Carolyn Heilbrun Told You So

Over the course of a few weeks in April, amid the usual tiny indignities that beset women in academe, I read through Carolyn Heilbrun’s entire oeuvre. April ...

Over the course of a few weeks in April, amid the usual tiny indignities that beset women in academe, I read through Carolyn Heilbrun’s entire oeuvre. April limped into May, and as I ran my eyes over the New York Times, I came across the obituary of one of her Columbia University colleagues, “Steven Marcus, 89, Transformative Literary Critic.”1 Heilbrun, too, was a transformative literary critic, but odds are good that many of you reading this have never heard of her.

The neglect is puzzling, given the ongoing relevance of her scholarly contributions. Heilbrun’s second book, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, originally published in 1973, anticipated the contemporary embrace of gender fluidity. “I believe that 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,” Heilbrun wrote.2 She also warned that placing men who embody ideal “masculine” traits of aggressiveness and defensiveness in power would imperil our survival.3

The Marcus obituary rolled through his curriculum vita at the stately pace of a graduation procession, mentioning all seven of his monographs and elaborating on four. As I read, I did the math: Marcus became an assistant professor at Columbia one year before Heilbrun did, but assumed a named professorship nine years earlier than she did. Marcus, the obituary writer noted, had been influenced by the Columbia emeriti Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. Heilbrun wrote an entire book, When Men Were the Only Models We Had (2002), about the formative role Trilling, Barzun, and Clifford Fadiman had played in her life. But in Heilbrun’s New York Times obituary, that coterie went unmentioned, as did much of her scholarship, reduced to this vague duffel bag of a sentence: “Throughout her academic career, and afterward, Ms. Heilbrun continued to write books and contribute articles to professional journals, newspapers and magazines.”4 Heilbrun, the author of Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), was, in death, portrayed as a scholar who kept to a narrow lane. Marcus, the author of The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1964), was portrayed as a professorial Balboa who sallied forth and pointed the way.

Heilbrun’s dissertation and first book, a decorous history of the literary Garnett family, provides little hint of her career trajectory. She lingers over-long on the editor Edward Garnett (1868–1937) and gives short shrift to the translator Constance Garnett (1861–1946), whose English versions of Dostoyevsky’s major works constitute “one of the most important literary events in modern English literature,” and who nearly went blind translating Tolstoy’s War and Peace.5 Still, the chapter devoted to Constance Garnett emits smoke signals of what was to come. Its sympathetic depiction of the housewife translator shows her suffering from migraines and (Heilbrun speculates) a herniated disc, rising at dawn to make porridge and kill garden slugs, and assigning her young son arithmetic problems to keep him busy as she translated beside him. “It is a fact too little noticed,” Heilbrun writes, “that women of the middle or upper class have, through the centuries, done either so little or so much that one wonders, on the one hand, how they fill their days, on the other how their days are long enough.”6

If there’s a leitmotif running through Heilbrun’s writings, it’s a gloomy consideration of insiders versus outsiders.

The Garnett Family was published in 1961. Between that book and 1973’s Toward a Recognition of Androgyny came the Columbia student riots of 1968, the Black Power movement, and Heilbrun’s promotion to full professor. The woman who wrote the androgyny book had emerged blinking from a hushed reading room into the harsh light of racist and misogynist America.

I don’t want to oversell Heilbrun as a founding sister of the resistance. She was an affluent white woman who spent her entire career at an Ivy League institution, where, despite its location in a multicultural city, women and minority faculty were (and are) underrepresented.7 She could be a little airy about her economic status, writing, in a reflection titled “The Small House,” of her purchase, at age 68, of a house of her own, one that, as it turns out, contained three bathrooms and a Jacuzzi.8 But Heilbrun was not blind to racial injustice. “Black women are … peculiarly vulnerable: they are the objects both of racism and sexism,” she observed in 1979.9 And as a person whose own colleagues often got her name wrong, calling her Carol or Karla, she understood the psychic burden of subtle forms of exclusion.10

If there’s a leitmotif running through Heilbrun’s writings, it’s a gloomy consideration of insiders versus outsiders, of those who swan about the academy like grandees versus those who tiptoe or stumble over tripwires. “At the simplest, most fundamental level, an outsider is identified by exclusion from the cultural patterns of bonding at the heart of society, at its centers of power,” Heilbrun wrote in Reinventing Womanhood.11 Near the end of her career, she delivered a lecture in which she described the most salient sign of liminality as “its unsteadiness, its lack of clarity about exactly where one belongs and what one should be doing, or wants to be doing.”12

Even as she rose through the ranks at Columbia and, in 1984, assumed the presidency of the Modern Language Association, she did so without feeling as if she belonged. When her dissertation was published, she did not share the news with any of her colleagues: “There was no one who would have been remotely interested.”13 It is possible that her colleagues’ disinterest was gender-neutral—academics often ignore each other or bestow their attention by the salt spoon. But in the academy, women and, to an even greater extent, people of color have to adjudicate the meaning of small slights in a way that white men do not.


