Okay, I admit that it's not much, but it's a start. In between reading more obsessively than I have for some time (my literary explorer blood seems to be pumping again, with the result that I have more to write about, so it's a vicious cycle), I have continued to chip away at my new "American Women Writers of Fiction, 1910-1960" list. I've finally posted the A's—a whopping 22 of them so far. (I did say it wasn't much—good heavens, I can't believe I started talking about this back in October—I do move at a glacial pace, don't I?!?! But more will be coming before long. I have nearly finished working on the B's as well).
First and foremost, a big thanks to all the readers who made suggestions of authors to add to the list. I think I've captured all the suggestions that fit the list's parameters, but if I've missed anything please don't hesitate to let me know. If I've learned anything from my British list (and by the way, I'm finding new authors for that list as well—sigh), it's that many, many more authors will be coming down the pipeline in many future updates of the list. I thank everyone who has checked their shelves and their reading lists and brainstormed with me.
I'm splitting the A's into two posts, so I can tell a bit of what I've found about each. First is an author whose underrated first book I can definitely recommend. MILDRED ALDRICH was a journalist who became a close friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas while living in Paris as a foreign correspondent. She retired in June of 1914 and moved to a house overlooking the Marne river valley. Yes, that's right. Moved to the Marne. In the summer of 1914. And she stayed there. A few months later, World War I began and the First Battle of the Marne took place practically on her doorstep. Her letters to friends about her experiences were adapted into her first book, A Hilltop on the Marne (1915). I remember it as a quite interesting book—the sort of cozy theme of a woman setting up her ideal home and her encounters with soldiers and officers, mixed with the much more serious themes of a terrible battle more or less visible from her living room windows—and Aldrich was a charming personality to spend time with.
Hilltop was following by three more collections of her letters—On the Edge of the War Zone (1917), The Peak of the Load (1918), and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1919), which detailed the rest of the war and the months following its end. Her one novel (and the book that qualifies her for my list), Told in a French Garden, August 1914 (1916), uses the technique of Boccaccio and Chaucer, with multiple characters each telling stories. She apparently wrote a memoir called Confessions of a Breadwinner, which has never been published. I for one would love to read it.
Among the A's are also three mystery writers, one far more famous than the others. CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG published nearly 30 acclaimed crime novels, most of them tales of suspense rather than whodunnits. According to Contemporary Authors, when her early novel The Unsuspected (1946) was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, readers were so intrigued that they began contacting Armstrong to guess the plot or suggest twists. Other particularly acclaimed novels include Mischief (1950), about a deranged babysitter, A Dram of Poison (1956), in which a varied cast of characters search for a lost batch of poisoned olive oil before it can kill, The Witch's House, about an adolescent girl living in a fantasy world, and The Turret Room (1965), about a man newly released from a mental hospital who is framed by his ex-wife and her family. The Unsuspected was filmed with Claude Rains in 1947, and Mischief became the early Marilyn Monroe film Don't Bother to Knock (1952). Armstrong was also a screenwriter for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Other novels include Lay On, MacDuff! (1942), The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), The Trouble in Thor (1953, written under her pseudonym Jo Valentine), The Seventeen Widows of Sans Souci (1959), Something Blue (1962), The Gift Shop (1967), and The Balloon Man (1968).
Less well known is DOROTHY ALDIS—and in all fairness she's probably at least as well known for her children's fiction as for her one mystery, Murder in a Haystack (1930), but that's the book that caught my eye (and its cover is very striking indeed!). Her children's fiction includes Jane's Father (1928), Cindy (1942), Poor Susan… (1942), Miss Quinn's Secret (1949), Lucky Year (1951), Ride the Wild Waves (1957), and The Secret Place (1962). Other fiction for adults includes Their Own Apartment (1935) and Time at Her Heels (1937), both somewhat intriguingly set in Depression-era Chicago, as well as All the Year Round (1938) and Dark Summer (1947). According to an Abe Books listing, she published at least one romantic novel in tabloid format, 1943's Pattern in Dust. She also published a biography of Beatrix Potter for young readers.
And MARY MEIGS ATWATER is known far more for her role in reviving the craft of handweaving in the U.S., and for her publications on that subject, than for her one mystery novel. Nevertheless, Crime in Corn Weather (1935), which John at Passing Tramp reviewed here, and which was recently reprinted by Coachwhip Publications, has been added to my ever-more-overwhelming TBR list.
