March 2011

Angela Meyer

nonfiction

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a public intellectual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was an author of fiction and nonfiction, a poet, lecturer, feminist, and socialist. But one of Gilman’s early literary works, the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” remains her most remembered and celebrated work.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is the story of a woman with “hysterical tendencies” who suffers a nervous breakdown and is administered a version of the “rest cure” by her physician husband. They stay in a house (reminiscent of the gothic) with the protagonist’s sister taking care of her baby, and the woman is driven slowly mad, obsessing over the wallpaper in her upstairs room. The story is still a powerful and agitating read today, and the woman behind it is the focus of Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s book Wild Unrest.

Horowitz’s biography chronicles Gilman in the time before the story. Her aim is to examine this woman and the circumstances which lead to the writing of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” She takes a gentle, yet personal approach, letting Gilman speak for herself much of the time through her diaries and letters. In Gilman’s early life, awareness of the potential of body and mind (she was keen on both physical exercise and reading) was coupled with periods of sadness and numbness, which became exacerbated in her courtship and marriage to artist Walter Stetson.

Wild Unrest is refreshingly non-reductive, in that its author allows Gilman to be complex, to have a nature that is both loving and resistant, physical and intellectual, male and female. Horowitz shares evidence of Gilman’s deep affection for women without categorizing her in terms of today’s sexual dichotomies. She also places Gilman’s melancholic episodes in context, and provides a fascinating history behind terms like “hysteria,” “neurasthenia,” and famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure,” only at the end briefly alluding to what a modern professional might think of Gilman’s emotional states. She is careful to note the effect of “time and place,” particularly as Gilman’s mental state was in its worst place when she felt trapped by her position and role as woman, in society and in her marriage.

The author also gives a voice to Walter Stetson, through his diary and letters, so we can glean what it was like for a man in the 1880s to be in love with a woman like Gilman -- a woman who refuses to “combine” and then does so, and suffers for it. We get to see her through his eyes and feel simultaneously sympathetic and frustrated: sympathetic because he tried for her and stood by her; frustrated, because he was a traditionalist -- but that is to put it very plainly. He was of his time, and there is more space for him in the book.

The main way Horowitz backs up supposition about how Gilman’s ideas were encouraged, shaped, and even confused -- and also how she learnt expression -- is through a contextual examination of what she would have read. From science and history, to novels and poetry, her reading is chronicled in her diaries and letters. Horowitz also takes an educated guess at some of the authors and articles Gilman would have come across in the magazines Horowitz knew she read. Throughout the book, there are also examples of Gilman’s early creative writing, to show how her expression developed.

At the book’s close, I did wonder about Gilman’s daughter, her female friends, and the people she may have influenced -- but that is not what this book proposed to explore. Horowitz’s interest was the “personal” self in the lead-up to the story, and the expression of the personal within it. I will have to follow up this information another way.

The book is written plainly and logically as there is certainly enough in the subject to keep interest: the struggle of a passionate and strong-minded person who wishes to become candid in her private life and to express her conflicts as a public, political and creative person. Horowitz invites us into the private life of an inspiring woman and writer.

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0199739803
272 Pages