How do I read literature and why?: The Case of Woolf's A Room of One's Own

        While teaching English 222 (Women and Literature) in the Spring of 2000, I was taught many important lessons by my students.   The public folder postings often drove me to discover much about what was going on inside me as I read and wrote.  While reading Virginia Woolf's essay, class discussion ranged freely over the issues Woolf was raising and our responses to them.   One thing stood out--there were only two men in the room and nearly 20 women.   I was one of the two men, and my advisee, Eileen, posted the following question about the experience of gendered reading.  I hope you won't think that you've got to have my history to read Woolf!  Rather, consider how your own history of the big issues, war/peace, race, class, gender, fear/joy, etc. becomes involved with the author's work as you read.  Your interpretation of literature arises out of the intersection between two universes of experience, and writing about it depends on understanding what parts of it are relevant to other people.  Sometimes, an autobiographical journal entry like this can help you find your bearings.


From: Radway, Eileen

Posted At: Tuesday, April 11, 2000 8:02 PM

Posted To: English 222

Conversation: men. . .how do you feel?

Subject: men. . .how do you feel?

I hate to single you out, but Arnie and Jared, how do you feel when your read "AROOO"? And anybody who knows of guys' experiences while reading it, what were there reactions? I just imagine that the experience of the essay is entirely different between women and men. Jared and I were discussing today how he really likes the essay, but not about his experience of it as a male. I am very curious and look forward to reading your comments.


OK, Eileen, you asked for it. The answer turns out to be kind of the "question of my life."

Well, to be honest, when I first read the essay in graduate school at U.N.H. (in, uh, was it really 1978?), I got angry at Woolf quite a bit. No, let's say furious. My first notes are filled with outraged objections about her assumptions and her violations of the conventions of typical academic essay logic (which I was in a panic about learning to teach to freshmen in my first year as a T.A.). To get the stylistic point cleared up right away, I now see her as an extremely inventive experimental writer who mixes fiction, autobiography, and historical essays' analytical strategies in ways that destabilize the academic world's claims to be able to isolate and extract "pure nuggets of the essential ore" of truth, as she mockingly describes it (28). She admits she has not been university trained in research and teases the reader by claiming incompetence even as she is demonstrating that the "university trained" researchers are themselves vulnerable to extraordinary errors of method because of their assumptions about gender, or because they have ignored gender entirely. I, the eager pursuer of university training in research, fell for the gag, hook, line and sinker. Hey, it was early in the course, early in my so-called "career," and I hadn't yet read much else VW had written, hadn't had my moment of empathic communion with her (which Jared was able to get to in his freshman year--who says things never change!).

A major reason for that was that I was still living somewhat self-consciously as the hero of my own romance about culture and class. The plot runs sort of like this: "The university grad, having fought the evil war and brought the administration to its knees in a campus rebellion, pursued by invisible minions of Army Intelligence with their videotapes of demonstrations and phone calls repeating what I had said at meetings, flees to Colorado and seeks anonymous safety among the working class while trying to write the great American novel at 10,000 feet up on the Continental Divide, but finds inspiration doesn't visit people in unheated VW buses with fingers that can't open fully from wielding a hammer all day, so he gets cynical and invests some serious time and effort into doing not much for years until his girlfriend says she can't stand another empty minute of this life without a phone/TV/FM radio and no art for 100 miles in every direction and they flee East, eventually spiraling back to graduate school, first her (he feeling abandoned and wretched), then (grudgingly, surrendering to the old enemy) him, driving north from Jersey to New Hampshire through the Blizzard of '78, afraid to stop in the drifts for fear the bus would never get going again, with the state police closing the interstate highways just behind him, and people dying of hypothermia while taking out the trash all along the New England coast, and the next week walking into a sunny classroom to sit down reading, hmmm...'A Room of One's Own.' Aha!" (Note to self--call Spielberg tonight and pitch it.)

As I saw the essay then, she was a relatively wealthy woman lecturing the poor women of Newnham and Girton about what a lousy spot they were in, all that bad dorm food etc., and manufacturing fictional male straw men to stand for her oppressors. In defense of my younger self, the following things might be said. I had just come in from the post-hippie cold after seven years working construction, being a pizza cook, and running a printing press to stay alive, and I felt much more self-consciously that class was the great cultural division in America and England. Woolf herself admits that she sort of over-reacted in the creation of "Professor X" (c.31-35) because she became angry about the way women were represented in all those works by men (especially the list Elly pointed out in 6). At that time (still?), Woolf was taught as a feminist saint whose word was gospel, and really open cultural criticism of her work was hard in an era in which feminist scholars were routinely denied tenure and scoffed at in faculty lounges. My edition of "AROOO" had no introduction by a novelist with Mary Gordon's stature, with its admission that there is some justice in the charge that VW's tone was somewhat snobbish (viii), and I felt defensive, perhaps because I had a reason to be. After all, I was/am still trying to come to terms with myself as a gendered being who couldn't just walk through the world like the free reasoning animal I wanted to be in the 1960s without acknowledging that my path had already been smoothed by the facts of my family history (middle class, free-ride to a B.A.) and gender (male--no doubts that I'd have some kind of career, not even a hint that I'd have to marry in order to survive).

Many of us, heck, all of us, must learn from the "Other gender" what it's like to be that "Other" way. My girlfriend, now my wife, taught me to understand her life, even as she reinvented herself to have a succesful career, though her well-meaning parents never taught her a thing, never expected a thing from her, that would have been the least bit practical as a means of earning a living. They thought she'd marry a living--and this was only thirty years ago. (Her brother got the stern lectures from Dad, the nagging about his grades, the solid shove toward a business degree and his M.B.A.) But Woolf's point, for which I honor her, is that we also can learn from literature so the living don't have to do all the work, and had women been able to write for all those centuries of their silence, who knows what might have changed. See her comment about "that spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head" (90). It wasn't underlined in my first set of notes, but sometime in the early '80s it was, and it has accumulated a fair number of notes beside it now, none of them angry. At least the greatest male artists of the period, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, could sort of "channel" for their female characters and create the "virtual women" we call "Helen" and "Athena" and "Nausicaa," "Criseyde" and "the Wife of Bath," "Juliet" or her "Nurse" or "Cleopatra." They must have been careful observers, and they must have had some excellent women for teachers.

With great trepidation, I post this, hoping you'll forgive its length. But ask your parents and grandparents what was expected of them at school and what training they were expected to get, and whether they thought their situation typical for their gender or unusual, or even unique. They've all got stories. I know, because I grew up with most of them.

--a. (now headed upstairs to get Amy Tan, so look for some web pages for her in the next few days)

        To read the second installment of this autobiographical essay on reading and writing authority, click here.