DeSalvo, Louise A(nita) 1942-

views updated

DeSALVO, Louise A(nita) 1942-

PERSONAL: Born September 27, 1942, in Jersey City, NJ; daughter of Louis B. (a machinist) and Mildred N. (Calabrese) Sciacchetano; married Ernest J. DeSalvo (a physician), December 22, 1963; children: Jason, Justin. Ethnicity: "Italian American." Education: Douglas College, B.A., 1963; New York University, M.A., 1972, Ph.D. (English education), 1977.

ADDRESSES: Home—1045 Oakland Ct., Teaneck, NJ 07666; Stoney Ridge, Sag Harbor, NY. Office— Department of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York, 695 Park Ave., New York, NY 10021-5024. Agent—Geri Thoma, Elaine Markson Agency, 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Wood-Ridge High School, Teaneck, NJ, English teacher, 1963-67; Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, coordinator of English education, 1977-82; Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, professor of English and women's studies, 1982—.

MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, National Council of Teachers of English, Bronte Society, Virginia Woolf Society (treasurer, 1979-82).

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1980; seal from Committee on Scholarly Editions from Modern Language Association of America, 1980, for Melymbrosia: Early Version of "The Voyage Out"; distinguished achievement award from Educational Press Association of America, 1980, for "Writers at Work"; President's Award, Hunter College, 1986; Douglas Society award, 1990.


Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making, Rowman & Littlefield (Totowa, NJ), 1980.

(Editor) Virginia Woolf, Melymbrosia: Early Version of "The Voyage Out," New York Public Library (New York, NY), 1980, revised edition, with new introduction, published as Melymbrosia, Cleis Press (San Francisco, CA), 2002.

(With Carol Ascher and Sara Ruddick) Between Women, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1984.

(Editor, with Mitchell A. Leaska) The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Feminist Reading, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1987.

"Children Never Forget": Virginia Woolf on Childhood, Adolescence, and Young Adulthood, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1988.

Casting Off: A Novel, Harvester (New York, NY), 1988.

Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1989.

(Coeditor) Territories of the Voice: Contemporary Stories by Irish Women Writers, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1989.

Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers, and Artists Write about Their Work on Women, Routledge (New York, NY), 1993.

Conceived with Malice: Literature As Revenge in the Lives and Works of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Djuna Barnes, and Henry Miller, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994.

Vertigo: A Memoir, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.

Breathless: An Asthma Journal, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.

Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1999.

(Editor, with Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy and Katherine Hogan) Short Fiction by Irish Women Writers, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.

(Editor, with Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy and Katherine Hogan) A Green and Mortal Sound: Short Fiction by Irish Women Writers, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2001.

Adultery, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.

(Editor, with Edvige Giunta) The Milk of Almonds: Italian-American Women Writers on Food and Culture, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2002.

Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian-American Family, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributing editor, Media and Methods, 1980-81.

Contributor to literature journals.

ADAPTATIONS: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf formed the basis for the play Vita and Virginia.


SIDELIGHTS: Louise A. DeSalvo has devoted much of her scholarly research and writing to the life and work of writer Virginia Woolf, but she has also written more personal books that in a way connect her to the famous author through their shared problems in childhood. It is widely known that Woolf was sexually molested by her half-brothers from the time she was six until she left the family home at the age of twenty-three, but DeSalvo was one of the first critics to examine the effect that this extended trauma had on the woman and her writings. She focused on this subject in Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Washington Post Book World writer Julia Epstein noted: "DeSalvo attempts, not always successfully, to integrate readings on a variety of Woolf's works with recent research on child sexual abuse." Epstein found that DeSalvo failed to provide an adequate discussion of how Woolf's childhood experiences affected her adult love life, yet the critic concluded that despite some flaws, DeSalvo produced "an important book. She refutes standard notions about the idyllic, secure, affectionate household in which Virginia Woolf grew up, and questions the alleged sexual liberation of the Bloomsbury circle. Most important, she hears and believes Virginia Woolf's testimony to her childhood abuse, and in consequence offers a genuinely new account of her early life and work." Women's Review of Books writer Gillian Gill called the book "something of a milestone in women's studies." Woolf was also an important subject in Conceived with Malice: Literature As Revenge in the Lives and Works of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Djuna Barnes, and Henry Miller. In this study, DeSalvo examines the various authors' works and the elements in them that probably sprang from a desire to take revenge on certain people in their lives.

DeSalvo has also written specifically on the fiction of Woolf in the study Virginia Woolf's First Voyage: A Novel in the Making, and more recently she spent seven years reediting the author's Melymbrosia. Originally published in a scholarly edition as Melymbrosia: Early Version of "The Voyage Out," the new edition is simply titled Melymbrosia and has been marketed as a trade book with a new introduction by DeSalvo. The new version of the novel, which concerns the sexual awakening of an English woman, has been protested by Woolf's relatives, who have felt that the author would not have wanted this early work to see print. DeSalvo, however, believed it was an important project because the themes in the book tie in with Woolf's personal struggles with sexual abuse. Library Journal contributor Ron Ratliff agreed that although the novel does not represent Woolf at her best, it is still of interest to scholars and readers as a chance to see "the young artist working to find the voice and style that would later produce masterpieces like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse." Bloomsbury Review contributor Theresa Crater, however, found the book nothing less than "revolutionary," concluding that it "gives us a fresh look at an important modernist writer" and presents "a vision of Woolf's first novel as she would have preferred it."

