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Fruits of Anger
By J. Ellen Gainor

Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times
By Linda Ben-Zvi
Oxford University Press
448 pp., 29 halftones







With what has by now become a familiar trope in Susan Glaspell studies, Linda Ben-Zvi opens her new biography of Glaspell on a note of anger: anger at an American literary and theatrical tradition that had "disremembered" an important woman writer; anger at the scholarship that had consistently devalued Glaspell at the same time that it championed her male colleagues; and even anger at herself for some unexamined, early collusion in these practices. Ben-Zvi soon thereafter describes the epiphanic moment when she began to question this tradition--when she started to ask herself and others who this woman was and why there was so little analysis of her life and work. Her quest for answers has led her to produce a compelling and much-needed corrective to this legacy of dismissal and neglect. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times both complements the burgeoning field of Glaspell studies and provides nuanced and fresh readings of Glaspell's oeuvre. (Full disclosure: I am the author of the first full-length study of Glaspell's dramaturgy and Ben-Zvi's co-editor on the forthcoming Complete Plays of Susan Glaspell.)

For more than a quarter century, feminist critics and others have endeavored to return Glaspell (1876-1948) to the position of cultural prominence she held during her lifetime. Over the years, the arc of Glaspell studies has quite neatly paralleled the evolution of Anglo-American feminist criticism. In fact, Glaspell became a subject of some of the discipline's most influential early essays, including Annette Kolodny's "A Map for Rereading" and Judith Fetterley's "Reading about Reading." From that first stage of basic retrieval of lost women writers, through subsequent more thorough critical engagements with texts and issues of authorial identity and creativity (such as those connected with critical race studies, ethnic studies, and LGBT studies), and, more recently, in the arena of cultural studies and more integrated scholarship that considers women writers as part of broader historical, geographic, and economic contexts, Glaspell has been central. Ben-Zvi alludes to each of these stages, passed through and folded into her almost-two-decades-long process of research and composition, but wisely chooses not to dwell on the troubling scholarly traditions and patriarchal pronouncements prior Glaspell scholarship has had to overturn. Nevertheless, Ben-Zvi understands that such dismissive critical traditions linger, and that Glaspell's story may still be unfamiliar to many readers. She thus builds on the more recent feminist critical foundation, calculatedly treating Glaspell's validity as an influential figure as a given and organizing the biography around her accomplishments.

Glaspell's many achievements include the co-founding of the Provincetown Players. In the teens and early twenties she was identified, along with Eugene O'Neill, as one the country's leading dramatists. She was only the second woman, after Zona Gale in 1921, to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama with Alison's House (1931). She was an award-winning fiction writer, whose short story "A Jury of Her Peers" and its dramatic counterpart, Trifles (1915/16), were immediately identified as landmark texts. Her later novels appeared on best-seller lists around the country. And in the 1930s, she served as the Director of the Midwest Play Bureau for the Federal Theatre Project. Given this catalogue of triumphs, Ben-Zvi unsurprisingly characterizes Glaspell as a "pioneer," a woman who, throughout her life, challenged assumptions of what women could or should do and repeatedly overcame private and public obstacles to her creative and personal fulfillment.

Ben-Zvi sees a resonance between the progressive era's influence on Glaspell and a number of the themes that pervade her writing. First, Ben-Zvi perceives in Glaspell an overarching desire to escape structures and to push boundaries--familial, social, cultural, and artistic. In her personal life as well as in her work, Glaspell sought to transcend convention; as she matured, she actively resisted the conforming pressures of organized religion, political conservatism, and other social norms. As a young woman, for example, she stopped attending church with her family, and instead chose to participate in the meetings of the Monist Society--an organization that promoted discussions of socialism, Nietzschean philosophy, evolutionary theory, and human sexuality, among other advanced topics. At the same time, however, Glaspell strove to understand traditions, especially those of her pioneer ancestors who had settled in Davenport, Iowa. Her work reflects truthfully and poignantly the pull many in her generation felt between their love for and duty to family and its older values and their desire to embrace this new, progressive ideology for themselves and the nation.

