Literature scholar Jennifer Tuttle co-edits letters of author and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman

May 26, 2009

Prominent American author, lecturer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is best known for her 1898 treatise Women and Economics, which traced gender inequality to women's economic dependence upon men, and her 1892 short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper," which portrays a woman's descent into madness. 

But Gilman had a long career in which she used both print and the pulpit to address a range of issues, from women's suffrage to pacifism to architectural reform. 

Since the 1970s, Gilman has reemerged as a major American literary figure, as evidenced by the republication of many of her stories and novels and an explosion of scholarship about her. In 1993, she was named in a poll commissioned by the Siena Research Institute as the sixth most important American woman of the twentieth century, and in 1994, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Denise D. Knight, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Cortland, and Jennifer S. Tuttle, Dorothy M. Healy Chair and associate professor of English at the University of New England, have edited The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (University of Alabama Press), the last significant portion of Gilman’s private papers to remain unpublished.

This collection fills a crucial gap in Gilman scholarship, providing countless insights into her character through her own  words. Knight and Tuttle have transcribed, edited, and contextualized the letters, taken from numerous archives and private collections, and organized them both thematically and chronologically.

The Selected Letters makes accessible the many intricate narratives created by Gilman’s correspondences. The editors have grouped letters according to the significant events in Gilman’s life and the important people to whom she wrote, including her friends and family members.

Public and Private Spheres

Through this careful collection and contextualization, the editors provide essential facets of Gilman's biography that would otherwise be lost.

"The correspondence illuminates the enormous dichotomy between Gilman's public and private spheres," Tuttle explains. " Her public persona was strong, rational, and philosophical, while her private side was vulnerable, at times irrational, and often insecure."

The private letters, which date from 1872, when Gilman was twelve, to 1935, just days before her suicide at the age of seventy-five, add another dimension to the scholarly assessment of Gilman that has been ongoing for the past thirty years.

In various letters we see echoes of her social theories (on such topics as women and economics, child rearing, physical culture), while in others we see her battling the demons that plagued her for much of her life (severe depression, chronic poverty, feelings of unworthiness). The letters also contribute to a rising tide of scholarship on epistolary discourse more generally.

Jennifer Tuttle

As the Dorothy M. Healy Chair, Professor Tuttle is the faculty director of the University of New England's Maine Women Writers Collection, housed at the Abplanalp Library on the Portland Campus. She also co-directs UNE's Women's and Gender Studies Program.

She teaches courses in literature and health, women's studies, U.S. literatures, and the American West. Her published work on these and other topics has appeared in numerous journals and edited collections. 

She is editor of a scholarly edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel The Crux (2002).  Her current project - Unsettling California: American Nervousness and Western Women's Writing - is a book about California women writers and medical discourse.  She is coeditor of Legacy:  A Journal of American Women Writers and president of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society. She received her Ph.D., from the University of California, San Diego.