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In Passionate Minds, Claudia Roth Pierpont lifts several artists out of their hagiographical limbo and eases others (even Mae West and Margaret Mitchell) away from cliché and the condescending chortle. Her 11 essays offer a fascinating mix of biography, analysis, and elegant aphorism. Yet Pierpont also lets her women speak for themselves, and they often do so eloquently and unexpectedly. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, writes: "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.... It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?"
Pierpont is interested in both reality and reception: how these writers altered the world, but also how they have been viewed--their lives and visions disseminated and vitiated, ritually patronized, misinterpreted, and reinvented. As she declares, with typical wit, "There is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others. Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein and Mae West, Doris Lessing and Anaïs Nin, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva and Mary McCarthy: what could they possibly have in common?" Yet even while she proves that achievement and reputation don't necessarily go hand in hand, Pierpont makes it clear that all her subjects refused to make the easy concessions. (At the same time, these hyperaware individuals often lacked--and sometimes deliberately skirted--self-knowledge.)
It's difficult to elevate a few pieces above the rest, since the standard is so high (all appeared in The New Yorker). But those on Stein, Lessing, Hurston, and, yes, Rand and Mitchell offer continual enlightenment and surprise. Pierpont is unafraid of generalization. In her piece on Anaïs Nin, for instance, she declares: "The real and bottomless subject of Nin's diary is not sex, or the flowering of womanhood, but deceit." Elsewhere, she rescues Lessing from her harsher critics:
Despite her theories and her ethics and the range of her literary personae--the African realist, the London scene painter, the anguished psychologist, the social prophet--Lessing is in essence a storyteller, with a rare gift for getting characters on their feet and for setting the wind stirring the curtains with language so apparently simple it betrays no method at all. The classical concision of the story form seems to induce in her an unusually clear-eyed mental energy, an urge to pick the locks of the elaborate cages she constructs in her novels.Pierpont is also fond of the startling detail, the quote that reverses expectation, and even the pun. (After a delightful summary of The Fountainhead, she writes, "It is surely gratuitous to point out that the author suffered from an edifice complex.") In Passionate Minds this author repeatedly shows us the rewards of close reading and historical context. Even her asides are inspiring. At one point, she avers, "The greatest Russian translator of Shakespeare's tragedies, Pasternak played the Hamlet of the Revolution, much as Mayakovsky had been its Mercutio." Wonder how these tragic male figures made it into a book on "women rewriting the world"? Open this collection and read on. --Kerry Fried [via]