Susan Glaspell, a not-quite-forgotten feminist writer

John Hossack, a well-to-do farmer near Indianola, Iowa, was attacked with an ax while he slept in his bed on the night of Dec. 1, 1900. His wife, Margaret, was in bed beside him but said she heard nothing of the intruders who did it until they were in another part of the house.

Margaret, the mother of nine children five of whom were still in the house, was eventually charged with the murder of her husband. Five months after the murder, she was convicted by a jury of those who knew the family. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned that conviction because of technical errors by the trial judge. Margaret was tried again, and the second trial resulted in a hung jury. Margaret returned to her home and lived for another decade and a half with the public divided on whether she was innocent or guilty.

That murder and trial might have disappeared from anyone’s memory except for the young reporter from the Des Moines Daily News who covered the murder and its investigation and subsequent trial with 26 articles between December and April.

Her name was Susan Glaspell, and during the 1920s and 1930s she was one of America’s foremost writers of plays, novels, and short stories.

Glaspell was born in 1876 in Davenport, Iowa. She grew up on a farm that was located on land once claimed by Indians. She was precocious and always wanted to be a writer, beginning her life in journalism when she was a teenager.  When she reached college age, she left home for Des Moines and Drake University.

At Drake, she was an outstanding student and a championship debater. when she graduated in 1900, she immediately got a job at the Des Moines Daily News.  There, she wrote a regular column in which she could express herself freely about the town and its people. She was also assigned to cover a variety of events from meetings of the state legislature to murder trials. 

When the Hossack murder occurred, she traveled to Indianola and involved herself in every aspect of the investigation. partly because of the extensive coverage but she devoted to the trial, the case crew region-wide attention. Glaspell never expressed her opinion about whether or not Margaret Hossack was guilty, but she was unrestrained in reporting what she believed the public felt about the accused. 

The day after the jury returned its verdict, Glaspell quit her newspaper job and went back home to Davenport. Her purpose was to make her living by writing. She had been a newspaper reporter for only about a year, but in that time she believed she had gathered enough material and experience to launch her fiction writing career.

Before long Glaspell was writing and selling stories two magazines such as Harper’s and the Ladies Home Journal. She moved to Chicago where she published her first book The Glory of the conquered. that novel made the New York Times bestseller list. Not only did she write short stories and novels, but she began writing plays.

Glaspell moved from Chicago to New York where she and her husband, George Cram Cook — whom she married in 1913 — connected with the avant-garde artistic community in Greenwich Village. They were also prominent in the same circles in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she first encountered Eugene O’Neil. 

In 1916 she premiered the one-act play Trifles, now thought to be an early feminist masterpiece. The play was first produced at the Wharf Theater in Provincetown and was based on the Hassock trial that Glaspell had covered when she was a young reporter. Later, Glaspell wrote the short story A Jury of Her Peers, which was a spinoff of the play. The Provincetown Theater company that she and her husband had founded move to New York Where it attracted many innovative playwrights, producers, and actors.

Glaspell and her husband left the theater company in 1922 and move to Greece. T years later, Cook died suddenly, leaving  Glaspell on her own. She kept writing, and during the next 10 years, she produced her best and most critically acclaimed work. In 1931, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House. In Great Britain, critics ranked her plays above those hope Eugene O’Neil. on both sides of the Atlantic, her novels were bestsellers, and her short stories appeared in major magazines.

In the mid-1930s, Glaspell suffered through a period of alcoholism, depression, and low productivity. but she regained her literary footing and managed to write three more novels before her death in Provincetown in 1948. 

Her work was largely forgotten during the post-war era, but in the 1970s Interest in her work revived. Since that time, a determined group of adherents has attempted to make sure did she has a proper place in the American literary Pantheon.

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If you want to find out more about Susan Glaspell, check out these sites:

 

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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