What drew you to Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a subject [see review of The Solitude of Self]?
I've loved her all my life. However, I always wanted to write a biography, and I knew that I would never write the standard academic-style biography.... But when James Atlas's Penguin Lives came into existence, I thought, this is the perfect form for me, the short biography in which a biographer recognized an organizing principle out of a character and filled about 150 pages around that organizing principle. [Stanton] is, as you know now, I think, one of the seminal figures in American life, and she has had short shrift.
So why has Stanton been so underappreciated?
You know, I've asked almost every historian I know that very question. It is said generally that The Woman's Bible[Stanton's 1895 encyclopedic commentary on biblical statements about women], the scandalous nature of that publication, cannot be underestimated. In fact, it so shocked the suffrage movement itself [that] almost every single feminist of importance disavowed her and disavowed that book. It was such an incredible scandal to say so boldly, in an age that was still so powerfully Christian in its idiom, that the Bible is the enemy. She said: it isn't that it's been distorted, it's the enemy. It was so wonderful. It is unimaginable to us what it really meant then.
Immersing yourself in Stanton's life as you did, were there things about her that began to bother you after a while?
What I did feel was—and this became a matter of exasperation and amusement to me, ultimately—the rhetoric is a mile wide. And it goes on, and on and on and on. And I would get so exhausted sitting in the library with these speeches, and then all of a sudden, a sentence would occur, and she would just seduce me all over again! My eyes would widen, I would start to laugh, and I was back in her grip again. You cannot imagine how long these speeches were. They go on for a hundred pages. Astonishing! And imagine—she was writing these with seven children, between midnight and morning. She'd rather go without sleep for 10 years than not have her say.
Do you have a new project?
I'm working on a short social history of the rise and fall of the Jewish novel. So here I am reading all these men that I haven't read in many, many years. I am reminded of a piece I wrote years ago about Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Mailer, a piece that became rather famous in its time, called "Why Do These Men Hate Women?" for the Village Voice. It's hilarious for me to be coming back to look at all this writing, which I saw only in terms of its misogyny. Now I'm struggling to respond differently, and really enjoying myself.