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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Susan Glaspell

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.

In 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.

Susan 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.

After 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.

Arthur Waterman
Georgia State University

In the Heath Anthology
Trifles (1917)

Other Works
Plays (1920)
Inheritors (1921)
Alison's House (1930)
Ambrose Holt and Family (1931)
Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945)

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Perspectives in American Literature
A bibliography and a brief literary biography.

Scribbling Women
A biography and a photograph.

Susan Glaspell, Trifles
Collaborate student web project provides criticism, a biography, and a bibliography.

Secondary Sources

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