I’ve been at different stages of five books recently, so it was an unexpected treat to have some time today to finish off Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, her biography of famed feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Based on archival research that included access to Gilman and her husband’s diaries, the work looks at the personal experiences Gilman, who was then married to painter Walter Stetson, had that informed the short story that launched her to national prominence.
Many of them were unhappy ones.
Horowitz shows in extensive detail how Gilman sought in her personal life to bring about that for which she later advocated for all women to have: the ability to be married and autonomous, rather than having to choose between the two.
Her courtship with Stetson was fraught with this tension. Horowitz also shows the then-Perkins’ budding awareness of, and frank writing about, her sexuality. She even at some points advocated a libertine free love that may seem commonplace now, but then was quite a radical proposition. Horowitz also brings out the thinkers like Spencer who influenced Perkins, who spent much of her time teaching girls.
Eventually, Perkins and Stetson did marry, with emotionally debilitating, if not disastrous, results for the former. Horowitz writes at length during the text, and revisits toward the end, the physical and emotional symptoms that Perkins displayed-a condition that intensified after she bore the couple’s only child, Kate. The demands of parenting took a major toll on the mother, who eventually sought treatment under the esteemed Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.
The Yellow Wallpaper was in some ways a response to Mitchell’s methods, and Horowitz shows the many other aspects of her life experience that played a role in her writing the work.
In addition to giving her a national platform, the work also coincided with her decision to end the marriage with Stetson and to live on her own in Southern California-another convention-defying move. These changes marked the beginning of a highly productive period in which she wrote many seminal feminist tracts. She also found happiness in her personal life, eventually marrying her first cousin Houghton Gilman.
The latter parts of her life are largely a coda for Horowitz, who spends most of the work concentrating on Perkins and Stetson’s courtship and unhappy marriage. She writes in an admiring, but not hagiographic, way about her protagonist, and one can feel the pleasure Horowitz undoubtedly experienced while poring through her subject’s diaries.
A quick read that blends history, culture and literary analysis embedded in a deeply feminist sensibility, Wild Unrest sheds new light on the forces that helped produces one of American history’s most influential feminists. Horowitz shows how Gilman was able to wrest from her personal struggles and suffering the stuff that allowed her to impact the nation. By doing so, Horowitz deepens our appreciation of Gilman’s contributions and points out the path for others to do the same.