The Deracinated Self: Immigrants, Orphans, and the "Migratory Consciousness" of Willa Cather and Susan Glaspell

Article excerpt

On May 10, 1931, in the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson bewailed the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Susan Glaspell for her play Alison's House, performed by Eva Le Gallienne's repertory company. "If the drama prize were for Miss Glaspell personally," he writes, "every one would purr with satisfaction. For nearly a quarter of a century she has been an influence for good in the literature of this country." But Alison's House "does not represent her fairly" and Atkinson castigates the Pulitzer committee for "passing silently over 'Brook Evans,' the novel she published three years ago" which he calls "the finest transcript of her mind." This is reminiscent of another Midwestern woman writer who similarly won the Pulitzer Prize for a work that was not considered her best, One of Ours, and who similarly should have won it for a novel she had published four years previously, My Antonia. Indeed, Atkinson compares them: "Like Willa Cather, who also comes out of the Middle West, Miss Glaspell has been seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.... Those who come from that wide, freely populated territory, where farming is still a basic industry, are likely to have a breadth and tenderness of mind that is no longer common among Eastern writers." (1)

Situating their comparison in a common sense of place is appropriate for these writers, both of whom were deeply affected by the migration of their families from east to west; in Glaspell's case, not during her own lifetime as was the case with Cather, but during the waves of migration westward of the 1820s-1850s, first to Ohio and Kentucky and finally settling in Davenport, Iowa. Although Glaspell did not live through the westward migration herself, as her most recent biographer Linda Ben-Zvi has shown, her paternal grandmother and namesake, a "spinner of a mythology of pioneering," lived with the family throughout Glaspell's childhood and influenced her profoundly. Ben-Zvi writes that the word and concept that "remained constant" throughout her work on Glaspell was pioneer. "Pioneer ... defines the direction of Glaspell's own life and the ways in which she continually pushed against fixed boundaries, assuming an independence that she saw as a legacy from her ancestors." (2) But this is only the beginning of the remarkable parallels between the lives and work of Susan Glaspell and Willa Cather.

Born three years apart, Cather in 1873 and Glaspell in 1876 (ironically, Cather claimed the centennial year for her birth while Glaspell disavowed it, dropping six years from her age), both of them became prototypical turn-of-the-century "New Women." Both were well versed in the classics and pursued academic university educations "at a time when less than two percent of American women attended college" (Ben-Zvi, viii). Cather was "excused from the 'first prep' year typically required of students from small high schools" (3) when she went to the University of Nebraska, while Glaspell entered Drake University in Des Moines as a junior, "waiving two years because of her Latin certificate" (Ben-Zvi, 35). Both took rigorous courses of study including Greek, Latin, French, and English literature, Cather graduating in 1895 and Glaspell in 1899. Both were involved while at college in literary, journalistic, and oratorical pursuits, publishing essays in their respective college journals, the Hesperian for Cather, and the Delphic for Glaspell. Both had significant careers in journalism that began very early: "just out of high school" Glaspell began contributing to the Davenport Morning Republican and published a weekly column, "Social Life," in the Weekly Outlook from 1896 to 1897, while Cather "was not yet twenty years old" when she began "doing a regular column for the Nebraska State Journal as well as miscellaneous reviews" (Ben-Zvi, 30; Stout, 38). After graduation both women returned home where they continued working for newspapers to make money, Glaspell at the Des Moines Daily News, where she covered the state legislature and the murder trials that were to influence her work later on. …