Every month is Women’s History Month at My Year in 1918. I’m celebrating the official one, though, by taking a closer look at some women I’ve come across in my reading but hadn’t gotten to know very well until now. For each of them, I’ll share something she left behind.
The Poet: Louise Bogan
Louise Bogan had an illustrious career. She was named to the post now known as the Poet Laureate of the United States in the 1940s and was the New Yorker’s poetry critic for over three decades. When she died in 1970, the New York Times called her “one of the most distinguished lyric poets in the English language.”
Bogan’s life was not an easy one. She was born in Maine in 1897, the daughter of a mill superintendent and a mentally unstable woman whose inappropriate sexual behavior contributed to the severe depression Bogan suffered from throughout her life. Her family moved to Boston in 1909 and Bogan attended the famed Girls’ Latin School. After a year at Boston University, she turned down a scholarship to Radcliffe and instead married a soldier. By the time she was 23, she had given birth to a daughter and separated from her husband, who died of pneumonia in 1920. Bogan lived in Vienna for a few years, leaving her daughter behind with her parents (!), and then moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life.
In 1919, 22-year-old Bogan had already begun to make a name for herself. I first came across her work in the December 1917 issue of the experimental poetry magazine Others. In “The Young Wife,” she describes what it was like to be a woman in an age when premarital sex was forbidden for women and condoned for men.*
Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Wife.” You can read the rest here. Bogan didn’t include it in her 1923 collection Body of This Death, and it’s not widely known today, but it’s become one of my favorite poems.
The Artist: Helen Dryden
1919 was a golden age of illustration, and Helen Dryden’s cheerful, colorful Vogue covers were one reason why. Born into an affluent Baltimore family in 1882, Dryden grew up in Philadelphia and began her career as an artist there. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and soon signed a contract with Condé Nast, where she worked for the next thirteen years. In later life (as I learned in a comment on this blog by fashion blogger witness2fashion) she designed Studebaker car interiors. At one point she was reported to be the highest-paid woman artist in the United States. By 1956, though, she was living in a welfare hotel. I’m not sure what happened in between, and there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Dryden. I hope someone will write one.
In the meantime, here are some Dryden Vogue covers from 1919.
The Educator: Josephine Turpin Washington
I first came across Josephine Turpin Washington when I read her short piece “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution” in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis. Washington was born in Virginia in 1861, the granddaughter of a Louisiana man named Edwin Durock Turpin and a woman named Mary whom he bought as a slave and, according to a family memoir, fell in love with and married. Washington grew up in Richmond and attended Howard University, working as a clerk for Frederick Douglas during the summers. She taught math at Howard for a few years and then married a doctor and moved to Alabama, where she taught at several African-American universities and wrote on a wide range of issues of concern to the black community. It turns out that we’ll have a chance to learn more about Turpin—a collection of her essays, edited by Rita B. Dandridge, was published last month.
Here’s the beginning of “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution.”** You can find the rest of the article here. My favorite lines:
I will live with my children not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other.
The Writer: Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mary Roberts Rinehart is often called the American Agatha Christie, although she started writing mysteries more than a decade before Christie did. Rinehart was born outside Pittsburgh in 1876, the daughter of an unsuccessful entrepreneur who committed suicide when she was 19. She attended nursing college, married a doctor, and turned her writing hobby into a profession after she and her husband lost $12,000 in the 1903 stock market crash.*** In 1908, she published her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies. Reinhart was amazingly prolific, turning out several books a year in a variety of genres—mainstream fiction, travel books, and short stories as well as mysteries. She also wrote several plays, including the 1920 Broadway hit The Bat.
Oddly, Rinehart was almost murdered herself. In 1947, while she was staying at her summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine, a chef who had worked for her for 25 years shot at her and then tried to slash her with a pair of knives. Apparently he was angry that Rinehart had hired a butler.**** Other servants subdued him, and he killed himself in jail the next day. Later that year, the house burned down in a huge fire that destroyed 250 Bar Harbor homes. Also in 1947—a horrific year for Rinehart, it seems—she revealed in a Ladies’ Home Journal article that she had had a radical mastectomy and urged women to have breast examinations.
I haven’t read any of Rinehart’s mysteries yet, but I did read, and love, her 1917 comic novel Bab: A Sub-Deb. Here’s the first page. You can read the rest here.
The Playwright: Susan Glaspell
Susan Glaspell first won fame as a short story writer and novelist, but she’s best known today as a playwright and as the co-founder, with her husband, of the Provincetown Players, an avant-garde theater group.
Glaspell was born on a farm in Iowa and moved with her family to Davenport when she was a teenager. After graduating from Drake College, she worked in Davenport for a few years as a journalist and then turned to writing fiction full-time. She quickly found success as a short story writer***** and published a bestselling novel called The Glory of the Conquered in 1909. After her second novel appeared in 1911, the New York Times said she was “high among the ranks of American storytellers.”
Glaspell fell in love with a married writer named George Cram Cook, married him in 1913 after his divorce came through, and moved to Greenwich Village. In 1916, she and Cook founded the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, working alongside friends, including leftist journalist John Reed, to produce a series of innovative one-act plays. Always looking for material, Glaspell asked an acquaintance one day whether he had written any plays. He said he hadn’t, but a friend of his had. The friend was Eugene O’Neill, and the theater produced his first one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, in July 1916. The group continued its work at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village.
Glaspell’s success continued after her husband’s death in 1924. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for her play Alison’s House. Her best-known work today, though, is the 1916 one-act play Trifles, which was inspired by a murder trial she covered as a journalist. As it opens, a surly farmer has been killed and his wife has been taken in for questioning. The county attorney and the sheriff are interviewing a neighboring farmer in the dead man’s house. The sheriff’s wife and the neighboring farmer’s wife have tagged along. The women make occasional comments about the murder suspect’s preserves and her quilting, and the men snicker. While the men are upstairs investigating, the women discover a dead parakeet, apparently killed by the husband. The investigators haven’t been able to find a motive, and this seems to be it. To protect the abused wife, the women hide the incriminating evidence.
Here’s the first page of Trifles. You can read the play here. (It’s really short!)
It was great to learn more about these inspiring women. But women’s history, like men’s history, isn’t just a pageant of hero(in)es. In my next post I’ll tell you about some 1919 women I’m not such a big fan of.
*Before this project, I had the impression that premarital sex for men was frowned upon in principle but tolerated. In fact, it was more or less encouraged, the theory being that men were physically incapable of abstaining from sex and were better off sleeping with prostitutes or loose women than marrying before they were ready to support a family.
**The Crisis often used swastikas in its graphic design—this was, of course, before the emergence of the Nazi party.
***As an MFA graduate, I’m envious of all those 1919-era women who turned to writing short stories to make money.
****Speaking of butlers, we have Rinehart to thank for the phrase “the butler did it,” which originated with her 1930 novel The Door. She didn’t use those exact words, but—SPOILER ALERT—the butler did do it.
*****Like I said.