Home of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Now you can laugh; but that cellar is no joke by daylight, and a candle there at night is about as inspiring as a lightning-bug in the Mammoth Cave. I went along with the light, trying not to fall into the well prematurely; got to it all at once; held the light down and then I saw, right under my feet--(I nearly fell over her, or walked through her, perhaps),--a woman, hunched up under a shawl! She had hold of the chain, and the candle shone on her hands--white, thin hands,--on a little red cross that hung from her neck--vide Jack! I'm no believer in ghosts, and I firmly object to unknown parties in the house at night; so I spoke to her rather fiercely. She didn't seem to notice that, and I reached down to take hold of her,--then I came upstairs!” —The Giant Wistaria

“The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad. ” —The Yellow Wallpaper

One of the most famous names in feminist horror literature, Charlotte Perkins Gilman made her home in Oakland in 1891, first in a house she shared with her mother, daughter, and close friend Adeline Knapp, and then in a boarding house that once stood at this address. Nothing of the original building remains, but it is here that Gilman wrote, loved, suffered, and attempted to maintain a more unconventional family after her earlier disastrous marriage. “Our house was a large and pleasant one, on a nice street, with a good yard behind it, and an excellent place for Katharine,” Gilman says in her autobiography, referring to her young daughter. With her poet friend Ina Coolbrith across the street and other writers and intellectuals like Joaquin Miller, Edwin Markham, and Eugene Hough as frequent visitors, Gilman’s boarding house became a center of Oakland intellectualism—and from it, Gilman launched a flurry of stories, poems, and lectures on feminism, socialism, and gothic horror. The house, however, despite Gilman’s efforts to care for her boarders and friends, was often a place of claustrophobia, sickness, and an overwhelming crush of responsibilities. It was Gilman’s inspiration for her short ghost story “The Giant Wistaria,” the tale of a woman desperate but unable to escape her house, who ends up buried there and whose ghost haunts the well with the remains of her child. Even such an unconventional home as this offered Gilman little comfort from the social pressures she felt so trapped by, and was more of a source of domestic despair than an escape. The boarding house is gone now, and Gilman did not stay in Oakland; but the echoes of her influence rebound across feminist discourse and gothic literature, and perhaps, if we look closely, we might feel an echo of her ghost on this spot—the place of Gilman’s creativity, her happiness, and her anguish.

Cite this Page:

Savannah Stelzer, “Home of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” Street Stories: Oakland, accessed December 12, 2017, http://streetstoriesoakland.com/items/show/55.

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