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MODERN AMERICAN WRITERS

THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS



-The Women Who Make
Our Novels



BY

GRANT M. OVERTON




NEW YORK

MOFFAT, YARD & COMPANY
1918






COPYRIGHT, 1918,

BY
MOFFAT, YARD & COMPANY



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER I PAGE

Edith Wharton .......... i



CHAPTER II

Alice Brown ........... n

CHAPTER III

Ellen Glasgow' \^C ......... 20

CHAPTER IV

Gertrude Atherton .......... 41

CHAPTER V

Mary Roberts Rinehart ........ 54

CHAPTER VI

Kathleen N orris .......... 68

CHAPTER VII

Margaret Deland .......... 78

CHAPTER VIII

Gene Stratton-Porter ..... .... 88

CHAPTER IX

Eleanor H. Porter .......... 108

CHAPTER X

Kate Douglas Wiggin ......... 121

CHAPTER XI

Mary Johnston .......... 132



vi TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER XII PAGE

Corra Harris ........... 153



CHAPTER

Mary Austin . .......... 164

CHAPTER XIV

Mary S. Watts ........... 177

CHAPTER XV

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman ....... 198

CHAPTER XVI

Anna Katharine Green ........ 204

CHAPTER XVH

Helen R. Martin .......... 215

CHAPTER XVIII

Sophie Kerr ........... 226

CHAPTER XIX

Marjorie Benton Cooke ........ 238

CHAPTER XX

Grace S. Richmond ......... 246

CHAPTER XXI

' Willa Sibert Gather ......... 254

CHAPTER XXII

Clara Louise Burnham ........ 267

CHAPTER XXHI

Demetra Vaka ........... 284

CHAPTER XXIV

Edna Ferber ........... 292



TABLE OF CONTENTS vii

CHAPTER XXV PAGE

Dorothy Canfield Fisher . 298

CHAPTER XXVI

Amelia E. Barr ."'. . 304

CHAPTER XXVH

Alice Hegan Rice . 313

CHAPTER XXVni

Alice Duer Miller . 320

CHAPTER XXDC

Eleanor Hallowell Abbott 326

CHAPTER XXX

Harriet T. Comstock . 334

CHAPTER XXXI

Honore Willsie 342

CHAPTER XXXH

Frances Hodgson Burnett . 357



INTRODUCTION



THIS book, the rather unpremeditated produc-
tion of several months' work, is by a man
who is not a novelist and who is therefore
entirely unfitted to write about women who are nov-
elists. Several excuses may be urged; the author is,
by general agreement, young. He has to do with
many novels, being, indeed, a sort of new and strange
creature, a literary reporter self-styled, a person con-
nected with a newspaper and charged with the task
of describing new books for the readers thereof. As
he could make no critical pretensions he had to fall
back upon a process peculiar to newspaper work, the
attempt at a simple putting before the public of facts,
of things lately said and done in short, of news. He
had to regard a new book as a piece of news to be
communicated as honestly and as entertainingly as any
other occurrence. And so, here. He has tried to be
a good reporter of the personalities, performances and
methods of work of some of the best known American
women novelists.

An effort has been made to include in this book
all the living American women novelists whose writ-
ing, by the customary standards, is artistically fine.
An equal effort has been made to include all the
living American women novelists whose writing has
attained a wide popularity. The author does not

ix



x INTRODUCTION

contend, nor will he so much as allow, that the pro-
duction of writing artistically fine is a greater achieve-
ment than the satisfaction of many thousands of
readers. It may be more lasting; it is not more meri-
torious; and to attempt to institute comparisons be-
tween the two things is absurd. The critic may be
justified in treating of Edith Wharton and ignoring
Gene Stratton-Porter. The literary reporter who
should do such a thing doesn't know his job.

It is, therefore, to be feared that this is no book
for highbrows. But a lower forehead and a broader
outlook have their advantages. In the striking pop-
ularity of a particular storyteller a thoughtful ob-
server may see important and significant evidences of
the tendencies of his time. And that may be much
more worth his while than the most careful specula-
tion as to who will be read fifty years from now.

The order in which authors are taken up in the
book is accidental and therefore meaningless. The
reader is recommended to follow his own inclination
in perusing the chapters. They are entirely detached
from each other, as are the subjects considered except
for an occasional reference, in discussing one, to an-
other's work. These references, and in fact all the
discussions of various books, are to be taken as ex-
pository and not critical. If a thing is stated to be
good, bad or indifferent the statement is made as a
statement of fact and not of personal opinion.

