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The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is reissued by Virago. The story behind the story.

After consulting Dr Mitchell – 'at that time the greatest nerve specialist in the country' – Gilman was ordered to take 'the rest cure'. 'I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: "Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live."' She returned home, followed Dr Mitchell's instructions, 'and came perilously near to losing my mind… I would crawl into remote closets and under beds – to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.'

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When I was an American Studies major back in the 60s, I came across Gilman while taking a course on the Progressive Movement. I remember her as one of the most interesting of the Progressives -- along with Jane Addams and several other women. Young people at that time were just becoming are that "American history" was not just a matter for white males. I was never exposed to anything about her personal life, however. Nor do I remember ever being encouraged in those days, to read her fiction.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" turned up in my life much later. The only book of hers I read at that time was The Home, which exposed me for the first time to the economics and power politics behind the "women's place is in the home" ideology, which I had not -- as a good (male) child of the 50s -- ever seriously questioned.

The book was for many of us a revelation. A number of my female classmates went on to become what you might call the first generation of self-consciously feminist American historians and sociologists -- partly as a result of their exposure to writers like Gilman.

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I remember first reading this in high school in the early 70s -- it seemed part of the environment in what we still called "women's liberation" circles.

And, several years later, I performed a modern dance solo based on the character made by a colleague. It was some of the fastest dancing I ever had to do (I am, temperamentally, more sustained than quick) and it knocked me out, every show.

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