Imitations of Life: Fannie Hurst's Gaslight Sonatas

Synopsis

In the early 1920s, Fannie Hurst's enormous popularity made her the highest-paid writer in America. She conquered the literary scene at the same time the silent movie industry began to emerge as a tremendously profitable and popular form of entertainment. Abe C. Ravitz parallels Hurst's growing acclaim with the evolution of silent films, from which she borrowed ideas and techniques that furthered her career. Ravitz notes that Hurst was amazingly adept at anticipating what the public wanted. Sensing that the national interest was shifting from rural to urban subjects, Hurst set her immigrant tales and her "woiking goil" tales in urban America. In her early stories, she tried to bridge the gap between Old World and New World citizens, each somewhat fearful and suspicious of the other. She wrote of love and ethnicity - bringing the Jewish Mother to prominence - of race relations and prejudice, of the woman alone in her quest for selfhood. Ravitz argues, in fact, that her socially oriented tales and her portraits of women in the city clearly identify her as a forerunner of contemporary feminism. Ravitz brings to life the popular culture from 1910 through the 1920s, tracing the meteoric rise of Hurst and depicting the colorful cast of characters surrounding her. He reproduces for the first time the Hurst correspondence with Theodore Dreiser, Charles and Kathleen Norris, and Gertrude Atherton. He examines her important friendships with the early sentimental screenwriter Frances Marion and with theatrical producer turned movie mogul Daniel Frohman. Fellow writers Rex Beach and Vachel Lindsay also play important roles in Ravitz's portrait of Hurst, as does Zora Neale Hurston, who awakened Hurst's interest in the Harlem Renaissance and in race relations, as shown in Hurst's novel Imitation of Life.