Critical Insights: Barbara Kingsolver

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Editor: Thomas Austenfeld,
    Professor of American Literature and Dean
    of the Faculty of Letters, University of Fribourg,
October 2009 · 1 volume · 336 pages · 6"x9"

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ISBN: 978-1-58765-642-2
# of Pages: 336
# of Volumes: 1
Print List Price: $105
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In-depth critical discussions of her life and works - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

Over the past two decades, Barbara Kingsolver has built a sizable reputation as one of the most politically engaged writers in America. When The Bean Trees was published in 1988, Kingsolver established herself as a new literary voice willing to take on contemporary political and social issues like race, feminism, class, and immigration. Subsequent books, like Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, and Small Wonder, reiterated these concerns and added others, most notably environmentalism. Today, she continues to be a formidable advocate of politically, socially, and environmentally conscious writing.

This collection of essays, edited and introduced by Thomas Austenfeld, Professor of American Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, offers readers an introduction to Kingsolver's life, works, and critics. Austenfeld's introduction reflects on Kingsolver's "sense of place" and her ongoing commitment to being a "writer with a purpose," while four original essays provide valuable context for readers new to Kingsolver. These essays draw on Kingsolver's biography to discuss the evolution of her political convictions and locate her as an inheritor of the political fiction of the 1930s; review the major pieces of Kingsolver criticism and the popular reception of her books; demonstrate how her first novel, The Bean Trees, reworks the gothic tropes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to affirm positive portrayals of racial and ethnic others; and offer an ecofeminist reading of Prodigal Summer that reveals, how throughout the novel, the female protagonists reconsider their relationships with human communities and the land of the Appalachian South.

Finally, this volume assembles a highly diverse selection of previously published essays concerning Kingsolver. The Bean Trees is read as a feminine re-working of the American Western, and matriarchal communities are explored in the same as well as in Pigs in Heaven. Other essays analyze Animal Dreams through the lens of trauma studies to yield insight into the novel's narrative structure and use developmental psychology to understand the growth of the novel's protagonist. The Poisonwood Bible's depiction of the colonization of the Congo is read as a parallel to Nathan's colonization of the women of the Price family, and other readings of the novel reveals how it reworks the genre of domestic fiction, how its multiple narrators subvert traditional Western narrative techniques to create a unique rhetorical appeal, and how Kingsolver depicts disability. Prodigal Summer is read as an argument for a bioregionalism perspective of sustainable agriculture and, finally, a survey of Kingsolver's fiction and nonfiction is used to discuss the environmental concerns spanning her works.

The volume also contains an original contribution by Paris Review writer Katherine Ryder that discusses the politics of Kingsolver's essay collection Small Wonder as well as critical reference materials for readers wishing to study this uniquely committed writer in greater depth.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index

From "About This Volume"
This volume in the Critical Insights series brings together a set of materials to serve both as an introduction to Barbara Kingsolver’s writings and as a guide to scholarly readings of her work. The volume begins with a general introduction to Kingsolver’s life and work that provides a context for the beginning reader. Biographical data shedding light on her fiction and essays are provided in the sketch by Marilyn Kongslie and Karen L. Arnold, and Katherine Ryder’s sketch for The Paris Review shows us Kingsolver at her most political, especially in her essay collection Small Wonder (2002).

At the heart of the volume are two sections of essays. I have written a headnote for each essay to give readers a quick orientation and to allow them to read the essays in the order they find most useful. The first, shorter section, “Critical Contexts,” opens a number of doors for the reader. John Nizalowski—the other author who references Small Wonder—traces the social and political engagement that is so characteristic of Kingsolver’s work back to its many possible biographical roots, from the author’s home and educational history all the way to her life experiences as an adult, including motherhood. Rosemary M. Canfield Reisman documents how early reviews shaped Kingsolver’s reputation. She also locates Kingsolver’s abiding concern for social issues in the years of the author’s journalistic apprenticeship.

Christine M. Battista considers Kingsolver’s contribution to ecofeminism. Given the ongoing national and international debates about climate change and sustainability, Battista’s essay is highly topical. Matthew J. Bolton’s essay invites readers to see Kingsolver in one of several literary contexts. He uses the tropes of the gothic novel to situate The Bean Trees in literary history, pointing out how Kingsolver playfully subverts the expectations of the genre. Together, these two initial essays with a distinctly literary focus delineate the large frame of reference in which Kingsolver’s work needs to be seen; reaching from literary history to present-day progressive politics, this novelist’s work is relevant and timely.

The second section of essays, “Critical Readings,” assembles carefully selected, recently published essays placed together here for their ability to converse with each other and thus to engage the reader in the ongoing conversation about Kingsolver’s work. The essays are arranged thematically, following roughly the chronology of Kingsolver’s major publications. Most of the essayists are literary critics, but some come from such fields as rhetoric and psychology and bring their own disciplinary views to bear on the novelist’s works. I suggest reading the essays with a view toward their potential to complement each other and to illuminate different aspects of the same works.

The Bean Trees (1988) and Pigs in Heaven (1993) are thematically linked. Catherine Himmelwright and Loretta Martin Murrey both examine Kingsolver’s transformation of pervasive western American myths and consider the corrective impulses the author offers us with a female protagonist who unexpectedly discovers her maternal qualities. Mothering, in turn, connects Taylor Greer with her own part-Cherokee heritage and creates communities in the place of the lone western men we know from the cowboy tradition.

Kingsolver’s 1990 novel Animal Dreams also takes place in Arizona and has moved specialists from several disciplines to interpret it. Sheryl Stevenson uses a “trauma studies” approach to help us understand Codi Noline’s difficult process of identity finding, while Lee Ann De Reus uses psychology and family studies theory to arrive at slightly different conclusions. Not just Animal Dreams and Pigs in Heaven, but indeed all of Kingsolver’s work is replete with animals, and Amanda Cockrell finds this biological absorption a key to Kingsolver’s work as she writes about luna moths and coyotes, among other animals.

Kingsolver’s 1998 novel about the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible, is particularly rich in interpretive contexts, and several essays in this section together investigate its key aspects. While Elaine R. Ognibene deftly teases out the connections between personal and political manifestations of colonialism in her essay, Kristin J. Jacobson reads the same novel through the lens of nineteenth-century American women’s writing, especially against the foil of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and the conversations about “neodomesticity” surrounding Alcott. Anne Marie Austenfeld analyzes the multiple narrators of the novel, who come together as a circle of tale-tellers to render the complex history of the Price family abroad. Austenfeld shows that a rhetorical appreciation of The Poisonwood Bible also illuminates some of Kingsolver’s journalistic and reportorial work. Extending the context into further corners of the English-speaking world, Stephen D. Fox compares Keri Hulme’s The Bone People with The Poisonwood Bible to determine how the authors render key characters with disabilities.

Suzanne W. Jones brings Kingsolver home, as it were, to the American South, where the novelist currently resides. Jones’s essay is both a critical appreciation of the sheer literary power of Prodigal Summer (2000) and a recognition of Kingsolver’s place in the circle of southern writers who have made preservation and local sustainability issues their central concerns. The essay thus connects back to Battista’s opening observations.

These essays will reward readers who have a desire to discover aspects of Kingsolver’s work they have not yet fully seen, or simply inspire readers to go back and read their favorite Kingsolver texts again. Since Kingsolver is not just a writer but an activist as well, readers may even want to do something about their fascination!