On Sunday, June 23, Berkeley literary critic and poet Sandra M. Gilbert will receive the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement & Service Award at the 38th Annual Northern California Book Awards, sponsored by the Northern California Book Reviewers. The award celebrates a six-decade career that includes writing and teaching works of feminist theory, personal memoir and elegy.
The list of Cody Award recipients reads like a “who’s who” of Northern California’s most illustrious literati. It includes Jessica Mitford, Gary Snyder, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ishmael Reed and Ronald Takaki, among others.
Reached in Berkeley by phone, Gilbert reflected on what the award meant to her.
“It made me feel that I was really part of this Berkeley community, where I’ve lived for many years while teaching at UC Davis,” she said.
“I was a devotee of Cody’s Books, and I’m still sad that it’s closed. It was a great loss to the community.”
Gilbert discussed her early years as an academic, her collaborations with critic Susan Gubar, the unexpected death of her husband and the poems she has written in response to the actions of the Trump administration.
Gilbert, 82, grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. She remembers the first poem she wrote at around age four, which began, “Zip, zip through the air comes a fearful bear. His name is Lightning and when he comes, we can see the whole sky brightening.”
She discovered that her mother would allow her to stay up later every time she produced new verse. And so a writing ritual was born.
Gilbert received her B.A. at Cornell, married Elliot C. Gilbert, followed him to Germany when he was stationed there in the army and then joined him at Columbia University. She received her master’s from New York University and her Ph.d. from Columbia. Elliott eventually secured a position at UC Davis, but Gilbert was unable to secure a similar position immediately.
“There were nepotism rules out here, and you couldn’t hire somebody’s wife or other relative,” she said.
While Elliott and their three children stayed in California, Gilbert accepted a teaching position at Indiana University. It was there that she met Susan Gubar, who would become a friend and frequent collaborator.
“Because Susan and I were friends, the chair of the English department asked us to team-teach a course on literature by women, which was not a subject either of us had studied. We sat down at a pizza parlor one day and outlined a syllabus for the course.”
They argued about what the title of it should be. “My first idea was ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ after the popular television series of the time,” said Gilbert. “I was laughed to scorn by my friend Susan. Then we came up with ‘The Madwoman in the Attic,’ because we knew ‘Jane Eyre’ was very, very essential to our work.”
A seminal work of feminist scholarship
The partnership proved pivotal and Gilbert and Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic, in 1979. The book, which examines Victorian-era writers, is now considered a seminal work of feminist scholarship and is still selling well 40 years later. Caroline See called the book “a masterpiece” in the Los Angeles Times. Joyce Carol Oates hailed it as “a classic, one of the most important works of literary criticism of the 20th century.”
“The central thesis (of the book) is that the woman writer in the 19th century was split in half,” Gilbert said. “There was a decorous surface. She had to seem to be submissive, obedient and ladylike, but at the same time she was unconsciously – or consciously – raging at the submission that was required of her. On the one hand, she was the lady in the parlor, and on the other, the madwoman in the attic.”
“It got great reviews when it first came out. Then, in the feminist community, it was labeled essentialist and heterosexist and racist, she said. There was a kind of a backlash against us. But it never hurt our sales figures.”
Gubar and Gilbert went on to collaborate on No Man’s Land, a three-volume exploration of the place of the woman writer in the 20th century. With Gubar, Gilbert was named a Ms. “Woman of the Year” in 1986 and (also with Gubar) one of USA Today’s “People Who Made a Difference” in 1985.
Gilbert has enjoyed balancing writing poetry and writing literary criticism.
“My poetry and my critical work have always complemented each other. I found I wrote more poetry the longer I went to graduate school and the more I wrote poetry, the more I was interested in what I was studying.”
Gilbert has had a stellar and influential career, according to Wendy Martin, chair of the Department of English at Claremont Graduate University and current director of PEN West. She made “paradigm-changing contributions” to feminist literary and historical scholarship, written many books of “deeply moving, beautifully crafted and award-winning poetry,” as well memoir and essays. She has also edited several volumes of stories, poems and essays by important women writers, said Martin.
A former president of the Modern Language Association, Gilbert was the first M. H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor of English at Cornell University in the spring of 2007. She has also taught at Princeton, Indiana and Stanford universities, as well as Cal State, Hayward and Williams College.
In 1991, Gilbert and her children suffered a terrible loss when her husband Elliot died mysteriously after prostate surgery.
“That’s where my interest in elegy and elegiac forms began,” Gilbert said. “The first thing I did was write a memoir of how and why he died.”
His death after routine surgery had been ruled a “medical accident,” and the event has reverberated through the rest of her career.
“We were a very close married couple and I think I felt that if he had to die, why then so should I. I think that’s something people do feel. Death’s door opens, and death becomes plausible because someone you were close to has gone through that doorway.”
“I wasn’t suicidal and I didn’t do anything to make myself die. I obviously got over it, but it did mean that I had to explore the subject more,” she said.
Delving into the literature of death
Gilbert’s memoir Wrongful Death, published in 1994, received critical acclaim, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the book, “manages deftly to balance melancholy and self-deprecating humor, to be frank and gentle.”
Gilbert delved deeper into the literature of death and dying in Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve, the poetry collection Ghost Volcano and the anthology of elegies, Invitations of Farewell, among others.
Gilbert’s most recent book is Judgment Day, a poetry collection published in March by W.W. Norton. It contains selections both personal and political.
“One big difference is that when I started Judgment Day, I was also working on a book called The Culinary Imagination. I was very interested in representations of eating. There’s a whole section that is ekphrastic poetry, poetry about pictures of people eating. As I was working on the book and thinking it was just going to be on that subject, the political world just radically changed.”
She said, “We’ve reached a sort of judgment day, and we’re dealing with a political problem that’s probably more dreadful than anything we’ve had to deal with before.
Gilbert and Gubar are in the middle of another collaboration, Still Mad: Seventies Feminism Today.
“We began just around the time the Trump administration took over Washington. There was this great Women’s March and a kind of amazing revival of the kinds of feminism we associate with the ’70s.”
Even as Gilbert connects with a new generation of feminists, she inspires them as well.
As PEN West’s Martin noted, “Sandra Gilbert’s impressive work has been, and will continue to be, a powerful inspiration to me and generations of feminist scholars, past, present and future.”