Famous and Unfamous Feminists

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

Heilbrun’s first major publication, “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” (1957), challenged critics who took Hamlet’s assessment of his mother as frail and adulterous at face value. Heilbrun credited Gertrude with being “intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech” and took a less judgy approach to her lustfulness.14 Heilbrun’s ideas “were forerunners of feminism at the time, but hardly startling when the essay was reprinted in 1990,” declared Robert D. McFadden, the author of Heilbrun’s New York Times obituary.15 Who decided McFadden was the right man for the dead feminist beat, and why did he so confidently fault an article written in 1957 for being “hardly startling” by 1990?

Heilbrun began publishing detective fiction under the pseudonym Amanda Cross in 1964 and would ultimately publish 14 mysteries featuring the professor sleuth Kate Fansler. These novels offer an advanced seminar in academic power dynamics. A senior professor in Poetic Justice (1970) sniffs at a colleague’s monograph: “It’s a good enough book in its way, modest, unexceptional, competent, but small in its ambition. One can’t condemn it nor, I think, is one inclined to praise it extravagantly.”16 In Death in a Tenured Position (1981), a female assistant professor describes her treatment by a senior male professor: “He’s patronizing, vaguely flirtatious, and chivalrous … But he’d never support me for tenure, not here, not anywhere. He’ll write that I’m very bright for so young and attractive a woman.”17 In The Players Come Again (1990), Kate Fansler “maintains her fascinated gaze” on a self-satisfied biographer “of a sort she recognized readily enough from long experience with male professorial colleagues.”18 As the biographer becomes more relaxed, Fansler braces herself for “some manly details of sexual derring-do.”19

Perhaps Heilbrun was drawn in her scholarly writing to the concept of androgyny because she was so acutely aware of how every encounter could become sexualized for women in academia, and how relationships with male mentors were fraught. In When Men Were the Only Models We Had, she acknowledges the profound influence Clifford Fadiman and Lionel Trilling had on her development as a writer, even as she notes Fadiman’s “prevailing and consistent scorn for women in his literary world” and Trilling’s “ardent” opposition to feminism.20 Poetic Justice, which begins with a student uprising like the one that took place at Columbia, features a character, Frederick Clemance, who seems to be based on Trilling, and who inspires in Kate Fansler the same mixed feelings that Trilling evoked in Heilbrun. Fansler continues to preserve Clemance’s books in her bookcase—“all together, a rare tribute in itself”—even as she opposes his effort to shut down a college serving nontraditional students, including older women.21

Heilbrun hoped the writings of older feminists in the academy would help younger women “name their anger and find companionship in enduring it.”

Heilbrun returned again and again to the subject of late-blooming women. She pointed out that George Eliot and Willa Cather both first published fiction at age 38, and that Virginia Woolf “found a new and remarkable kind of courage when she was fifty.”22 She went on to write, “It is perhaps only in old age, certainly past fifty, that women can stop being female impersonators, can grasp the opportunity to reverse their most cherished principles of ‘femininity.’”23 She imagined older women living out Henry James’ belief that the way to affirm one’s self toward the end of life is “to strike as many notes, deep, full and rapid, as one can.”24

At the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, Heilbrun says, “I do not believe that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions. … Instead, we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.”25 Of this passage Heilbrun’s discerning biographer, Susan Kress, writes, “She does not enumerate here the costs of the radical life, the endless battles to be fought, the energy required to keep resisting, the dearth of models for one who is, as Heilbrun often puts it, the oldest woman in the room.”26 Obstreperousness weighed her down, as it continues to weigh down people of color, gay people, and people with disabilities. In Death in a Tenured Position, Kate Fansler sits at a conference table surrounded by men. “The other woman member of the committee was black, female and absent today,” Heilbrun writes. “She had so many demands on her time and attention that occasionally her committee assignments overlapped.”27

In 1992, when she was 66, Carolyn Heilbrun told Columbia to buzz off, claiming, as she opted to retire, that she’d always felt unwelcome there and that she was tired of serving as feminist figurehead on a ponderous vessel that women boarded at their peril. (When it comes to feminist scholars, Columbia’s hand was ever at its lips bidding adieu.28) She acquired a dog, wrote a biography of Gloria Steinem, and took long walks in Central Park. She spoke of feeling as if she were not using all of her talents, echoing a memory of herself as a young woman who knew “I was neither one of Trilling’s young men nor likely to achieve the high hopes I began with.”29


Are Sharp Women Enough?

