Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

Tagged: Author

(1860-1935) US editor, author and lecturer, and an important figure in the history of US Feminism; partner in the 1890s of Adeline Knapp. Although by no means negligible – she published almost 200 short stories plus longer works, many of them inherently interesting – much of her later fiction was clearly shaped to promulgate a copious flow of radical thought. However, her first story, The Yellow Wall Paper (January 1892 New England Magazine; 1899 chap) as by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, was long read as a relatively straightforward tale of horror; it took no substantial task of decoding for later readers to understand that the powerful delusional imagery of the tale reflects the intolerable stress felt by its autobiographical protagonist at being forced to act out the role of a compliant and sequestrated female; the tale was made into a radio opera by Simon Holt, The Yellow Wallpaper (first performed March 2012 BBC Radio 3; staged 29 October 2013 Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 2013). Gilman divorced her husband in 1894, after having moved to California; she then spent half a decade lecturing before remarrying.

The rest of Gilman's life was productive. She founded, edited, and wrote the entire contents of The Forerunner, an issues-oriented journal which ran 1909-1916; here first appeared many of the stories assembled decades later in collections like The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings (coll 1989), plus much additional poetry, fiction and sociologically sophisticated polemic; Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia, with Selected Writings. (coll 1995) concentrates usefully on her various shorter Utopias, some semi-fiction, some edging into the Near Future. Along with this shorter material, The Forerunner also published at least three full-length fictions of interest. The book-length feminist Utopia, Moving the Mountain (January-October 1911 The Forerunner #2; 1911), is set in 1940 after women have decided that enough is enough and have taken over running the USA on a basis of humane, socialist equality; this appeared from the New York publishing firm of Charlton Co, founded by Gilman herself to publish her novels in small editions.

Most famously, Herland (January-December 1915 The Forerunner; 1979), depicts an isolated parthenogenetic society which has existed for 2000 years. Three men stumble into this gentle, humorous, wise Utopian venue; one idolatrously reveres women, one is a male chauvinist, and the third compassionately narrates. Each marries a Herlander. The male chauvinist attempts to rape his wife, and is expelled. In the sequel, With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland (January-December 1916 The Forerunner; 1997), the narrator leaves Herland with his own wife, Ellador, who is interested in gaining more information about the barbarous outer world. Her first experiences as a visitor to the "real world" – she encounters a Christian missionary, and travels to Europe just as World War One is beginning to show its true face – are daunting; but the novel, which is constructed as a heuristic ransacking of early twentieth-century male assumptions about human nature as indulged upon during the previous male-dominated aeons, surprisingly moves towards a conclusion in which the society of Herland decides that it must open itself to the world: and perhaps save it. With the issue of The Forerunner which contains this conclusion, Gilman terminated the magazine.

An autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), was published after Gilman, aged 75, had discovered she had cancer and committed suicide. [JC]

see also: Politics.

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman

born Hartford, Connecticut: 3 July 1860

died Pasadena, California: 17 August 1935

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