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This article is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.

A letter to Sharon Byron: Some Observations on Women and Tradition Anne Stevenson

YOU HAVE ASKED me to comment on my feelings about what you see as a predominantly male tradition in English/American literature. Citing a passage from T.S. Eliot's essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', you specifically ask if, as a woman writer, I feel left out. My answer is no, I do not. The questions appears to me to lie quite outside the issues Eliot addressed in that essay. Moreover, although anyone can see that women have had a tough time finding acceptance in almost all other professions and fields of study, it seems to me difficult to prove by example that for two hundred years women have not held their own as writers, particularly as writers of fiction. To that I will come later. But first of all, suppose we look closely at Eliot's essay and the terms it employs.

'Tradition', as used in literary criticism, appears to be a word that emerged late, under pressure of modern usage. Eliot himself introduced it in the 1920s out of a new and heightened consciousness of poetry's historical lineage. The essay in question begins cautiously. 'In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence.' He seems to be identifying a point of view, a state of affairs that may not objectively exist. 'Seldom, perhaps,' he goes on, 'does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.' The Oxford English Dictionary offers no examples of literary tradition. An old word ...


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