In This Article Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textual Studies of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”

American Literature Charlotte Perkins Gilman
by
Gary Scharnhorst
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0002

Introduction

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a.k.a. Charlotte Anna Perkins and Charlotte Perkins Stetson (b. 1860–d. 1935), was the leading intellectual in the American women’s movement at the turn of the 20th century. The grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gilman briefly studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, though she was largely self-educated. Unhappily married to the artist Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, she underwent S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” for neurasthenia in 1887. The experience inspired her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892). Divorced from Stetson in 1894, she launched her public career in California as a poet and lecturer on behalf of Edward Bellamy’s socialism in 1890. Her first important book was a collection of poetry titled In This Our World (1893); and her sociological treatise Women and Economics (1898), which was eventually translated into seven languages, cemented her reputation as a feminist theorist—though she deprecated the term “feminist” on the grounds that it was too narrow to encompass the range of her social critique. She preferred the term “humanist.” A prolific and versatile poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Gilman defies simple categorization. Her work has attracted the attention of literary critics, social scientists, and intellectual historians alike. She popularized the reform Darwinism of Lester Ward in such books as The Home (1903), Human Work (1904), The Man-Made World (1911), and His Religion and Hers (1923). During the period from 1909 to 1916, she wrote, edited, and published the monthly magazine the Forerunner. By her own estimate, she produced the equivalent of twenty-eight books during these seven years, including the utopian romance Herland (1915). During her career she published over 2,100 separate works, including three utopian romances; five novels; barrels of articles, poems, and tales; four editions of her volume of verse; and six books of essays. She was unapologetically didactic in all of her publications. “In my opinion,” she once declared, “it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose.” She was well known during her life as an advocate of so-called baby-gardens, i.e., kindergartens or professionalized childcare; kitchen-less houses and professionalized food services; and professionalized (not cooperative) housekeeping. Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1932, she ended her life in August 1935, explaining that she preferred chloroform. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, appeared the next month. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

General Overviews

The essays Berkin 1992, Degler 1956, and Hill 1980 listed below are excellent introductions to Gilman’s life and career. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society website contains biographical sketches of Gilman and links to other sites, including e-texts of her major works. The monographs Knight 1997 and Scharnhorst 1985 survey wide swaths of her writings.

  • Berkin, Carol Ruth. “Private Woman, Public Woman: The Contradictions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited by Joanne Karpinski, 17–42. New York: Hall, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in Women in America: A History, 1979. A psycho-biographical sketch of Gilman through the age of 40 that emphasizes the influence of her parents on her character. Defends the dubious proposition, promulgated by Gilman in her autobiography, that she remained a psychological cripple for most of her life.

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes a biographical sketch of Gilman and information about the Gilman Society, the Gilman listserv, and Gilman works and resources online.

  • Degler, Carl N. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism.” American Quarterly 8 (Spring 1956): 21–39.

    DOI: 10.2307/2710295E-mail Citation »

    The pioneering article that sparked the modern revival of interest in Gilman, “the major intellectual leader of the struggle for women’s rights . . . during the first two decades of the twentieth century” (p. 22). Particularly valuable on Women and Economics and The Man-Made World.

  • Hill, Mary A. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist’s Struggle with Womanhood.” Massachusetts Review 21 (1980): 503–526.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thoroughly documented sketch of Gilman’s life through the end of the 19th century that situates her major ideas in intellectual context.

  • Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive critical survey of Gilman’s short stories 1886–1916. Discusses her feminism and her ideological stances, including reform Darwinism, with particular reference to “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and other early tales, her imitations of other authors in the Impress, and several stories in the Forerunner. Also reprints selections of Gilman’s essays on writing and a sheaf of reviews.

  • Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking and succinct critical study of Gilman’s entire life and major works based on both primary and secondary sources.

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