Heilbrun, Carolyn G

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HEILBRUN, Carolyn G.

Born 13 January 1926, East Orange, New Jersey

Also writes under: Amanda Cross

Daughter of Archibald and Estelle Roemer Gold; married James Heilbrun, 1945; children: Emily, Margaret, Robert

An only child, Carolyn G. Heilbrun went to private schools and graduated from Wellesley College. After earning an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, she taught at Brooklyn College and at Columbia, where she became a full professor in 1972. Known for her position on feminist issues, Heilbrun has been president of the Virginia Woolf Society; consultant for the University of Michigan Press Series on Women; a member of the editorial boards of Signs, Twentieth Century Literature, and Columbia University Press; and adviser to several radio and television productions. Heilbrun's work ranges from scholarly books and articles to witty, leisurely, intellectual mysteries written under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross.

In her first book, The Garnett Family (1961), Heilbrun presents the history of a literary family in England, particularly the three generations beginning with Richard Garnett (1835-1906). Richard's son, Edward (1868-1937), and his wife, Constance, (1862-1946) are the key characters in this biography. As a publisher's reader, Edward encouraged many of the literary talents from the 1890s to the time of his death, including Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. Constance, about whom Heilbrun writes with enthusiasm, was an independent woman who translated many of the major Russian novelists into English and who, after becoming a wife and mother, traveled alone to Russia to see the country for herself. Her education at Newnham College, Cambridge, is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's description of a woman's education in A Room of One's Own. Woven through the book are other suggested parallels to Woolf: the elder Garnett is compared with Woolf's father and family gatherings with those described by Woolf.

Heilbrun's interest in Woolf found greater expression in her very important work, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1973). Heilbrun believes "our future salvation lies in a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and the modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen." Divided into three sections—"The Hidden River of Androgyny," "The Woman as Hero," and "The Bloomsbury Group"—her book concentrates on the novel, after tracing the history of androgyny in myth and early literature. A wide-ranging critical study, it perceptively reexamines the works of many of our major novelists. Heilbrun asks for a new approach, one that recognizes the "woman hero" as distinct from the "heroine." She notes that in the late 19th-and early 20th-century novels, it is the women who speak against the antiandrogynous vision. She differentiates between the "feminist" novel and the androgynous novel. In Jane Eyre, an example of the former, one identifies only with the woman hero. In Wuthering Heights, an example of the latter, one is aware of the human waste because of sexual polarization.

In the essay, "Marriage Perceived" (1977), Heilbrun continues to explore the meaning of the woman's role. She seeks to tear down the facade, to destroy the shibboleths that say that marriage is the desired state. She believes that much of the criticism written between 1932 and 1960 misinterprets the writers' intentions. As an example, she cites those critics who believe that Henry James supported the old ideas of marriage, when in fact he noted its painfulness and the close connection between economics and marriage.

As Amanda Cross, Heilbrun won the Scroll of the Mystery Writers of America for In the Last Analysis (1964). Here Heilbrun created Kate Fansler, a professor from a large urban university, as the amateur sleuth. In a later work, The James Joyce Murder (1967), the protagonist professor spends the summer sorting the papers of the American publisher of James Joyce, when a crime is committed and a manuscript disappears. In these works, Heilbrun weaves her academic background into the story, either through plot devices or by creating intellectual, sophisticated characters.

In 1983 Heilbrun was coeditor of The Representation of Women in Fiction, a collection of papers from the first English Institute program (1981) devoted to feminist criticism. Her own work at this time began to focus on women's lives and particularly women's autobiographies and biographies. In an important article, "Women's Autobiographical Studies: New Forms" (1985), she argues that until the 1960s women had written only preautobiography, where "the individual…does not feel [her]self to exist outside of others." This interest culminated in Writing a Woman's Life (1988). In her characteristic combination of critical and textual analysis with autobiographical and biographical material, her essays focus on the necessity for women to write about their lives or to record the lives of others who have not been heard of before. She credits women poets, such as Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath, born between 1923 and 1932, with transforming "the autobiographies of women's lives," and notes that Rich, writing in prose, actually "practiced the new female autobiography directly" in her essay on her father, a subject Heilbrun argues women must write about in order to confront the patriarchal world. Other new forms and plots of women's lives must be established, she argues, especially around marriage patterns and the story of friendship and love between women.

Heilbrun, additionally, points out that in writing detective stories under a pseudonym, she was creating another identity for herself and another "possibility of female destiny." Fansler was unmarried (though she later married the district attorney) and without children (Heilbrun has three children). She was also, Heilbrun notes, "unconstrained by the opinions of others, rich and beautiful."

Heilbrun produced five Fansler mysteries between 1981 and 1990. Death in a Tenured Position (1981), set at Harvard University's English Department and featuring a victim who is the first tenured woman in the department, is characteristic of her novels in that it combines sharp social commentary with detective work and often solves the mystery through an analysis of literary texts. No Word from Winifred (1986), more than earlier novels, focuses on the effects of feminism on women's lives, while The Players Come Again (1990) features literary detective work in the service of revealing a woman's role in the work of a famous male writer. In her nonfiction Writing a Woman's Life (1988), Heilbrun notes that alter ego Amanda Cross is no longer a fantasy figure "but an aging woman who battles despair" and who uses wit and humor and "the analysis of our ancient patriarchal ways" to find "a reason to endure." In all of her writing, Heilbrun offers much more than mere endurance: she celebrates the lives and work of women who have the courage to live beyond convention and to tell their own stories.