DeSalvo took a look at her own life with Vertigo: A Memoir, in which she reveals a shared bond with her favorite subject, Virginia Woolf. Here she applies "a scholarly scalpel to the complex layers of her life," according to Carolyn Alessio in Tribune Books. The author grew up in a working-class Italian neighborhood—Hoboken, New Jersey—during World War II. It was a woman's world, for most men were in the armed forces at that time. She recalls this as the happiest time in her life, however; when the men returned, "life became grim," as a contributor put it in a Publishers Weekly review. Her mother was institutionalized for depression, her sister took her own life, and DeSalvo herself was repeatedly molested by an aunt. She escaped the horrors of her life by burying herself in books and films, eventually becoming a respected professor of English. Still, depression haunted her as an adult, and part of Vertigo is the story of her struggle with this mental illness. In fact, the book was begun as a means of therapy.

"De Salvo clearly has a sense of humor, and although her success in life—she repeatedly stresses the problems of being Italian, working class and a 'girl'—may not be as unique as she seems to think, her clarity of insight and expression makes this an impressive achievement," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic. Carolyn See, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, also endorsed Vertigo, declaring that "the writing here is terrific. DeSalvo constructs an inviting, unlikely heaven made up of women and children who have their tenement world to themselves. . . . The kids and their moms break all the old boundaries and rip around through each other's dwellings, laughing and talking. . . . Then the dads come home, reasserting their private territorial rights, slamming all the doors to all the apartments and yelling at their wives and kids until they shut up and stop having fun. Once again, the world is made safe for patriarchal 'democracy,' for brutish, humorless violence." See found the portions of the book covering the author's adult life less "riveting" than those describing her early years, but she concluded, "This is a highly subjective narrative of what it's like to grow up American, reject what's expected of you and then make your own fate."

DeSalvo has also written about infidelity in her marriage in 1999's Adultery, in which she admits that both she and her husband cheated on each other, and about her struggles with asthma in Breathless: An Asthma Journal, in which she links the disease to childhood trauma. In the former, personal accounts are complemented by examples of adultery from literature; she then explores the public's fascination with the subject of infidelity and why people like to read about both real-life and fictional stories. Her argument is simply that adultery makes for good storytelling in what a Publishers Weekly reviewer labeled a "tart and entertaining treatise on adultery" that "provides an intelligent and thought-provoking inquiry into why sexual infidelity will always fascinate us." In Breathless, DeSalvo argues that her long-undiagnosed illness has its roots in being touched inappropriately by an aunt and in the trauma of her sister's suicide. But National Review contributor Anthony Daniels did not find DeSalvo's claims convincing: "It must be admitted that her doctors took an unconscionable time in diagnosing her condition," noted Daniels, "but I can find no justification at all for her assertion that 'asthma is a breathing disorder that is caused by abuse and that it is probably a manifestation of post-traumatic stress.'"

In Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, DeSalvo expresses her belief that writing about one's personal traumas will speed up the healing process, which she divides into seven stages. Recommending that people keep a journal, she goes on to suggest that one's writing should then be shared with others as well. "DeSalvo's work is similar to Julia Cameron's The Right to Write," observed Lisa S. Wise in Library Journal, "though [it is] more academic."



Giunta, Edvige, Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian-American Women Writers, Palgrave-Macmillan (New York, NY), 2002.


Bloomsbury Review, January-February, 2003, Theresa Crater, review of Melymbrosia, pp. 19-20.

Booklist, June 1, 1996, p. 1665.

Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, May, 2002, Alistair Williamson, "I Miss You Oh So Much," p. 35.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 5, 1985.

Journal of American Studies, April, 1989.

Library Journal, July, 1996, p. 126; April 1, 1997, Anne C. Tomlin, review of Breathless: An Asthma Journal, p. 115; April 15, 1999, Lisa S. Wise, review of Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, p. 110; July, 2002, Ron Ratliff, review of Melymbrosia, pp. 81-82; November 1, 2002, Carolyn M. Craft, review of The Milk of Almonds: Italian-American Women Writers on Food and Culture, p. 89.

Literary Review, spring, 1990.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 23, 1984; February 26, 1995, p. 9; August 4, 1996, p. 4.

Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1991.

National Review, October 27, 1997, Anthony Daniels, review of Breathless, p. 50.

New Statesman and Society, October 27, 1989.

New Yorker, November 6, 1989.

New York Review of Books, March 15, 1990.

New York Times, July 9, 1995, p. LI13.

Publishers Weekly, May 9, 1994, p. 27; September 19, 1994, p. 56; May 27, 1996, p. 57; July 26, 1999, review of Adultery, p. 75; June 24, 2002, review of The Milk of Almonds, p. 48.

Times (London, England), December 20, 1984.

Times Literary Supplement, December 21, 1984.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 18, 1996, p. 3.

Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, fall, 1991.

Washington Post Book World, May 14, 1989, p. 4.

Women's Review of Books, March, 1995, p. 14.*

About this article

DeSalvo, Louise A(nita) 1942-

Updated About content Print Article