fall of 1972, I was very pregnant. I later heard a story from (Chancellor Emeritus) Kenneth Gros Louis, who was then chair of the English Department and was present at my interview. After the interview had ended, he was visited by a male faculty member who said, ‘I don’t know if you noticed, but she was quite pregnant.’ Ken’s response was, ‘Yes, that’s good, because that means the baby is due fairly soon, and we are looking forward to its coming.’ So, I think there were a few people who were alarmed about hiring a pregnant woman, but for the most part I think people were perfectly fine with it. At the time, most of the faculty were very well aware that they needed more diversity in the department.”

How many women were in the department at that time?

“The English department had just a little over 70 people, of which three or four were women. Sandra Gilbert came the same year I was hired. It was an overwhelmingly masculine culture, but luckily for us, the male faculty were deeply committed to social justice. A few of them had seen their wives suffer from nepotism laws and a number of them had seen their wives trying to find alternative careers because the department couldn’t hire them or wouldn’t hire them in those days. Today, English is a much smaller department of around 40 people, and half are women.”

What was the status of women’s literature in academia?

“The category ‘women’s literature’ did not exist. And for the most part, the canon was overwhelmingly male. It went from Beowulf to Milton to Wordsworth -- all the way up to Norman Mailer. There were very few women in the curriculum. Jane Austen, of course, was always taught in the course on the 18th-century novel, and maybe a little Virginia Woolf, but that was really it.”

What inspired you to begin exploring and teaching literature by women?

“Much of the excitement was coming from outside the university environment, primarily from the Women’s Movement. We were starting to find out about academic conferences focused on women’s issues. We were reading all kinds of new, exciting books -- Kate Millett’s 'Sexual Politics' and Shulamith Firestone’s 'The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution' are two that come to mind. It was just beginning.”

I read somewhere that you met Sandra Gilbert, who became your great friend and collaborator, in the elevator in Ballantine Hall.

“Yes, we met in the elevator. It was a happy day, because the elevators were working! And we recognized that we both had Brooklyn accents and that we both had just been hired. We immediately decided to get our families together because we were newcomers and we didn’t know anyone yet. We were looking to make connections. But for Sandra and me, the friendship blossomed in the classroom.”

Why did you decide to start teaching together?

“We both remembered loving books like 'Little Women,' the poetry of Barrett Browning and Dickinson, the work of Jane Austen, George Eliot and, of course, the Brontes. But neither of us had ever studied those books. Sandra’s children were starting to read them, and we began to talk about them. We thought it would be great fun to teach a course on those books.”

How did the process of teaching lead to the uncovering of what you describe in "Madwoman" as a "distinctively female literary tradition?"

“Sandra came up with the course title, ‘Madwoman in the Attic,’ a reference to a character in Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre.' And so, it hung on 'Jane Eyre.' We started with that because I think we understood the novel. We knew that the monstrous, enraged Mrs. Rochester, who was hidden in the attic, was enacting the submerged anger of the seemingly docile Jane Eyre, who was on the first floor. Taking that as a model of a kind of schizophrenic split -- a hidden story within the narrative -- and carrying it through the other novels and poetry was like having a key that would unlock texts. All of a sudden, a character that we hadn’t thought of as anything but peripheral and minor would become the main reflector of the heroine.

“I’m sure part of it was in the air. The sense that we were groping toward the conceptualization that gender did make a difference, that gender was playing a role in literature, for women and men.

“It was great fun for the students. We were thinking about images of confinement -- how women’s secondary status in the culture gets figured in a feeling of being confined in a private realm or in a prison. Or, with Emily Dickinson, bursting out like a bomb. A sense of confinement and escape. That narrative is something that works for students very powerfully, as they themselves are breaking out of their past states into their future new selves.”

How do you feel about the fact that you are perceived as the mother of feminist criticism? Is this a burden that has been hard to shoulder?

“First of all, I would say that there was a whole generation of people who were doing the kind of work that Sandra and I were doing. At the time there were numbers of pioneering, breakthrough books about women’s literature. I’m also a little hesitant about the ‘mother’ metaphor. I don’t think of scholars working today on these issues as ‘daughters’ or ‘granddaughters.’ I prefer notions of affiliation and connectedness -- it’s not biological.

“Is it a burden? No. To be named an important player in the history of feminist criticism is a wonderful delight.”

What is the biggest change for women from the "Madwoman" era to today? How do you think the experience of younger women differs now?

“I think it’s the sense that there is a history now. There was a history then, too, but you had to go way back, or you had to think in terms of tokens -- a few very brilliant women in medicine or in science, a smattering of ‘exceptional’ women in nearly every field. And now we see that many people are performing this very complicated juggling act of having a full personal life and a full professional life. They are not exceptional or eccentric or extraordinary. I think that must be a good feeling for younger women. A feeling that would build a sense of confidence.”

After your diagnosis you began writing about the experience of illness. How does it feel to confront -- as a skilled critic and writer -- your own ordeal with ovarian cancer?

“That was an extraordinary event: to leave literary criticism behind as a genre and to enter into autobiography. For me, writing about ovarian cancer is a lifeline. It’s a way of remembering and understanding a fairly traumatic series of events that I could not comprehend if I did not write them down and reflect on them. That’s how I think. Period.

"I understood that this project reflected a larger trend in which the lens of gender is being applied in many realms. Gender is entering the world of disability studies, gender is entering the world of medical studies, and the humanities are entering the world of medical analysis. I could see that I would be part of an ongoing tradition.”

What has made it possible for you to write about a subject so difficult that there were virtually no books on the subject, aside from medical texts?

“I think I was so shocked that nobody else had. I was so outraged. I just felt a compulsion to speak the truth. There are parts of 'Memoir of a Debulked Woman' that are very upsetting to read, but I really felt that if I’m going through it, other people are going through it, and somebody is going to have to tell the truth about it. There is a desire, as a patient, to see that the next generation of patients have it better.

"I also feel that I am very privileged. If not me, who? I have the skills. I know how to do the reading. I know how to do the writing. I have a wonderful supportive family. I live in a fantastic intellectual community. I have group medical insurance. If I can’t do it, who can?”

What were you doing when you heard the news that you and Sandra had been awarded the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award for “trailblazing work in feminist criticism"?

“I was in New York. My grandson had just been born. He was born on New Year’s Eve! I was in a Chinese restaurant. Sandra phoned me and said … ’You are not going to believe this …’ It was fantastic.”

Reprinted with permission by The College magazine (Summer 2013 issue).

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