Susan Glaspell's Fiction: 'Fidelity' as American Romance

By Carpenter, Martha C. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Susan Glaspell's Fiction: 'Fidelity' as American Romance


Carpenter, Martha C., Twentieth Century Literature


Susan Glaspell's play Trifles (1916) or the short story she based on it, "Jury of Her Peers" (1917), may be found today in almost every anthology introducing college students to literature, yet it seems strange that a woman who wrote nine novels and over fifty short stories, in addition to fourteen plays, is still mainly known, when known at all, for one short dramatic work. Feminist critics such as Christine Dymkowski and Linda Ben-Zvi, among others, are in the process of resurrecting Glaspell's reputation and establishing that she is "one of the two most accomplished playwrights of twentieth-century America" (Dymkowski 91). But although this work is invaluable, attention continues to be focused almost solely on Glaspell's drama, to the exclusion of her novels. Veronica Makowsky's recent study provides the first scholarly feminist analysis of Glaspell's entire oeuvre, from her early stories to her late novels, but even Makowsky appears to agree with the standard view, which is in my opinion not sufficiently substantiated, that Glaspell's plays are her "greatest work" (24).

Glaspell's first novel, Glory of the Conquered, was published in 1909; her second, The Visioning, in 1911; and her third, Fidelity, in 1915. In 1913 she married George Cram Cook, an idealistic, bohemian fellow lowan. They moved to New York and summered in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They were both instrumental in creating the Provincetown Players and in establishing the group in Greenwich Village. Despite the fact that she spent most of the 1920s writing plays for the Provincetown theater and did not return to the novel form until 1928 with Brook Evans, Glaspell "always considered herself a writer of fiction" and, as she recalled in a later autobiographical fragment, "I began writing plays because my husband forced me to" (Noe 33). Later, after she and Cook had left New York for a two-year sojourn in Greece, she confided in a letter to her mother that "the theater has always made it hard for me to write and now I will have a better chance for my own writing" (Noe 49). Although her play Alison's House won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and she served briefly as Midwest director for the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago during 1934, she basically settled in Provincetown after Cook's death in Greece in 1924 and returned to fiction, producing five more novels: Fugitive's Return (1929), Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), The Morning Is Near Us (1939), Norma Ashe (1942), and Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945).

Not only did Glaspell regard herself primarily as a fiction writer, but she was critically accepted as an American novelist of integrity and importance until the mid 1930s. Many of her novels were reviewed, increasingly favorably, in the New York Times. Fidelity was praised by the New York Times reviewer for its convincing realism, but it was seen to be a romantic tale; "the story of love caught in the mesh of law"; therefore the reviewer did not understand the second half of the novel, where "love" is entirely abandoned, and found it flawed for that reason (Anon.). Although Percy Hutchison, the Times reviewer of Fugitive's Return, found the novel "uneven," he praised Glaspell as "so much of an individual [that] one knows in advance that a novel from her pen will not be an ordinary book." John Chamberlain praised Brook Evans in a 1928 Times review as "a masterpiece on a small scale," a masterpiece because Glaspell "has distilled the essence from the most important and character-revealing moments," and small scale because she "has limited her canvas deliberately . . . focus[ing] on purely human values that remain eternal, irrespective of time or place." In 1931 he aptly described Ambrose Holt and Family as a "tragi-comedy of idealism" and noted Glaspell's "delicately pervasive humor," which "acts as the perpetual astringent" cutting through sentimentality. In both reviews he discussed Glaspell's idealism in her life and her work, and praised her "courage" and commitment as a writer. …

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