There are those thinkers who are ghostly presences that hover over a career, who with a light touch there and a flicker here make that very career possible. For me—English professor, feminist, Jew—Adrienne Rich is one of those thinkers.
I want to honor Adrienne Rich by charting moments in her critical and poetic body of work that were nothing less than foundational for a generation of feminist critics.
As a feminist literary critic, I must begin with “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” That essay was originally part of a 1971 Modern Language Association (MLA) panel on the woman writer in the twentieth century.
In 1971, I was nine years old. As precocious as I was, I had no idea that the MLA existed—let alone that its annual meetings, its bibliography and its job list would be institutional arbiters of my professional life.
Yet Rich’s central premise in that talk—the notion of re-visioning—has shaped my life in print and in the classroom:
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical tradition—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.
Such acts of re-vision enable one to enter an old text without—as Rich puts it in a very different context—“giving ourselves away.”
Although some of her language in this early essay is rejectionist, her notion of re-vision left room for reading the canon differently rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many of us have spent a great deal of time and energy recovering and ensuring the viability of a diverse women’s literary tradition, even as we resist the tyranny of gender binaries and strive to create a trans-inclusive movement.
Although I do not believe that Rich’s 1984 essay “Notes toward a Politics of Location,” ever used the e word—essentialism—it nonetheless stands out as an essay that sought a path between the Scylla of a homogenized, universalized category called women that desperately needed critique and the Charybdis of a critical weapon that was wielded against a whole generation of feminist—and gay and lesbian—thinkers and scholars.
Striving to locate herself without leaving others behind, Rich used the voice and the imagery of a poet to express both faith in and skepticism about theory:
Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forests as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.
Rich’s earthy and earth-bound theory expressed the desire of a generation for feminist theory to take a different form and tone, and for the words of feminist theory to make a difference in the world and not just in academia. Here, as elsewhere, Rich performed her commitment to re-vision as she learned to say “my body, not the body” and repudiated the word always, saying that “if we have learned anything in these years of late twentieth-century feminism, it’s that that always blots out what we really need to know: when, where, and under what conditions has that statement been true.”
Her commitment to re-vision led her to write:
I come here with notes but without absolute conclusions. This is not a sign of loss of faith or hope. These notes are the mark of a struggle to keep moving, a struggle for accountability.
Adrienne Rich ends “Notes” with a question—“who is we?”—adding that “this is the end of these notes, but it is not an ending.” Of course, this repudiation of an ending hearkens back to Virginia Woolf and her famous non-ending to the question of women and fiction. But I also hear in this non-ending the perspective of a Jew who knows her history; a Jew who knows that final solutions are narratives of genocide and death.
Two years earlier, in 1982, Rich had begun chronicling her Jewish journey in earnest in “Split at the Root: on Jewish Identity.” Rich’s split roots were those of a “half shiksa,” product of a Christian mother and an assimilated Jewish father who was a “single token in gentile world.”
Growing up in a world that was “christian virtually without needing to say so,” Rich internalized anti-semitism and learned all about passing; proud and out Jewishness was not in the offing. Thus choosing to identify as a Jew—and writing about that identification—was overdetermined, a “dangerous act filled with fear and shame” and yet “so necessary.” In order to do such psychic and cultural work, she had to overcome the double whammy of “silence and amnesia.”
Many Jewish feminists write of their wrestlings with their Jewish fathers, and Rich’s Jewish journey is so fraught because she must both “expose” her father as a man who traded in “self -hatred” and “claim” him as one who secularized Jewish pride in terms of “achievement, aspiration, genius, idealism.” As Rich puts it:
He taught me to write and rewrite, to feel that I was a person of the book, even though a woman; to take ideas seriously. He made me feel, at a very young age, the power of language and and that I could share in it.
Teaching her to literally revise, the assimilated Arnold paradoxically gave Adrienne the tools to re-vision her Jewish legacy. Such re-vision is powerfully present in Rich’s Sources, written in 1981 and1982, right around the time of “Split.”
In the verse and prose poems that became the first part of her 1986 collection Your Native Land, Your Life, Rich charts her own Jewish feminist evolution: “the eldest daughter raised as a son, taught to study but not to pray” who came to view her father as “the face of patriarchy” and “could name at last precisely the principle you embodied, there was an ideology at last which let me dispose of you, hate you righteously as part of a system, the kingdom of the fathers.” But in keeping with the politics of location and the distrust of theory that does not smell of the earth, she learns to recognize “the suffering of the Jew, the alien stamp” her father bore.
In Sources, Rich also tackles her husband, Alfred Conrad, who committed suicide. Conrad was “the other Jew, the one from the shtetl, from Brooklyn, from the wrong part of history, the wrong accent, the wrong class,” the one whose post-Holocaust kaddish was his insistence that “there’s nothing left now but the food and the humor.”
In “the angry packet threaded with love” that is Sources, Rich insists that “there is something more to jewishness than food, humor, a turn of phrase, a gesture of the hands.” She speaks to and of this dead man:
to say no person trying to take responsibility for her or his own identity should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors. I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now, but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history if we are not to give ourselves away.
Adrienne Rich’s commitments to claim identity without calcifying it, to embody the process of re-vision, to repudiate always without repudiating theory—those commitments represent a vexed, valiant and valuable trajectory of feminist studies in the late twentieth-century and beyond.
Remembering and honoring Rich’s journey is simultaneously a means of recovering and engaging with our recent feminist past.