The justification of this book is the need of it. It
is ridiculous that there should be nothing easily ac-
cessible about such writers as Edith Wharton, Ellen
Glasgow, Kathleen Norris, Mary Johnston, Mary S.



INTRODUCTION xi

Watts, Anna Katharine Green, Clara Louise Burn-
ham, Amelia E. Barr and Edna' Ferber. The con-
densations of Who's Who in America are dry bones;
books on living American writers are all "studies"
or compilations of a highly selective sort; their authors
want to be revered by posterity as persons of won-
derful critical perception and judgment. The authors
themselves have not the time to satisfy their readers'
curiosity and their publishers hesitate lest they may
not remain their publishers!

And so the literary reporter steps in. Some of the
chapters in this book, generally condensed in content,
have appeared in the columns of Books and the Book
World, the literary magazine of The Sun, New York,
of which he is the editor. In their preparation he
has been wonderfully helped by the authors them-
selves and by other individuals and publishing houses,
for which he makes acknowledgment and returns his
thanks in a note elsewhere in the book.



ACKNOWLEDGMENT

My indebtedness to various persons and sources is
repeatedly made manifest in the text. Only the co-
operation of publishers has made possible the prepara-
tion of these sketches in a short time. I wish partic-
ularly to thank the following for important help:

Houghton Mifflin Company and Mr. Roger L.
Scaife and Mrs. Helen Bishop-Dennis for material on
Mary Roberts Rinehart, Eleanor H. Porter, Kate
Douglas Wiggin, Mary Johnston, Mary Austin, Willa
Sibert Cather, Clara Louise Burnham and Demetra
Vaka.

Doubleday, Page & Company and Mr. Harry E.
Maule for material on Ellen Glasgow, Kathleen Nor-
ris, Gene Stratton-Porter, Corra Harris, Helen R.
Martin, Sophie Kerr, Marjorie Benton Cooke, Grace
S. Richmond and Harriet T. Comstock.

The Macmillan Company and Mr. Harold S.
Latham for material on Alice Brown and Mary S.
Watts.

Harper & Brothers and Miss Hesper Le Gallienne
for material on Gertrude Atherton, Margaret Deland
and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

The Century Company for material on Alice Hegan
Rice, Alice Duer Miller and Eleanor Hallowell Abbott.

Frederick A. Stokes Company and Mr. William
Morrow for material on Gertrude Atherton, Edna

xiii



xiv ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Ferber, Honore Willsie and Frances Hodgson Bur-
nett.

Dodd, Mead & Company for material on Anna
Katharine Green, Gertrude Atherton, Mary E. Wil-
kins Freeman and Eleanor Hallowell Abbott.

Henry Holt & Company and Miss Ellen Knowles
Eayrs for material on Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

Charles Scribner's Sons for material on Edith
Wharton.



THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR
NOVELS



CHAPTER I

EDITH WHARTON

THE order of authors in this book is accidental
and the circumstance that the first chapter
of the book is upon Edith Wharton is also
accidental, also and therefore; which is to say that it
is not accidental at all. For if there is any lesson
which life teaches us it is the existence of an order,
a plan, in unsuspected places. To say, therefore, that
a thing is accidental is to pay it the most glorious
compliment. It is to say that it is ordered or ordained,
decreed, immutably fixed upon from the Beginning
not of a book but of a Universe. There is about
anything accidental something absolutely divine. To
dart off at a tangent (for a mere moment) there
was this much in the divine right of kings an acci-
dent at the beginning of it. Had the kings contented
themselves with this accidental character, had they
preserved the spontaneity that surrounded the first
of their crowd, there would be more of them left!
But such reflections and the working out of them, a

i



2 THE . WQME'N 'tyHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

pleasurable kind of intellectual counterpoint, may be
left to Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

We are concerned wholly with the women who
make our novels and, by the accident of title if you
like, more with the women than with their novels.
The two are no more perfectly separable than milk
and cream and very often the best thing to do is not
to try to separate them, but rather to stir them up
together. As the only excuses for a book other than
a work of fiction are either that it presents facts or
suggests ideas, we shall try to talk rather simply
(much more simply than in our first paragraph of this
chapter) about American women novelists and their
books simply and honestly. If we say little about
"literature" it is because what is usually described as
literature is nothing better than a pale reflection of life.