In the first third of the biography, Ben-Zvi details the key departures from the traditional midwestern woman's life that Glaspell's story epitomizes: college education at Drake University and graduate course work at the University of Chicago; an early stint as a society columnist for the local Davenport newspaper, the Weekly Outlook, and a first full-time post after graduation as a court and state house reporter for the Des Moines Daily News; a decision soon thereafter to commit to a full-time creative writing career, which brought Glaspell early and consistent success nationally and internationally; travels in Europe and residence in the bohemian Latin Quarter in Paris; and a relationship with a married man, George Cram ("Jig") Cook, who became her husband in 1913 following his divorce from his second wife. In narrating these events, Ben-Zvi establishes both a foundational feminist understanding of Glaspell's life and work and an essential comparative framework through which her readers can understand the groundbreaking nature of Glaspell's choices.

Ben-Zvi, for example, juxtaposes Glaspell with the Davenport doyenne of "local color" fiction, Alice French (a.k.a. Octave Thanet), whose stories and novels championed the older, conservative values of the region. And Ben-Zvi also compares Glaspell with another Iowa contemporary, Hamlin Garland, whose writings reflected an equally polarizing idealization of poverty and labor. Ben-Zvi highlights the important distinctions among these three authors to reveal the complexities in style, characterization, and content of Glaspell's work. Ben-Zvi establishes the basis for considering Glaspell among the emerging American modernists--artists committed to the truthful (but not necessarily realistic) representation of social and political issues, to an honest exploration of national culture and identity, and to experimentation with the forms and styles that could best convey these concerns. Moreover, Ben-Zvi links Glaspell's formative years in Iowa with an immersion in American culture (especially the writings of Emerson) and early introduction to the "Chicago style" of journalism and fiction. Ben-Zvi similarly sees Glaspell's sojourn in Paris and exposure to Maeterlinck as instrumental to her later emergence as a dramatist.

One of the problems facing any Glaspell biographer is the comparatively modest amount of genuinely self-revelatory information she left behind. As Ben-Zvi and others have noted (most pertinently, Glaspell's previous biographers, Marcia Noe and Barbara Ozieblo), Glaspell did not keep lengthy journals or diaries, and although she retained letters received from friends, lovers, and colleagues, her correspondents generally did not keep hers. Like other Glaspell scholars, then, Ben-Zvi has relied heavily on The Road to the Temple (Glaspell's biography of Cook, who died unexpectedly in Greece in 1924) for background details of their relationship and entwined careers. Ben-Zvi has also recently published a new edition of this work and has argued persuasively for its importance as a key text in Glaspell's oeuvre--not only as a biography of Cook but also a source of critical insights on their common midwestern backgrounds, on American arts, politics, and culture, and on issues of gender, class, and national identity in the early twentieth century. Ben-Zvi combed all the relevant archives--in Iowa, New York City, Cape Cod, and elsewhere--for material to confirm the accuracy of, and to fill the gaps in, Glaspell's narrative. As an O'Neill scholar, Ben-Zvi already had a formidable background in much of the theater history and dramatic criticism of the period, which she augmented with readings of autobiographies, critical studies, and history of the era to provide a fuller and more balanced account of individuals and events. The memoirs of Mabel Dodge and Floyd Dell, for example, presented Ben-Zvi with vivid images of Greenwich Village and Provincetown life from which she could draw. In deploying these sources, Ben-Zvi provides some important correctives to both earlier Glaspell studies and other works on the period, especially those that took The Road to the Temple as comprehensive and factual. (Glaspell slighted the early phases of her relationship with Cook and glossed over his writer's block, alcoholism, and adultery.) For scholars familiar with these figures and their era, there may be some disappointment that Ben-Zvi did not discover a hidden trove of new information, but for the general reader her book offers an accessible and engaging entrée to their world.

