August 2010

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Her America: "A Jury of Her Peers" and Other Stories by Susan Glaspell

Every now and again I come across a book that strikes me as quintessentially Bookslut: smart, a little bit subversive in the best Dorothy Parker way and yet confident enough to laugh at itself. The universe recently saw fit to send me a book that fit all of these qualifications and more and the fact that I can review it here for the 100th issue is absolutely perfect. I just love it when the universe does things like this.

I had never heard of Susan Glaspell before reading the recent collection of her short stories Her America from the University of Iowa Press. I blame this on every single one of my English teachers who were all advocates of the “dead while male” method of the instruction, meaning a curicula full of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Glaspell most certainly gave these gentlemen a run for the money, writing plays, novels and short stories that, as editors Patricia Bryan and Martha Carpenter explain in their introduction, reveal her “deep concerns about political and ethical issues prevalent then and today: the country’s participation in foreign wars, mounting political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, economic inequality, and women’s rights.”

Take than Mrs Waseleski! (my tenth grade American Literature teacher). (She LOVED Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.) (Not that I’m still bitter or anything.)

In Her America the editors reprint twelve of Glaspell’s stories, originally published between 1914 and 1927, along with historic notes. The centerpiece is “A Jury of Her Peers,” a masterpiece of understated feminist writing (printed with its original ending) that has been repeatedly anthologized and received much deserved acclaim. In “Jury” Glaspell tells the story of a marriage gone bad through the voices and actions of people who barely knew the absent couple. It is a mystery story of sorts – a man is dead, his long suffering wife (Minnie Foster) is being questioned and local authorities have come to their home to investigate. The two women who form the crux of the narrative (wives of the investigators) are there to gather a few personal items for the new widow. The men come to their own obvious conclusions of the events while the women, who barely know each other, come to theirs. Here’s a bit of what Glaspell does so well as she exposes just how great the gulf is between men and women, and the many deep dark places that dwell all too often in any marriage:

“We don’t know who killed him,” whispered Mrs. Peters wildly. “We don’t know.”

Mrs. Hale had not moved. “If there had been years and years of -- nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful -- still -- after the bird was still.”

It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.

“I know what stillness is,” she said in a queer, monotonous voice. “When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died -- after he was two years old -- and me with no other then --”

Mrs. Hale stirred.

“How soon do you suppose they’ll be through looking for the evidence?”

“I know what stillness is,” repeated Mrs. Peters, in just that same way. Then she too pulled back. “The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale,” she said in her tight little way.

“I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster,” was the answer, “when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang.”

The picture of that girl, the fact that she had lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”

“Jury” is about the differences between women and men and how small one person’s world can appear to others and yet how large it can be to them. This way of taking apart a life, of shining a light on how we live, is at the heart of all of Glaspell’s stories and the basic humanity of it is why ninety-year old characters can still resonate powerfully today. And yet the collection is not all serious; “Looking After Clara” dates itself by the protagonist living in a bachelors’ boarding house and yet the hilarity of his attempt to impress a beautiful girl by taking care of her cat (not permitted in the boarding house) is as twentieth century as any romantic comedy. “The Manager of Crystal Silver Springs” is a compassionate look at what matters to us most, and a kindness given to someone in their final moments, and “Unveiling Brenda” is about academia and professors and students and dating and love. Glaspell is very good at writing on love (both right and wrong) but excels most, as she does there, when the subject is made both sly and funny.

She shifts gears a bit with “A Matter of Gesture” which startled me a bit by its political nature. This story of a man who speaks out at a union uprising and then finds himself folding under the pressure of prison packs more than one powerful moment for all that it is casually told in the voice of a woman largely unconnected to the events. And yet, as much as it is about wanting to be a hero, it is also about how much we all want our heroes to be someone else -- someone specific, someone exactly as we demand they be. “Gesture” ends badly for the main character, but not for lack of trying on his part; not for lack of hoping. That’s something to aspire to, as Glaspell points out, and who can argue with such a conclusion?

Whether she is writing about politics or romance however she never lets go of the men and women involved, refusing to let larger themes overshadow her characters’ emotions. As the editors point out, Glaspell excelled at crafting female characters who were “outsiders seemingly without power in the accepted hierarchy, [yet] often draw on unexpected reserves of strength and take action that goes against the expected course.” These small examples of rebellion are all the more surprising when you consider they were largely crafted before women even had the vote, let alone could make choices about their lives. This quiet boldness, this absolute willingness to go against the literary grain, makes her a far braver writer than I think many of the men were at that time. She took a bigger chance then most by writing a story like “Jury” or “Crystal Silver Springs” (or certainly “Gesture”); she exposed the thinking of women who were not supposed to think or whose thoughts were deemed irrelevant. She was brave, so she could show her characters’ braveness as well.

And also their funny moments, of course.

The editors conclude the introduction by recounting the many elements of Glaspell’s work: “the conflict between innocence and self-knowledge, between arrogance and empathetic understanding, between conformity and individualism, while also emphasizing the importance of collective responsibility.” She was truly a great American writer and Her America is an excellent way to rediscover her works. (See also Persephone Books, which has reissued two of Glaspell’s novels: Fidelity and Brook Evans.) I might even send a copy to my high school – although I have no confidence that they would have a clue what to do with it.

Her America: “A Jury of Her Peers” and Other Stories by Susan Glaspell, edited by Patricia L. Bryan & Martha C. Carpenter
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 1587298643
230 pages