Duplessis, Rachel Blau

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DuPLESSIS, Rachel Blau

Born 14 December 1941, Brooklyn, New York

Daughter of Joseph L. and Eleanor Weslock Blau; married Robert Saint-Cyr DuPlessis, 1968; children: Richard, Kore

Feminist literary critic and poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Temple University. She describes herself as "an off-white feminist, resisting even 'enlightenment' Judaism, a radical but middle-class U.S. inhabitant in a professional job category." Well known for her poetry in such collections as Gypsy/Moth (1984) and Drafts (3-14) (1991), DuPlessis is also the editor of the recently published Feminist Memoir Project (1998).

DuPlessis attended Barnard College and Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in 1970. She taught at Rijksuniversiteit te Gent in Ghent, Belgium, and Universite de Lille III in Lille, France, in the early 1970s. She then taught at Rutgers University and began teaching at Temple University in 1974. She received a Fulbright professorship in 1985 and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1986 and 1988. She was awarded a poetry fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 1990.

Feminism infuses all of DuPlessis' work. She contends that "if I had not become a feminist, I would not have been able to write much or to think anything especially interesting in any original way." She sees her work in literary criticism as the psychosocial analyses of literary production. DuPlessis' own writing seeks to invent an endless number of forms, structures, and "linguistic ruptures" in order to cut through and beyond the "narrative-business-as-usual." Her engagement in experimental writing is part of a larger task of cultural change and revolution. While writing alone cannot bring about change, DuPlessis is adamant that writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure. Language and textual structures must help cause and support the changes in consciousness.

Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) defines one major project of 20th-century women writers: the critique of the (heterosexual) romance plot. DuPlessis challenges the classic relation of romance and quest; she seeks to invent narrative strategies to erode and replace the heterosexual couple as an adequate fictional ending. This book was written as a cross between feminist humanism and the neo-Marxist analysis of Raymond Williams.

DuPlessis is also known as an authority on the life, work, and influences of Hilda Doolittle. In H. D.: The Career of That Struggle (1986), she wrote a critical exploration of Doolittle. DuPlessis collaborated with Susan Stanford Friedman on Signets: Reading H. D. (1990), a collection spanning two decades of Hilda Doolittle criticism by the most influential critics. Well reviewed, the anthology is a representative collection of essays, some classics and others more recent, including bibliographies, chronology, and photographs. Meryl Altman in a review for the Women's Review of Books wrote,"More easily available than Michael King's H. D. Woman and Poet (1986), which it partly supersedes, and in all respects superior (of course) to Harold Bloom's H. D., this comprehensive and balanced gathering of clearly written articles is the one critical anthology anyone writing about or teaching H. D. should certainly buy."

DuPlessis collected a decade of her essays for inclusion in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990). She examines such questions as: Isn't "feminist aesthetic" a contradiction in terms? And why has feminist criticism throughout its brief history searched so diligently for an aesthetic? Since literary study as an intellectual and institutional practice can't seem to manage without these measuring rods, how can there be a feminist literary criticism at all? The volume starts with her famous essay "For the Etruscans," and critics claim the power of this essay derives from its borderline status, described as coming from the two author positions that DuPlessis delineates for herself, "part sisterhood is powerful, part meaning is constructed through discursive practices." Throughout the essays in The Pink Guitar, DuPlessis marshals her feminist anger through a radical writing practice that constantly questions its own discursive status while upending issues of language, women, and authority. As one reviewer remarked, "DuPlessis' sentences dart, rest, turn, twist, reveal, and disappear."

In 1998 DuPlessis collaborated with Ann Snitow on an anthology called the Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation. As she did in The Pink Guitar, DuPlessis once again exhibits her abiding commitment to giving voice to the widest range possible of women's expression. In this case, the focus is a collection of memoirs from feminism's "second wave" of the 1960s and 1970s. While assembling the collection, the editors were lectured by a member of a younger feminist generation about the need to move forward. "It is time for the old to let go of '70s politics. To practice a little strategic forgetfulness." Contrary to this stance, DuPlessis sees the history of feminism as a necessary building block for further activism. "Ignorance of that time…is also an odd handicap," the editors wrote in the Feminist Memoir Project, "like running a relay race with no ideas of what's being handed on to you from the runner just behind."

Through all of her work, poetry, and criticism, DuPlessis constantly engages the past in order to create not cultural revision but revolution. She seeks to create and preserve a narrative of feminism that stands against historical forgetting.

Other Works:

Poetry Wells (1980). Tabula Rosa (1987). Draft X: Letters (1991).


Reference Works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). American Book Review (Apr./May 1991). CA (1993). Choice (1992). WRB (July 1991, July 1992).