Edith Wharton comes first in this book that she
may the better stand alone. She has always stood
alone. The distinguishing thing about her is the dis-
tinguishing thing about her work aloneness. which
is not the same thing as aloofness. She is not aloof.
At 56 she is working in France, doing that which
her hand finds to do. Her aloneness arises from the
facts of her life. Never were so many favoring stars
clustered together as for her when she was born. She
had everything.

She was born in New York (item i) in 1862, Edith
Newbold Jones, the daughter of Frederic Jones and
Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones (item 2). She was
educated at home (item 3) and was married to Ed-
ward Wharton of Boston in 1885 (item 4 no! count-
less items of luck had already intervened!). In other



EDITH WHARTON 3

words, Mrs. Wharton, granddaughter of General
Ebenezer Stevens of Revolutionary fame, came of
distinguished family, was the child of extremely well-
to-do parents, had every advantage that careful in-
struction, generous travel and cultivated surroundings
could confer upon her. Much of her life has been
spent in Italy ; a perfect acquaintance with great paint-
ing and architecture, everywhere so discernible in
her work, has always with her been the customary
thing. Private tutors in America and abroad spared
her the -leveling processes of forty lines of Virgil
a day and ten mathematical sums each night. They
touched her as a sculptor touches his clay, firmly and
caressingly and only to bring out her peculiar excel-
lences, only to help her native genius to expression.
Think of it Italy and all the other rich backgrounds,
means, social position, fine traditions, the right sur-
roundings, the right mentors, the right tastes and a
considerable gift to begin with! What a mold! It
is exquisite, perhaps unmatched in the instance of
any other novelist. It is what we dream of for
genius and it is what genius would smash to frag-
ments ! The very fact that Mrs. Wharton had a mold
is the best evidence that she is not a genius in the
most discriminating sense of a most indiscriminately
used word.

She is not a genius but she moves and always has
moved in a world of geniuses. From childhood she
had, of course, an easy familiarity with French, Ger-
man and Italian. The ordinary bounds upon read-
ing the only way of keeping the company of the
supremely great of earth were thus swept a meas-



4 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

ureless distance away. French, German and Italian
as well as English literature were accessible to her
and the French includes the Russian, of course. She
read widely and we are told that "when she came
upon Goethe she was more prepared than the average
to take to heart his counsels of perfection and reach
after a high and effective culture!" Reach? Not
upward, surely; there was nothing above her. Out-
ward, perhaps. At any rate, here was Mrs. Wharton
in the actual presence and company of a genius if
ever there lived one. It is agonizing to think what
Goethe would have said were he alive these days. He
would have said the supremely scathing thing, the
thing that would have withered forever the moral
cancer of his countrymen, and we cannot articulate
it A magical mind and a magical tongue and a mag-
ical pen Goethe. He was always saying sesame.
We, who have not his genius, have to batter down
the barred door.

It is to Goethe above all other literary influence
that Mrs. Wharton feels indebted. Strike out the
word "literary." The influence of Goethe is not a
literary influence, but an influence proceeding directly
from the heart of life itself. What sort of an influence
is it? High, pure, clean and yet human. Intangible,
too; about all you really can say of it is that it is
like the company of some people who bring out all
the best that is in you. They do not put into you
anything new. They draw you out, or rather, they
draw something out of you. At the risk of shocking
the fastidious reader and to the joy of the literally-
minded we may say that they are the spiritual equiva-



EDITH WHARTON 5

lent of the mustard plaster. They have an equal
drawing power and efficacy, but they do not draw out
the ache but the great glow and spirit which are the
incontestable proof of the existence in the human
soul of something immortal.

Mrs. Wharton read widely, as we say, and she read
in the main "standard" fiction. Her taste is for
George Eliot and the ethical teachings of that earlier
woman novelist. Her taste is equally for Gustave
Flaubert, the "craftsman's master," the writer who
teaches writers how to write. You learn the inner-
most secrets of your writing craft from Flaubert and
then you put aside everything you have learned from
the master and learn from life. Balzac, Thackeray,
Dickens and Meredith have been Mrs. Wharton's
steady diet; she has re-read them so often as repeat-
edly and contentedly to fall into arrears with respect
to current fiction. She has had always a great interest
in biology and in whatever touches upon the history
of human thought. This, in brief, is the substance of
Edith Wharton the woman and the background of
Edith Wharton the novelist.

