A while back, Marcina, a reader of this blog, sent me an email asking if I thought that there was an equivalent "middlebrow" phenomenon in the United States. It's a good question, and one that I'm not really equipped to answer since, apart from sporadic reading here and there, I haven't delved into American women writers in anything like the same depth as my reading of British authors. So I thought I might open it up to you marvelous readers for comments.
Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't come up with anything to answer—I always have some sort of answer! I said that I assumed that although subject matter and themes and tone would undoubtedly vary in the American fiction of the same period (pioneers don't figure prominently in British lit, for example), there were probably ultimately just about as many "lost" women writer from the U.S. as there were from Britain. Then I turned, as I so often do, to my database, and came up with some totally random examples of American books and authors that sound intriguing.
As I've researched authors over the last few years, I've often come across women who turned out in the end to be American (or Canadian, or South African, etc.), but once I've found information about them, I can't resist holding on to what I've found. I label these authors as "peripheral", since they don't fit my main list, but I hold onto them like the obsessive little packrat archivist that I am. So I had a glance through the peripheral American authors in my database to see what books I had found intriguing despite the handicap of being written by Americans. Many of these I hadn't thought of in ages, and two or three of them have even bounded well up my TBR list.
In addition to asking for your thoughts on Marcina's question, I figured that I might as well share what I came across, so I'm putting my original notes, as well as some subsequent discoveries, at the bottom of this post.
These are mostly relatively obscure books and authors, as I assume folks already know about major American women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. I'm also not mentioning again some authors that I have written about here, such as Rose Franken and Mary Lasswell, or authors already rediscovered by Persephone, such as Susan Glaspell and Helen Hull
At any rate, my notes are below. Have any of you read any of these? Or do you have better American middlebrow titles to recommend?
Abbott, Jane D., Happy House (1920)
"There is something of Louisa May Alcott in the way Mrs. Abbott unfolds her narrative and develops her ideals of womanhood; something refreshing and heartening for readers surfeited with novels that are mainly devoted to uncovering cesspools." --Boston Herald.
Ashmun, Margaret, Pa (1927)
Bookman, 1927: Excellent dialogue and characterization in this sordid but genuine tragedy of an old maid's thwarted romance.
Baker, Margaret, The Key of Rose Cottage (1965?)
recommended as a favorite housekeeping novel
Barnes, Margaret Ayer, Years of Grace (1930)
winner of the Pulitzer Prize & reviewed alongside Helen Ashton’s Dr Serocold
Bassett, Sara Ware, The Green Dolphin (1926)
Bookman: Yankee wit and Cape Cod cooking make a lover's paradise of this tea room and its marvelous gardens.
Boden, Clara Nickerson, The Cut of Her Jib (1953)
As a girl, Clara Nickerson Boden (born 1883, in Cotuit) discovered her grandmother’s journal hidden away in an attic, and her book, The Cut of Her Jib, is historical fiction based on the diary entries and on stories passed down from Boden’s grandparents. It was originally published in 1953, and an exact facsimile has recently been republished by Boden’s family.
Devitt, Tiah, The Aspirin Age (1932)
Bookman, 1932: A first novel that mixes finishing-school girls and gunmen. A little too symmetrical in its balancing of the two kinds of lives, but worth reading.
Forbes, Esther, Mirror for Witches (1928)
Edith Olivier review, Saturday Review of Literature, 2 Jun 1928, Vol. 4: "The atmosphere of the book is entirely true to the seventeenth century. And the characters which move in this atmosphere are clearly and delicately drawn. They come very near, in spite of their remote setting. The tiny, stunted figure of Doll is full of pathos and beauty, and Jared, with all the characteristics of the conventional sea captain, yet succeeds in being individual and charming."
