Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World
Reviewed by Stacy Bush, Fri., May 5, 2000
Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the Worldby Claudia Roth Pierpont
Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95
Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World is one of the best books of criticism published in the past decade. All of the 11 essays in it have appeared in The New Yorker and several of them are now substantially longer and more developed (the essay on Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy is perhaps twice as long). Pierpont has no academic agenda and she does not belong to any theoretical school. She is a feminist by virtue of believing in the value of the talent, ideas, and influence (in varying degrees for each virtue and subject) of these female writers. Each essay is elegantly written, precisely researched, and unfailingly original in its insight.
Pierpont has deliberately chosen writers who are controversial or outside the realm of the usual topics for feminist studies. Roughly divided into sections covering sex, class, and politics, the book's subjects include Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Zora Neale Hurston, Doris Lessing, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Olive Schreiner, and of course, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Pierpont's insights are as original as the ideas of the women she writes about. Who else could have found the latent sexuality in the work of Eudora Welty? Who could have written an essay in which Henry Miller comes off as more palatable than Anaïs Nin in the battle of the sexes? Her essay on Margaret Mitchell is fascinating, neatly entwining Mitchell's biography, the process of writing Gone With the Wind, and the limitations of her inherent racism (amazingly, in 1936, her editors asked her to "tone down" some of her more offensive observations. At that time, most editors of popular fiction were not particularly sensitive to such nuances).
It's nice to see such easily overlooked authors as Marina Tsvetaeva in the group (nicer still would have been to read Pierpont on Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, but I'm greedy). Still not adequately translated into English, Tsvetaeva was a passionate chronicler of love, life, and the Russian Revolution. It's no cliché to say the facts of her life were quite literally heartbreaking. Easily the best part of the book is the long essay on Arendt and McCarthy. Both relatively overlooked in the feminist canon, Pierpont does an excellent job of deconstructing Arendt's controversial ideas about the Holocaust and suggesting the personal history that was probably the foundation of it. She is also appreciative of McCarthy's strengths though absolutely aware of her limitations.
Perhaps the weakest essay in the book is the piece on Mae West. West's persona was funny and provocative, and it's easy to understand that Pierpont wants to believe that West was the sole author of every play or film in which she appeared (thus qualifying her as a prolific author). However, there are several credible accounts that suggest that West's screenplays were collaborative efforts. Still, this is quibbling about an original, beautifully written, and impressively researched book of criticism. Do the English language a service and give a copy to every English graduate student you know.