We shall not discuss Mrs. Wharton's books in de-
tail in this chapter and book for the best of reasons
they leave no room for two opinions of her work. Of
almost no other novelist whom we shall consider would
it be possible to say this; indeed of some American
women novelists there are nearer twenty-two than
two opinions. Some writers, like Gertrude Atherton,
are subjects of perpetual controversy; others are the
cause of wide but sharply defined cleavages of opinion
Gene Stratton-Porter, for example. The work of



6 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

still others is more properly matter for speculation
as to what they may do than estimate of what they
have done. But Mrs. Wharton falls in none of these
classifications. There is only one opinion about her
work: it is excellent but lifeless; it is Greek marble
with no Pygmalion near. From this sweeping ver-
dict three and only three of her books are to be
excepted. They are Ethan Frome and The House
of Mirth and Summer. In these three books you can
feel the pulse beat. In Ethan Frome the pulse is the
feeble_quiy_e.r of the crushed and dying human heart;
in The House of Mirth there is the slow throb of
human suffering and anguish, mental no less than
spiritual; in Summer there is the excited and acceler-
ated vibration of human passion.

It will be taken as a very dogmatic piece of busi-
ness on our part when we say that her work leaves
no room for two opinions. Was there ever a bit of
writing, some will ask, which could not give birth in
the minds of readers to more than one opinion?
Often, indeed, twin opinions are born to the same
reader !

We must answer that here and hereafter we are
dealing with easily ascertainable facts and not in-
dulging in criticism. Mrs. Wharton's work leaves
room for only one opinion simply because those who
might form another opinion do not read her. And
those who do not read her take their opinions from
those who do and then, following the instinct of
our natures, declare (quite honestly) the borrowed
opinion as their own. Our real audacity consists in
the assertion, implied in what we have said, that of



EDITH WHARTON 7

all the thousands who read Mrs. Wharton not one
believes in his heart for one solitary instant that the
mass of her fiction is alive. They look upon her work
as they look upon the Winged Victory; it is ravish-
ingly beautiful, it has perfection of form, it has every
attribute of beauty possible of attainment by the con-
summate artist, but it has also the severe limitations
of any form of art.

We must pause here a moment to be emphatic.
Art is' not life and never can be. Life is not art
and never can be. This is just as true of writing as
of painting or sculpture. All art is necessarily dead.
All art is necessarily a representation of life or some
aspect of it. The moment a person begins to paint or
to model or to write and allow himself to think of
any kind of art in what he is doing, he goes into a
fourth dimension and life exists in only three dimen-
sions. This is not to say that art is undesirable; it
is highly desirable, is, in fact, almost as necessary
to our souls as a fourth dimension is to the mathe-
matician. The fourth dimension is a spiritual neces-
sity to the mathematician; it is the future life in
the terms of his trade.

And so, if a writer would keep life in what he
writes, he must not think of art at all. He must not
have any of the artist's special preoccupations. He
must go at his writing just as he would go at living.
If he could keep self -consciousness of what he is doing
or trying to do entirely out of his work he would
succeed completely. And succeed completely he never
does. How nearly he can come to complete success
we know from some of Kipling, O. Henry, most of



8 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

Conrad, one book of Thomas Hardy's we name a
few modern writers just for the sake of specific illus-
tration and illustration instantly familiar to any
reader of this book.

Mrs. Wharton is sometimes spoken of as a pupil
of Henry James, and the resemblance is strong in
some of her work to that of James, but she is not
his pupil. It is simply a case of the similar products
of largely similar inheritances and environment. Both
these writers were from birth well-to-do, both had
exceptional education and lived and moved in culti-
vated surroundings. Their endowments were not
unlike though more disparate than their circumstances.
James had a greater gift and ruined it more com-
pletely. The Portrait of a Lady is the everlasting wit-
ness of what he might have done by the fact of what,
in that superb novel, he did do. Ethan Frome, The
House of Mirth and Summer are all inferior to The
Portrait of a Lady and all superior to James's later
work.

If any one tells you otherwise it is because he is
thinking in terms of art and not in terms of life.
And some will tell you otherwise, for the world never
has lacked those to whom art was more than life
just as the world has never lacked those to whom a
future life was more than the life of this earth. With
these we have no quarrel; we can but respect them;
God made them so. It takes all kinds of people, we
agree, to make a world; if that is so, manifestly it
takes all kinds of views to get the true view. In any
triangle the sum of all three angles is equal to
two right angles. If, therefore, one of the angles



EDITH WHARTON 9

of the triangle is a right angle, the sum of the other
two will equal a right angle. The angle of outlook
which sees only the artistry in a piece of literary work
added to the angle of outlook which sees only the
livingness in the same work may make the right angle
which we all aspire to look from.

