“Wild Unrest...”

(Just a note that this is a book received by WWHP from Oxford University Press this summer, and I asked Louise if she would read it. She did and here’s her review. –Nancy)

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Helen Lefkowicz Horowitz (an uncorrected advance reading copy) 210 pages plus 33 pages of notes. This is a primary source biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Its sources are her diary and letters and the diary of her first husband, Walter Stetson (poor relation of the Stetson hat).

Charlotte was born July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut to Mary Westcott Perkins and Frederick Beecher Perkins. Her great aunts were Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine and Isabel Beecher. Her uncle was Edward Hale of Boston. Frederick abandoned the family. Charlotte, her brother Thomas, and her mother lived an impoverished life and were forced to rely on relatives for support. They moved 18 times in 19 years. Her mother withheld affection and dis- couraged and stifled Charlotte’s imaginative mind.

The book is about Charlotte’s struggle with depression. Charlotte felt trapped in the Beecher Family Tradition and the Victorian ideal woman and wife. She vacillated between wanting independence and giving into the dependency of married life which contributed to her frustration and depression. She always felt she had the ability to achieve something great. Her depression was severe enough at one point to need the “rest cure” of famed neurologist S. Weir Michell. She was discharged improved after one month of treatment. Michell advised Charlotte to live as “domestic life as possible”. He also recommended “two hours of intellectual life a day” and never to touch pen or brush for the rest of her day. (Charlotte was also an accomplished artist and schooled at the Rhode Island School of Design.) After three months and with a declining mental status, she stopped following his advice. It was at this point she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Her purpose was to change S. Weir Michell’s “rest cure” for women. She sent him a copy which he never acknowledged receiving but he did change his treatment. Attempts were made to publish “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Horace Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, rejected it commenting, “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself.” It was finally published in the New England Magazine.

Charlotte divorced Stetson and later married Houghton Gilman, a successful lawyer and younger cousin. He was very agreeable to Charlotte’s desires and independence. This marriage did not create the inner conflicts Charlotte previously experienced.

Charlotte embarked on a much recognized career as a writer, poet, reformer, suffragist, championing “women’s political rights and obligations and attacking the legal constraints governing marriage and structures of inequality in employment.” One of her important writings was “Women and Economics” which examined and theorized the causes of women’s subordination to men. Charlotte Perkins Gilman died August 17, 1935 in a planned mercy death three years after being diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer.

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilmanand the Making of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is an intelligent provocative read. Charlotte’s life depicted the struggles of women of her time and onward. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a true horror tale of a woman trapped by traditions of family and culture in a male- dominated society. It is a “cry of pain against the constraints governing marriage, prejudice medical practices, restrictive social roles, and narrowed expectations that could and did drive women mad.”

Referenced: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wall- Paper and other stories.” Chapter 9 of “Wild Unrest” is important for understanding “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and what it represents. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a short story 17 pages. Helen Lefkowicz Horowitz is Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History at Smith College.

Published Date: 
October 4, 2010