In the foreword to Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (1990), Nancy Miller notes that Heilbrun has always identified with Virginia Woolf's "Society of Outsiders." In this collection of essays, beginning with her first published essay, "The Character of Hamlet's Mother" (1957), Heilbrun reveals that from the beginning she was writing and thinking as "an opposing self" opposed to the male-centered culture of the university. All the other pieces were written between 1972 and 1988, during her life as a "declared and dedicated feminist." They thus record her own history in the women's movement as well as the spirit of "the revolution in its earlier years." Most central in her literary criticism are the essays on Woolf, in one of which she argues that Woolf is a more revolutionary figure in modernism than James Joyce. Heilbrun includes two essays given at formal professional occasions, one her president's address to the Modern Language Association and the other a University Lecture at Columbia. The two were, "collectively and separately, the bravest acts of my professional life," because in them she confronted the male academic culture and spoke as a woman and not as "a genderless member" of the profession. In "The Politics of the Mind," Heilbrun argues that "much of what passes for the life of the mind is, in fact, no more than the politics of the mind," which has wasted the energies of women by too often silencing or hampering them.

Heilbrun's continuing promotion of feminist scholarship and the discussion of women's issues particularly pertaining to the academic world was a central reason for her decision to retire from the faculty of Columbia University's Department of English in 1992. Feminist critic Nancy Miller called Heilbrun a woman ahead of her generation and noted her passion "for the life in texts" and "from the beginning…has been writing the biography of literature."

Whether writing under her real name or under Amanda Cross, Heilbrun continues to earn widespread respect for her feminist theories. According to Nikki Lee Manos in Belles Lettres, Heilbrun has chosen to "interpret women's literature from a woman's perspective and thus to illustrate a critical means for validating female experience." Los Angeles Times correspondent Kay Mills called Heilbrun "a pioneering mystery writer, not to mention one of the premiere translators of academic feminist concepts into language the rest of us can grasp and use. She's influenced a generation of readers and writers with her belief that it's vital to history to have women telling and honestly analyzing the stories of women."

In the decade since it was published, Writing a Woman's Life (1988) has become essential reading in feminist literary theory. One reader who admired it was Gloria Steinem; when Steinem needed someone to write her authorized biography, she turned to Heilbrun. The result was The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (1995). Steinem gave Heilbrun full cooperation on the manuscript but did not have the final say. The resulting work, according to Washington Post Book World contributor Grace Lichtenstein, "is an intriguing and unconventional portrait of this intriguing, unconventional and, above all, beloved leader. That the Steinem who emerges from this biography remains an admirable enigma in no way diminishes the book's importance." Other reviewers found the results of Heilbrun's treatment of Steinem more uneven. Wini Breines in the Women's Review of Books found "the story Heilbrun tells is strangely transparent, an unmessy narrative of Steinem's admirable life with little attention to depth, complications, or contradictions." Florence King, writing in the National Review, was blunt: "The only enjoyable parts of this book are the quoted passages by other writers. Miss [sic] Heilbrun is maddening." Several reviewers felt a biography on Steinem was premature.

The intellectual integrity Heilbrun has developed over a scholarly career serves her well when the subject is herself. In The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (1997), she reflects on life after sixty. Her essays examine the unexpected pleasures of e-mail, her love for her dogs, a declaration of freedom from dresses and heels, the perils of finally getting a longed-for "room of one's own," her relationship with poet May Sarton, appreciation for the wisdom of the young, and the company of men. Rebecca Pepper Sinkler in the New York Times Book Review found that "one of the many honesties here is that Heilbrun makes the hard parts look hard." Suitably reflective, this collection bears the clarity, humor, and deeply held feminist convictions that mark Heilbrun's earlier works.

As Amanda Cross, Heilbrun continues to allow Kate Fansler to stretch and grow. Fansler's most recent challenge involved the kidnapping of her husband in The Puzzled Heart (1998). This was preceded by An Imperfect Spy (1995) and The Collected Stories of Amanda Cross (1997).

Heilbrun's major contribution is as scholar and feminist, overthrowing some of the sacred theories of an earlier generation and insisting on the influence of cultural bias in evaluations of literature. She has been criticized for her derogatory references to Freud and for the broadness of the field she covers. An articulate and original critic, Heilbrun brings a fresh perspective to literature. An encouraging teacher and generous colleague, she offers inspiration to women struggling to express their ideas in the academic world.

Other Works:

Christopher Isherwood (1970). Poetic Justice (1970). The Theban Mysteries (1972). The Question of Max (1977). Reinventing Womanhood (1979). Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984). A Trap for Fools (1989). Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold (1999).


Kress, S., Carolyn G. Heilbrun: Feminist in a Tenured Position (1997). Reddy, M., Sisters in Crime (1988).

Reference works:

CA (1974). CANR (1990, 1997). CLC (1983). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1995). FC (1990). Feminist Writers (1996). Great Women Mystery Writers (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

Chronicle of Higher Education (11 Nov. 1992). Clues: American Journal of Detection (Fall/Winter 1982). Designs of Darkness (1983). LJ (15 Mar. 1997). National Review (29 Jan. 1996). NYTBR (6 Apr. 1997). NYTM (15 Nov. 1992). WRB (Dec. 1986, Dec. 1995).




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