Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An American middlebrow?

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)
see here

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)
See here

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)
See here

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)
see here

Winslow, Thyra Samter, Picture Frames (1923)

see here


  1. Hi Scott
    I have the same copy of Rose Cottage - I bought for the cover but actually enjoyed. Interesting the author is American - the story takes place in an English Village. thanks as always for great post. Bronwen

    1. My face is red, Bronwen. Your comment and an email from another reader made me go back and look over my info on Margaret Baker, and indeed she is NOT American, but British. So, thank you for prompting me to catch my error, and yay, another author for my list! :-)

  2. How interesting, thank you for sharing these. I immediately thought of Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) but she's a Persephone author too and I think maybe too early for you?

    1. Thanks, Liz. Yes, Fisher definitely fits as well. I think she wrote until the 1930s or so?

  3. I'm not sure if this counts as middlebrow or lowbrow but I recently finished a book called Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot and was absolutely fascinated by it.

    It was first published anonymously in the 1920s and was a huge success, largely because of its matter of fact treatment of formerly forbidden/taboo topics.

    The ex-wife of the title is Patricia and, as the book begins, she is looking back on her shattered marriage. Her husband isn't what you'd call a prize--he virtually ignores her pregnancy and the subsequent death of their child, cheats on her, and abuses her (throwing her across a room). But when Patricia cheats on him, he can't deal with it and leaves her.

    Patricia loves the guy though, and fights to get him back. For awhile at least. Eventually she realizes he isn't coming back, and she moves on.

    What truly fascinated me about the book is how modern it is. And I don't mean modern for the 1920s. You could actually take parts of the book and with only mild tweaking, they could become episodes of Sex and the City.

    I haven't read any of Parrott's other books. She wrote over twenty, all of which are out of print as far as I know. She led an interesting life, married four times, with other love affairs along the way. The most notorious was one where she ended up getting accused of breaking her boyfriend out of an Army stockade during WWII. She was acquitted in Federal court.

    1. This book sounds fascinating, Melissa! Sex and the City is a guilty pleasure of mine, so I'm going to have to add it to my neverending TBR list. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. The only one of these books I've even heard of is Winter Wheat, which I absolutely loved. I'm racking my brain for other middlebrow American authors but all I can come up with is Betty Smith, but I don't think I've heard of anything else but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Maybe Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns?

    1. I did my senior paper on the novels of Betty Smith. Yes, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the most famouos, but try Joy in the Morning (which actually had a scene that made me cry out loud) and Maggie-Now.

    2. Thanks, Karen, I'm happy to have your recommendation of Winter Wheat. Burns might be a bit late, but yes, Betty Smith certainly belongs.

      And Tom, I have to confess I didn't even know Betty Smith wrote other books. For some reason I thought she was like Harper Lee and only wrote the one. Duh!

  5. I've been giving this a little thought and have come up with some more names of authors I think people might enjoy.

    Janice Holt Giles wrote largely historical novels, but they are incredibly well-written and researched. My favorites are Hannah Fowler, and a book about Hannah's daughter called The Believers. The Believers is about the Shakers, a religious group that kind of fascinates me. Giles does a good job of showing both the good and bad about the group.

    Another author I like is Bess Streeter Aldrich. Kind of saccharine but enjoyable. Along the same lines is Gene Stratton-Porter.

    Grace Livingston Hill has some interesting books. She is considered by some to be the first, or at least the first one who popularized Christian fiction.

    I also like old movies and have found a lot of interesting female authors by seeing who wrote the novels movies were based on. I'd recommend the book Bitter Tea of General Yen by Grace Zaring Stone, though the movie was better. Now Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty is almost as good as the movie. Katharine Brush wrote a book called Red Headed Woman that was made into a movie with Jean Harlow. They had to tone the book down a bit for the movie.

    On the subject of movies, Anita Loos wrote for Hollywood for years but she is probably remembered as the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In this case I actually like the book better than the movie.

    1. Isabella McDonald Allen, Grace Livingston Hill's aunt, has a much better claim to the first popularizer of Christian fiction under her pseudonym of "Pansy." See her Esther Reid and Chautauqua series.

    2. This is lovely, Melissa. I'm making notes of all of these. Now Voyager is one of my favorite movies, but I had somehow never thought to look at the novel that inspired it. Another TBR!

  6. I've read only one of these writers. Mildred Walker's The Southwest Corner which I liked very much.

    1. Thanks, Nan. This is the second recommendation of Mildred Walker, so I'm definitely going to have to check her out!

  7. Sally Benson, Elswyth Thane, Kathleen Norris, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Maud Hart Lovelace (she wrote Early Candlelight, One Stayed at Welcome, and What Cabrillo found - husband also credited on some) Rose Franken (Claudia series) , Ruth McKenney, Lenora Mattingly Weber, Louise Andrews Kent, Pearl S. Buck, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Lenora Mattingly Weber.

    1. Thank you for all of these wonderful suggestions. Lots of food for thought (and research) here!

    2. I can't believe I forgot about Pearl S. Buck! The Good Earth in particular is just wonderful, I've discussed it with three different book groups and it was universally loved.

  8. How could I have forgotten Betty MacDonald, the Egg and I, The Plague and I, etc. For the later part of the period, taking a look at this list of the contents of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books would be instructive.

    1. Great idea to check the RD condensed books. I'll have a closer look.

  9. margaret culkin banning, Dorothy Baker, Jessamyn West, Emily Kimborough (with and without Cornelia Otis Skinner...)Hariette Simpson Arnow, Francis Gray Patton, Margaret Chase Smith, Marcia Davenport, Kathryn Hulme,

  10. I very much enjoyed Jane Abbott's Happy House and also her Keineth. Her books are available in digital format via Gutenberg/Kindle. Prices vary, but often they are available for less than a dollar, or even for free.

    1. Thank you Virginia! I've just downloaded Happy House from Gutenberg--I hadn't thought to check there. Yet another TBR...

  11. Not fiction, but I recently a recommendation for "Chicken Every Sunday" by Rosemary Taylor from 1943. I read about it in "When Books Went to War" which is a really interesting read about special book editions for the WWII soldiers. "Chicken Every Sunday" was mentioned in particular as one of the most popular books that the soldiers enjoyed, though I haven't yet read it myself.

  12. Isabel Paterson (Never Ask the End), Edna Ferber, Anzia Yezierska (immigrant woman from Russia perspective), Nancy Hale (Prodigal Women), Gertrude Atherton (Black Oxen), Anne Goodwin Winslow, Isa Glenn (for more about these last two, go to Neglected Books blog, amazing discoveries there!), Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit) are some suggestions. See also Elaine Showalter A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx for an historical overview of American women's writing. Looking forward to seeing this new list take shape!

  13. I own several Jane Abbotts (and probably discarded others as I don't recall their being very memorable) but Highacres, a school story, is the only one I really liked. However, I definitely consider her a children's writer, possibly influenced by Jean Webster. Elswyth Thane, however, as GS suggests above, definitely belongs on an American list although is interesting because she was a huge Anglophile and a number of her books show her love of England.


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