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The Ecstasy of Influence: Inspiration and Mentorship among Women Writers


As Virginia Woolf famously argued in A Room of One’s Own, “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” The third edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women opens with Emily Dickinson’s homage to her poetic compatriot across the Atlantic, the British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (NALW1 1058). And, indeed, the editors cite Woolf’s contention that “books continue each other,” and her own efforts to establish a tradition of women writers to which she and her contemporaries might belong.

It is said that male writers suffer from “the agony of influence” when they contemplate famous male writers’ contributions to the western literary canon. Yet for women writers, finding lost literary foremothers has often been an empowering experience, allowing the woman writer to not feel so alone in her literary aspirations. Women writers often sought to celebrate their literary foremother’s work, to pay homage to what that writer’s work or mentorship has meant to their own literary endeavors.

It is perhaps not surprising that medieval and Renaissance women writers, who were often writing in isolation, don’t reveal as much awareness of the female writers who came before them. That awareness begins once women writers start to enter the literary marketplace in earnest, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the rise of the novel as a literary form. Just as Emily Dickinson immortalized her, Elizabeth Barrett Browning paid poetic tribute to one of her own literary heroines, the great cross-dressing French novelist, George Sand, in two poems in the Anthology, “To George Sand: A Desire” and “To George Sand: A Recognition” (NALW1 532). In the first sonnet, Barrett Browning calls Sand a “large-brained woman” and “large-hearted man,” a play on the poet’s gender-bending antics. The second sonnet continues in the same vein:

True genius, but true woman! dost deny
The woman’s nature with a manly scorn,
And break away the gauds and armlets worn
By weaker women in captivity?
Ah, vain denial! That revolted cry
Is sobbed in by a woman’s voice forlorn,—
Thy woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn (1–7).

When traveling through France, Barrett Browning, who had already befriended the American writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Fuller while living in Florence, insisted on meeting the subject of her sonnets, George Sand, in person.

Of course, not all such poetic admiration was cross-national, as the couple who wrote as Michael Field (aunt and niece, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, respectively) demonstrate. Under the male pseudonym, the lifelong companions / lovers collaborated and published together a poem called “To Christina Rossetti” (NALW1 1226), comparing Rossetti’s role for them to Dante’s muses Beatrice or Matilda. Likewise, Mina Loy paid homage to her modernist colleague and countrywoman, Gertrude Stein (NALW2 250), calling her a “Curie / of the laboratory”(1–2) in her quest “to extract / a radium of the word” (8–9).

Elizabeth Bishop celebrated her friend and poetic mentor in her ecstatic and fanciful poem “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (NALW2 612). In the poem, she imitates aspects of Moore’s own poetic style and alludes to traditional female-bonding rituals like shopping:

We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
        please come flying . . . (44–47)

This same sense of recognition in encountering a kindred spirit is expressed in Julia Alvarez’s poem “On Not Shoplifting Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries” (NALW2 1344). While Alvarez hadn’t known Bogan personally, it is clear that encountering Bogan’s work on the shelves of a college bookstore amidst the male canon of “Chaucer-Milton-Shakespeare-Yeats” made a lasting impression on the young Dominican-American writer. As Alvarez recounts:

Page after page, your poems
were stirring my own poems—
words rose, breaking the surface,
shattering an old silence . . . . .
I read and wrote as I read. (23–26, 37)

Alvarez herself characterizes the encounter later in the poem as “a mirror reflecting back / someone I was becoming” (48–49), a sentiment echoed by many women writers in their search for a female literary tradition.

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