Passionate Minds: A book review by Bob Morris

Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World
Claudia Roth Pierpont
Knopf (2000)

“Hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of them” Claudia Roth Pierpont

I read this book when it was first published in 2000 and recently re-read it, curious to know how relevant Claudia Roth Pierpont’s material is eighteen years later. My conclusion? If anything they are even more relevant now than they were then.

She focuses on twelve exceptional women whose writings were created by a “passionate mind.” That is, however different they were in most respects, all of them embraced their own version of what they viewed as “absolute truth.” Moreover, “similarities began to emerge, not in what these women wrote but in how they contrived to get it written; that is, in how ambitious women worked out their destinies in an age of momentous transition for their sex, when — to paraphrase Olive Schreiner on religious faith — the old ways seemed outworn but new ones had not been invented.” (Page xii).

The writers of greatest interest to me are three about whom I knew little (if anything)  previously: Schreiner, Zora Neil Hurston, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Briefly, thanks to Wikibios, Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and intellectual. She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm which has been highly acclaimed since its first publication in 1883 for the bold manner in which it deals with some of the burning issues of the day, including agnosticism, existential independence, individualism, the professional aspirations of women, and the elemental nature of life on the colonial frontier. In more recent studies she has also been identified as an advocate for those sidelined by the forces of British Imperialism, such as the Afrikaners, and later other South African groups like Blacks, Jews and Indians – to name but a few.

According to Pierpont, “Olive Schreiner saw herself, toward the end of her life, as equally important — as an example — in failure and in success. She knew that she suffered the ills and dissatisfactions of a ‘transitory condition, her own and society’s, and she consoled herself with Browning’s ‘What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me.'”

Hurston (1891-1960) was an influential author of African American literature and anthropologist, who portrayed racial struggles in the early 20th century American South, and published research on Haitian voodoo. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, her most popular is the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and moved to Eatonville, Florida,  with her family in 1894. Eatonville would become the setting for many of her stories and is now the site of the Zora! Festival, held each year in Hurston’s honor. In her early career, Hurston conducted anthropological and ethnographic research while attending Barnard College. While in New York she became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

According to Pierpont, “There is the sense of a long procession behind Hurston: what might have existed if only more of the words and stories had been written down decades earlier…she had to try to make up for all of this, and more. If out if broken bits of talk and memory she pieced together something that may once have existed, out of will and desire she added what never was. Hurston had created a myth that has been gratefully mistaken for history, and in which she herself plays a nythic role — a myth about a time and place fair enough, funnyenougfh, unbitter enough, glad enough to have produced a woman black and truly free.”

With regard to Tsvetaeva (1892-1944), she was a Russian and Soviet poet. Her work is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth century Russian literature. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where she died of hunger. Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 and lived with her family in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before returning to Moscow in 1939. Her husband Seregei Efron and her daughter Ariadna Efron (Alya) were arrested on espionage charges in 1941; and her husband was executed. Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941.

According to Pierpont, “The revival of Tsvetaeva’s literary fortunes offers little by way of political instruction, except in her aspirations beyond all ideology and pub,iic poses; her victory is in the intense, womanly privacy of the poems themselves. Yet even deprived of the full force of her poetry, awaiting the translator who will reimagine her powers for English readers. Tsvetaeva ∂raws us deep into her presiding myths, her life as large and unnerving and painfully exalted as the lives of the Phaedras and Ariadnes for whom she tried to speak.”

Frankly, when I first read this book, I did not fully appreciate the scope and depth of compelling human experience that Pierpont shares. When I re-read it years later, Passionate Minds was both a window and a mirror, revealing so much of enduring value in others’ lives while enabling me to recognize what I share in common with each of them, even with Mae West!

I highly recommend this book to young women in schools, colleges, and universities. These twelve women can be among the anchors and sails you will often need. I also recommend it to all men who have women among their direct reports. Thank you, Claudia Roth Pierpont. I wish we could co-host a fantasy dinner party limited to the twelve. If there’s room for three more, let’s include Elaine May, Flannery O’Connor, and Virginia Woolf.



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