Gallagher, Rory, Lady in Waiting (1943)
Gordon, Caroline, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1930)
Blurb from reprint edition: “It is, in a sense, a prose Aeneid, written with so much economy and constraint that the reader is only aware at the end that he has been following the wanderings of a hero.” Thus did Andrew Nelson Lytle, in a 1934 New Republic review, capture the essence of Caroline Gordon’s novel inspired by the life of her father, a supreme hunter and fisherman.
Green, Anne, The Selbys (1930)
Forum 1930: This is a novel of the American residents in Paris; not the night club habitues of the pseudo-bohemians, but a family of rather charming Southerners who accept France as home. The Selbys take it upon themselves to bring out their orphaned niece, Barbara, in Paris society. She is not overburdened with intelligence or dowery; but, having changed her provincial polish for a finer lustre and savoir faire, finds herself a husband. The Selbys and their acquaintances are all most delightfully drawn, be they American or French.
Gregory, Alyse, King Log and Lady Lea (1929)
Sundial Press: In her second novel, Alyse Gregory recounts the story of Richard and Mary Holland, a married couple whose seemingly conventional relationship is threatened by the arrival on the scene of Celia Linton, once the object of Richard’s attentions several years earlier and now an alluring young woman. Richard is eager to incorporate her into his life, but hasn’t bargained for the intangible mutual attraction that develops between the two females. Underlying this sober tale of love and death is the theme of war between the sexes, with its unheeded misconceptions and fevered imaginings, but more profoundly the fear of loneliness and the poignancy of human isolation.
Janeway, Elizabeth—I’ve been generally intrigued by her, but haven’t yet read anything
Mayhall, Jane, Cousin to Human (1960)
Neilson, Isabel, Madonna and the Student (1925)
Spectator: Music, winter sports, and the Munich University are the theme of this novel. It is chiefly interesting for its picture of post-War Germany. The excitement and misery caused by the fluctuations of the mark, the gay night life, and the scarcity of food are all vividly drawn and make a real effect on the mind of the reader.
Norris, Kathleen, The Callahans and the Murphys (1924)
Bookman 1924: The life struggles, amusements, and tragedies of two Irish families shown with admirable power and understanding.
Parmenter, Christine Whiting, Miss Aladdin (1932)
Wisconsin Library Bulletin: A simple, pleasant, and not too sentimental, novel, about an eastern brother and sister who accept the invitation of an eccentric, but likable, cousin to spend a year on her Colorado ranch. For women and older girls.
Paterson, Isabel, Never Ask the End (1933)
Forum 1933: To their own candid surprise, the three highly civilized Americans — two women and a man — who figure in this story discover that emotional turbulence and adventure do not end with the forties. Their relationship stretches back over a long period of years, and when they meet again abroad, and travel together, it blossoms into a new and unexpected flowering. Mrs. Paterson uses a curious, elliptical, yet wholly satisfactory method to tell the story of these three. Gradually, bit by bit, as they brood, remember, and trace back the sources of their present actions, their past is revealed in all its complexity, and they themselves emerge clear and complete. This is a mellow, witty, and very charming novel — conspicuously shrewd in its analysis of character.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert (1907)
Relatively well-known suffrage novel. I’ve actually read this one and enjoyed it for it’s “you are there” perspective on the period.
Shor, Jean Bowie, After You, Marco Polo (1955)
A fine novel about a couple, Franc and Jean Schor who travel through China after WWII on their honeymoon. They decide to follow the route of Marco Polo.
Suckow, Ruth, The Folks (1934)
Just acquired at the book sale last month. Apparently quite acclaimed in her lifetime.
Tompkins, Juliet Wilbor, Joanna Builds a Nest (1920)
Walker (Schemm), Mildred, Winter Wheat (1944)
Describes a young woman’s emotional and spiritual awakening as she confronts the disappointments and marvels of love....Walker’s heroine recognizes that love, like winter wheat, requires faith and deep roots to survive the many hardships that threaten its endurance. — Belles Lettres
Weingarten, Violet, Mrs. Beneker (1967)
Winslow, Thyra Samter, Picture Frames (1923)