| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa. Her
father’s family was among the first settlers of that region and from him she
learned to cherish the independence, integrity, idealism, and practicality of
her pioneer ancestry, and to emphasize these values in her art. After being
graduated from Drake University in 1899, she worked for two years as a reporter
for the Des Moines Daily News, finding in the everyday details of midwestern
life the materials for the short stories she began to publish in the ladies’
magazines of the period. Her early stories were in the local color tradition.
Like other local colorists, such as Zona Gale and Mary French, Susan Glaspell
wanted to preserve in her art those special qualities of place, speech, and
thought that made her region unique. Resisting the homogenization of American
life brought on by the railroad and the growing urban-industrial expansion,
these writers depicted a native son or daughter renewed by an association with
the land, finding a bond between man and nature that echoed the earlier
pastoral dream of the nineteenth century.
1907 Susan Glaspell met George Cram Cook, who was also born and raised in
Davenport, but, unlike her, Cook revolted against the provincialism he saw in
Davenport and against the “medieval-romantic” views of writers like Glaspell.
Cook helped her discover a literary tradition that treated contemporary issues
in realistic terms. At the same time, he strengthened her own idealism with his
vision of a classical revival in America, where, especially in the theater, all
the arts would come together in a single creative totality. In her full-length
plays, a few short stories, and in the novels she wrote in the 1930s and 1940s,
she creates modern “pioneers,” who make for themselves new frontiers of
feeling, thinking, and living, often at considerable cost, both financial and
psychological, to themselves.
Glaspell married Cook in 1913 and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where
in 1915 they put on a few one-act plays in a makeshift theater. Under “Jig”
Cook’s inspired leadership, they continued to write and produce plays that
winter in New York, and soon established the Playwright’s Theatre, or, as they
came to be called, the Provincetown Players. Between 1916 and 1922 the
Provincetown Players was the leading force in causing a revolution in American
theater. In contrast to other little theaters in New York at that time, Cook
insisted that the Provincetown produce only original plays written by American
playwrights, and, in time, they proved that a tiny, experimental theater,
dedicated to native dramatists, could succeed, and that the theater audience
was ready for serious plays of ideas. Along with Eugene O’Neill, Susan Glaspell
was the Provincetown’s most important and prolific playwright. She wrote about
the new woman striving to fulfill her dreams in a hostile and insensitive
world; she treated psychoanalysis when it was still new in this country; she
depicted the little magazine, the bohemian, the war’s effect on minorities, and
the tragedy of the isolated midwestern farm-wife. She brought together European
expressionism with American realism, showing an extraordinary diversity of
dramatic techniques. In the seven one-acts and three full-length plays she
wrote for the Provincetown, she created an original dramatic voice that spoke
to the American audience in a new way about contemporary concerns.
Cook’s death in Greece in 1922, Susan Glaspell returned to Cape Cod where she
lived until her death in 1948. In 1930 she wrote Alison’s House, a play based
on the life of Emily Dickinson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931.
Whereas the fiction she wrote before and after the Provincetown years
exemplifies an established and conservative literary tradition, her plays
fostered new forms of dramatic expression and helped bring about a radical
shift in the direction of American drama. Thus, her novels are rarely read today,
but her plays still speak to audiences the world over.
Georgia State University
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Perspectives in American Literature
A bibliography and a brief literary biography.
A biography and a photograph.
Susan Glaspell, Trifles
Collaborate student web project provides criticism, a biography, and a bibliography.
Linda Ben-Zvi, Critical Essays on Susan Glaspell, 1995
Marcia Noe, "A Susan Glaspell Checklist," Books at Iowa, no. 27 (November 1977)
Barbara Ozieblo, Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography, 2000
Arthur Waterman, Susan Glaspell, 1966
Arthur Waterman, "Susan Glaspell," American Literary Realism, 4 (Spring 1971): 183-191