Daughter of Robert and Celia Lewis; married Martin Mayer,1949; children: two sons
Ellen Moers received a B.A. at Vassar College in 1948, an M.A. at Radcliffe in 1949, and a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1957. She has taught at Columbia, Barnard College, Brooklyn College, and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Moers has two sons and lives in New York City. Moers, who has published a critical book on a certain classification of men, The Dandy: Brummel to Beerbohm (1960, reprinted 1978), and one on an individual man, Two Dreisers (1969, 1970), is best known for Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976, 1986). Moers assumes the quality of greatness in her subjects and asks intriguingly, "What did it matter that so many of the great writers of modern times have been women? What did it matter to literature?"
While clearly stating there is no single female tradition, no single literary form to which women are restricted, no such thing as the female genius or the female sensibility, and no female style in literature, Moers presents a fair amount of evidence to support her contention that women writers have drawn confidence (even if not loyalty) from belonging to a literary movement, an "under-current, rapid and powerful," apart from the mainstream. Within this undercurrent, the great writers have seemed to emphasize or to be drawn toward some specific themes and literary forms.
Focusing on "heroinism" in the second half of Literary Women, Moers integrates biographical, social, and historical factors, as well as literary tradition, into the critical discussion of various works. The "traveling heroinism" of Mrs. Radcliffe's gothic novels, for example, is noteworthy because the traveling is done entirely indoors—the only way, in that writer's time, that the heroine could be brave and free and still maintain her respectability. Moers's presentation of the tradition of "loving heroinism" in women's literature demonstrates "the woman writer's heroic resolve to write herself, as men for centuries had tried to do, the love story from the woman's point of view."
The final chapter of Literary Women concerns metaphors in literature by women. The interpretations are, admittedly, generally made from a Freudian viewpoint, but Moers's brief analysis of landscapes, including the Brontë moors and Cather prairies, may have wider implications and applications; her suggestions invite the reader to examine this subject further.
The question that must be raised about a work like Literary Women is: do women writers really need a criticism especially devoted to them and their works? In Literary Women, Moers answers this question affirmatively, for her approach to these great writers has resulted in a rich addition to the body of literary criticism and, more significantly, to our appreciation of the works of these women. In its combination of so many elements—the writers' works; their social, political and economic milieu; their themes; and their biographies and literary traditions—this book is a model for further feminist criticism.
Contributor to: LaValley, A. J., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Collection of Critical Essays (1969). Buckley, J. H., ed., The Worlds of Victorian Fiction (1975). Levine, G. L. and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel (1982).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). American Scholar (Autumn 1976). Book World (11 Apr. 1976). Ms. (July 1976). NYRB (1 Apr. 1976). NYT (12 Mar. 1976). NYTBR (7 Mar. 1976). SR (Mar. 1976). VQR (Winter 1977).
—BARBARA KERR DAVIS