I'm not even very far along on my American list, and already it has become clear that a brand new thematic sub-list, not applicable to British writers, is going to be necessary. Just among the 22 authors whose names begin with A, there are already 6 whose work deals significantly with the colonial immigrant experience and/or subsequent pioneer and Western migration experiences. I have a relatively new interest in these authors, as I have recently done work on my own genealogy. Discovering that most lines of my family extend back to the early American Colonies (and then, with a handful of exceptions, back to England), and that multiple lines of my family followed more or less the same migration paths (from Massachusetts or thereabouts to Virginia to Kentucky to Indiana and finally to Missouri—from which western migration ceased until the year 2000 when I continued it on to San Francisco!), I'm now very intrigued by these earlier American experiences. And perhaps, in light of the current rampantly ignorant hostility about immigration in the U.S., these writers might remind us of how recently the parts of the country some think of as quintessentially American were comprised primarily of immigrants, settling on the Plains where their neighbors might all speak different native languages.
Willa Cather is, of course, the best-known American author to have written about these pioneer settlements. I remember, having grown up in a conservative, racially intolerant small town in Missouri, the shocked epiphany I had reading the divine My Antonia in college, and seeing Swedes and Romanians and Russians and Finns all occupying farmland and rural areas only a hundred miles or so away from where I lived, less than a century earlier, and getting my first realization of just how bogus the idea of "American" as any sort of racial indicator was. I'm proud to say that my only ancestors to have immigrated to the U.S. after 1750 or so, a great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother who arrived around 1850, were Danish immigrants who might have stepped right off the pages of a Willa Cather novel, first settling in the wilds of Utah—apparently part of a substantial group of Danes who immigrated in conjunction with the Mormon Church— and then making their way to Missouri. (I'm also a wee bit proud that said 2x great grandfather was kicked out of the Mormon Church just a few years later, but that's a different story.)
Although not quite as central to the canon of American literature as Cather is, two of the six "A" authors who wrote about immigrants and/or pioneers are pretty well-known themselves. BESS STREETER ALDRICH is best known for two bestsellers, A Lantern in Her Hand (1928) and its sequel, A White Bird Flying (1931), which focus on the difficult frontier life of heroine Abbie Deal. I'm a bit ashamed to say that I've never read Aldrich, so more for the TBR list. Among her other works are Mother Mason (1924), variously described as a story collection and a novel, about the adventures of a cheerful middle-aged wife and mother. Miss Bishop (1933), about a Midwestern schoolteacher, was filmed in 1941 as Cheers for Miss Bishop.
Her other novels are The Rim of the Prairie (1925), The Cutters (1926), Spring Came on Forever (1935), Song of Years (1939), and The Lieutenant's Lady (1942). She published two story collections in her lifetime, The Man Who Caught the Weather and Other Stories (1936) and Journey Into Christmas and Other Stories (1949), but much of her earlier short fiction, which appeared in periodicals, wasn't available in book form until two more recent collections, Collected Short Works 1907-1919 (1995) and Collected Short Works 1920-1954 (1999).
HARRIETTE SIMPSON ARNOW is part of the American canon mostly on the strength of one novel, but much of her work focused on the migrations of rural Southerners to cities, the difficulties encountered there, and the changes to rural communities that resulted. Her most famous novel, The Dollmaker (1954), about the matriarch of a Kentucky family who follows her husband to Detroit and then struggles to keep her family together, was a major critical and commercial success. Joyce Carol Oates labelled it "our most unpretentious American masterpiece," and actress Jane Fonda produced a TV movie version of the novel in 1984. Arnow considered the book to be the concluding volume of a trilogy begun with her Mountain Path (1936) and Hunter's Horn (1949).
Arnow also published well-received non-fiction about the early pioneer settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky, in Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963), while Old Burnside (1978) featured her own recollections of her childhood in Burnside, Kentucky. Her other novels are The Weedkiller's Daughter (1970) and The Kentucky Trace (1974), the latter set during the American Revolution. A previously unpublished early novel, Between the Flowers, appeared in 1999, and her Collected Short Stories were published in 2005.
The next two authors deal more with the opening of the American West than with the earliest immigrant experiences. GERTRUDE ATHERTON was a huge name in her time, and garnered comparisons to the likes of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but she is largely forgotten now. Her earliest novels were melodramas, but thereafter she began exploring themes of early feminism and often set her work in California both during and after Spanish rule. One of her bestselling novels was Black Oxen (1923), about an older women who regains her youth following glandular therapy. It was made into a silent film of the same name that same year.