By Catherine Keyser

In a last piece of published writing, which appeared months after she committed suicide, at 77, Heilbrun reviewed a biography of Patricia Highsmith with characteristic judiciousness. She acknowledged that Highsmith was a horrible person: misogynist, anti-Semite, racist “of startling proportions.”30 But she also described her as a woman who “experienced the confinement of her abilities, ambitions, and male identification in the body of a woman as severely damaging.”

It is possible to read Heilbrun’s final piece as a valedictory comment, now amplified by the #MeToo movement, on the tragedy of unrealized dreams. Only now is the feminist soaker hose that Heilbrun and her contemporaries hauled around the parched garden of academia beginning to flush out predatory male professors. Only now are a handful of those men being sent off to earlyish retirement. She hoped the writings of older feminists in the academy would help younger women “name their anger and find companionship in enduring it.”31 Perhaps that is one hope in which she would not have been disappointed.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Sam Roberts, “Steven Marcus, 89, Transformative Literary Critic,” New York Times, May 1, 2018.
  2. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (Knopf, 1973), pp. ix–x.
  3. Ibid., p. xvi.
  4. Robert D. McFadden, “Carolyn Heilbrun, Pioneering Feminist Scholar, Dies at 77,” New York Times, October 11, 2003.
  5. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, The Garnett Family: The History of a Literary Family (George Allen & Unwin, 1961), p. 188.
  6. Ibid., p. 181.
  7. See Samantha Cooney, “Leaks in the Pipeline: Examining Columbia’s Faculty Diversity Initiatives,” Columbia Spectator, April 30, 2015.
  8. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, “The Small House,” The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (Dial Press, 1997).
  9. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (Norton, 1979), p. 23.
  10. See Anne Matthew, “Rage in a Tenured Position,” New York Times, November 8, 1992.
  11. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood, pp. 37–38.
  12. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold (University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 3.
  13. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, “Afterword,” in Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn (1993; Routledge, 2012), p. 269.
  14. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women (Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 17.
  15. McFadden, “Carolyn Heilbrun.”
  16. Amanda Cross, Poetic Justice (1970; Fawcett, 2001), p. 95
  17. Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position (Ballantine, 1981), p. 68.
  18. Amanda Cross, The Players Come Again (Random House, 1990), pp. 87, 86.
  19. Ibid., p. 94.
  20. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Fadiman, Barzun, Trilling (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 5, 23.
  21. Cross, Poetic Justice, p. 47.
  22. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (1988; Norton, 2008), p. 124.
  23. Ibid., p. 126.
  24. Ibid., p. 126.
  25. Ibid., Writing a Woman’s Life, p. 131.
  26. Susan Kress, Carolyn Heilbrun: Feminist in a Tenured Position (University Press of Virginia, 1997), p.173.
  27. Cross, Death in a Tenured Position, p. 5.
  28. In Heilbrun’s afterword to Changing Subjects, she writes, “A great number of the women who would become the leading feminists of their generation passed through Columbia in either the English or French departments, and Columbia kept not a single one of them.” Building on a list begun by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Heilbrun catalogued these women: Nina Auerbach, Carolyn Burke, Barbara Christian, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kate Ellis, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Sandra Gilbert, Gayle Greene, Alice Jardine, Myra Jehlen, Constance Jordan, Alice Kaplan, Nancy Milford, Nancy Miller, Kate Millett, Lillian Robinson, Naomi Schor, Catherine Stimpson, Susan Suleiman, Louise Yelin. Changing Subjects, p. 269.
  29. Heilbrun, When Men Were the Only Models We Had, p. 61. Late in life, Heilbrun wrote, “The five years I spent on the biography of Gloria Steinem seem to me now to have made too little use of all I had learned before, and contributed too little to what I had hoped to accomplish before death.” The Last Gift of Time, p. 48.
  30. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, “Quintessentially Noir,” Women’s Review of Books, vol. 21, no. 3 (December 2003), p. 6.
  31. Heilbrun, Women’s Lives, p. 101.
Featured image: Eugene Savage, Athene, Butler Library main entrance (ca. 1950). Photograph attributed to Look Magazine. Columbia University Libraries Digital Collections