BOOKS BY EDITH WHARTON;

The ^Greater Inclination, 1899.

The Touchstone, 1900.

Crucial Instances, 1901.

The Valley of Decision, 1902.

Sanctuary, 1903.

The Descent of Man, and Other Stories, 1904.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904.

Italian Backgrounds, 1905.

The House of Mirth, 1905.

Madame de Treymes, 1907.

The Fruit of the Tree, 1907.

The Hermit and the Wild Woman, 1908.

A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908.

Artemis to Action and Other Verse, 1909.

Tales of Men and Ghosts, 1910. .

The Reef, 1912.

The Custom of the Country, 1913.

The Book of the Homeless, 1915.

Fighting France, 1915.

Ethan Frome.

The Decoration of Houses.

The Joy of Living.



io THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

Xingu and Other Stories.
Summer.

Published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York;
Summer is published by D. Appleton 6- Company,
New York.



CHAPTER II

ALICE BROWN

FROM New Hampshire Alice Brown responded,
, July 29, 1918, to a request for something from
herself about herself with a letter as follows :

"I have been too busy in legitimate ways garden-
ing, cooking, cursing the Hun to write you a human
document. But these are some of the dark facts. I
was born in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, about
six miles inland from the sea, near enough to get a
tang of salt and a 'sea turn' of walking [a word
that looks like 'mist' or 'twist'.] The country there
is slightly rolling, with hills enough to give nice little
dips and climbs in the winding roads, and the farms
are fertile. My people were farmers. We lived, not
at Hampton Falls village, but in a little 'neighbor-
hood' on the road to Exeter, and at Exeter all the
shopping was done. It was one postoffice, and any
neighbor who drove over brought back the mail for
the rest.

"I went to the little district school until I was per-
haps fourteen and then went to the 'Robinson Fe-
male Seminary,' Exeter, walking back and forth every
day except in the winter months, and there I was
graduated after which I taught several years, in the
country and in Boston, hating it more and more every



12 THE WOMEN WHO MAKE OUR NOVELS

minute, and then threw over my certainty to write.

"I did a little work on the Christian Register and
then went to the Youth's Companion, where, for years,
I ground out stuff from the latest books and maga-
zines.

"And that's really all ! I own a farm here at Hill,
which I don't carry on sell the grass standing and
the apples on the trees. I love gardens and houses.
I wish I could go round planning the resurrection of
old houses and pass them over to somebody else and
plan more.

"And that's all! Now I ask you if any newspaper
gent, even with a genius for embroidery, could make
anything of that? 'Story? God bless you, sir, I've
none to tell!'

"Gloomily yours,

"ALICE BROWN."
[In pencil]

"I thought I should write about five thousand words,
but this is how it pans out!"

And it pans out extremely well, if a newspaper gent
with no genius for embroidery, incapable, indeed, of
knitting a single sock for a soldier, may express his
satisfaction. For a woman of sixty who has no
story of her own to tell has certainly a lot of stories
to tell of other people. Miss Brown has told them
all. A very respectable list of writings will be found
at the close of this chapter.

New England stories (Meadow-Grass), English
travels (By Oak and Thorn), poems (The Road to
Castaly), a study of Stevenson written in collabora-
tion, stories for girls (as The Secret of the Clan), a



ALICE BROWN 13

play that, among nearly 1,700 submitted, won a $10,-
ooo prize (Children of Earth) and a number of
novels of which The Prisoner is the most notable, are
a main outline of her contribution to American liter j
ature.

She is without any question one of the half dozen
best short story writers America possesses at this
time. Her short stories have achieved a wider fame
for her than anything else, and quite rightly. As a
poet she does pleasant and sometimes interesting work,
but it is impossible to say more. As a dramatist she
wrote one play the play that captured Winthrop
Ames's prize which was splendidly imaginative and
even rather poetic, but as undramatic as a "book play"
can be. It never had a chance of popular success.
Does some one say that is nothing against it?
It is everything against it. The play or the book that
does not appeal to a wide audience has a fatal lack
and no amount of "literary" merit can make up for
that lack.

As a novelist Miss Brown can be absolutely un-


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