The Doomswoman (1892) is set in California during the time of Spanish rule, and Before the Gringo Came (1894) is set in the time of the missions. Other titles include Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897), American Wives and English Husbands (1898), The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories (1905), a collection of tales of the supernatural, Ancestors (1907), Julia France and Her Times (1912), The Avalanche (1919), The Jealous Gods (1928), The Foghorn (1934), and The Horn of Life (1942). She wrote a memoir, Adventures of a Novelist (1932), and—intriguingly for me—a book of reminiscences about San Francisco called My San Francisco: A Wayward Biography (1946).
While Atherton often focused on the north of California, MARY HUNTER AUSTIN looked to the desert Southwest for inspiration. Her reputation has grown in recent decades as she has become known as an important early feminist. She reacted against a Midwestern upbringing, following her family's relocation to California, by joining artist communities and becoming acquainted with other feminist thinkers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. Her first published work, at age 21, was the essay "One Hundred Miles on Horseback," about her first encounters with California's landscapes. The Land of Little Rain (1903) and Lost Borders (1909) walk the line between short stories and nature writing, and The Basket Woman (1904) was written for children, as was her later The Trail Book (1918). Her novels are Isidro (1905), Santa Lucia (1908), Outland (1910, published in the U.K. under her pseudonym), A Woman of Genius (1912), The Lovely Lady (1913), The Ford (1917), No. 26 Jayne Street (1920), and Starry Adventure (1931). A novella about Christ, The Green Bough, appeared in 1913, and another novella, Cactus Thorn, written in 1927, was only published in book form in 1988. She published various other non-fiction on feminist, political, and religious themes. Her memoir is Earth Horizon (1932).
The remaining two authors don't have the same level of fame as the others, but I'm intrigued by both of them. MARGUERITE ALLIS published more than a dozen historical novels, often with New England or pioneer settings. Her last five novels—Now We Are Free (1952), To Keep Us Free (1953), Brave Pursuit (1954), The Rising Storm (1955), and Free Soil (1958)—trace one family's fortunes from colonial Connecticut to the Ohio frontier, through growing conflicts over slavery, and on to Kansas just before the beginning of the Civil War. Not Without Peril (1941) is based on the life of Jemima Sartwell, one of the earliest settlers of Vermont. All in Good Time (1944) deals with a Connecticut clockmaker just after the American Revolution. The Immediate Jewel (1948) is described as being "about the battle for artistic freedom in a Puritan dominated world," while Law of the Land (1948) deals with early American feminism. Her other novels are The Splendor Stays (1942), Charity Strong (1945), Water Over the Dam (1947), and The Bridge (1949).
Her earliest works were non-fiction, including Connecticut Trilogy (1934) and Connecticut River (1939), though English Prelude (1936) sounds a bit harder to classify: "The English ancestors of America seen against the social, economic and spiritual background which was theirs before emigration, together with an account of a pilgrimage to the home towns as they appear to-day. Not a history. Not a biography. Not a genealogy. Not a travel book. Yet something of all four." Hmmmm.
And finally, DORA AYDELOTTE wrote seven novels with settings mostly drawn from Oklahoma's pioneer history. Titles are Long Furrows (1935), Green Gravel (1937), Trumpets Calling (1938), Full Harvest (1939), Run of the Stars (1940), Across the Prairie (1941), and Measure of a Man (1942). In her time, she garnered comparisons to none other than Willa Cather, and the University of Oklahoma Libraries have noted: "Because of Dora Aydelotte and many, many more women writers of her era, early Oklahoma women's history has been preserved in a natural and unvarnished setting that truly represents Oklahoma history from a woman's point of view."
If the A's are any indication, I have a feeling that those "many, many more women writers of her era" are going to form a substantial subset in my posts about the American list.
I hope that even those of you who are, like me, primarily Anglophiles will find some interesting tidbits about these American authors. Although my reading these days still centers mostly around British authors, I have been quite intrigued and surprised by the array of American authors I've come across, and I'm having a wonderful time doing (however slowly) my research for the new list.
Next time, 12 more of the A's, including one who was quite famous in her time but will likely be unfamiliar to most readers now, as well as an array of girls' story authors, an early lesbian-themed novel, and a significant Steinbeck connection…