Because the story of Glaspell--especially her work in the theater--is so intertwined with that of Cook, Ben-Zvi's biography can be read as both homage to and critique of Robert K. Sarlós's groundbreaking study Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players (1982). The works cover similar ground, but Ben-Zvi provides new and distinct perspectives on the individuals and events connected with the legendary company. She represents more fully the interconnected lives and careers of many of the Players, as well as their ties to leftist politics and feminism. Equally important, she adjusts the historical record to foreground the significant contributions of Glaspell and other women to the success of the Players (a topic also explored in Cheryl Black's The Women of Provincetown 1915-1922). Ben-Zvi, along with other Glaspell scholars, also offers important correctives and supplements to O'Neill studies by demonstrating conclusively his indebtedness to both Glaspell's innovative experiments in expressionist dramaturgy and her editorial expertise as an early reader of his work. These observations strongly challenge assumptions that Glaspell must have imitated O'Neill and that O'Neill's was a solitary creative process. They enrich and diversify our understanding of early 20th-century American theater history, previously focused so heavily on this one male playwright.

Glaspell's work as a dramatist and Ben-Zvi's discussion of her plays, understandably, occupy the center of the biography. Because Glaspell's playwriting lies at the chronological mid-point of her career and has been perceived as her more adventurous work stylistically and topically, Ben-Zvi devotes a full third of the biography to the brief but exciting period of 1914-1922. This section covers the founding of the Provincetown Players and the composition of Glaspell's eleven plays produced by the group. It closes with the couple's departure for Greece, which turns out to be the end of their affiliation with the company and of its role as the leading developer of modernist American theater. In this section especially, Ben-Zvi's commitment to enhancing our knowledge of Glaspell and her writing merits note; even for a text so over-examined as Trifles she provides new insights and fresh readings. In discussing this canonical piece, based on a murder case Glaspell covered in 1900-01 as a young reporter, Ben-Zvi reminds us of the impact the fifteen intervening years would have had on the author. She reads the play through Glaspell's lived experience as a woman in U.S. culture since the turn of the century, calling attention to the suffrage movement and changing attitudes toward women's roles in public and private spheres and thus explicating the historical and critical contexts of Glaspell's characters, dialogue, and plot.

Because Glaspell's early fiction and dramaturgy, the relationship of Glaspell and Cook, and the story of the Players have received comparatively more critical attention, the last third of Ben-Zvi's biography may prove the most revelatory, even for readers familiar with the general arc of Glaspell's life and career. While some scholars posit a decline in Glaspell's importance and innovation as a writer following Cook's death, Ben-Zvi argues convincingly for a thorough re-consideration of this period of Glaspell's career, which includes the composition of not only her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Alison's House, but also her most commercially successful novels (which are discussed at greater length in Martha Carpentier's The Major Novels of Susan Glaspell). Precisely because of the dismissal and neglect of Glaspell's later writing (especially Alison's House, which the New York critics reviled when it received the Pulitzer), Ben-Zvi's thoughtful discussion of these works and the circumstances of their composition allows for a much fuller understanding of the final phase of Glaspell's creativity.

Ben-Zvi also covers in detail here Glaspell's relationships with two considerably younger men, Norman Matson and Langston Moffett--unconventional intimacies for the time, even within her circle. Clearly, these later affairs had nowhere near the impact on her work that her friendship and marriage with Cook did (Ben-Zvi believes that Glaspell's is the dominant voice in The Comic Artist, co-written with Matson). Yet they do demonstrate Glaspell's continued resistance to social conventions in matters of love. (Glaspell hinted that, for the sake of her family, and perhaps also to safeguard her publishing career, she let others assume she and Matson had wed.) The biography also frankly discusses Glaspell's struggles with alcohol and depression; unlike Glaspell's almost hagiographic portrait of Cook, Ben-Zvi balances her admiration for Glaspell with the necessary objectivity to present the life and work truthfully and fairly.

Ben-Zvi's deep engagement with Glaspell's texts, career, friendships, loves, and beliefs complements her portrait of a woman experiencing some of the most eventful periods of recent U.S. history. These include two world wars and the progressive era, with its transition from agrarian to industrial society and its accompanying changes in the lives of women and families, as well as the crash, the great depression, and the New Deal's promise of renewed economic stability for all. History has taught us about all these events from certain well-established perspectives, but Ben-Zvi's biography offers glimpses of these moments as points of intersection with the life of a woman artist, refracted also through her fiction and drama. Glaspell's writing thus emerges as history as well--chronicles of life in the conservative American heartland, in the bohemian communities of Greenwich Village and Provincetown, and in a post-war nation grappling with competing ideologies for its future.


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