The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
French, Alice Virginia
(March 19, 1850–March 9, 1934)

–author—was born in Andover, Massachusetts, the eldest child of George Henry French and Frances Wood (Morton) French. When she was six years old, the family moved west and settled in Davenport, Iowa, probably because Frances French's sister was the wife of the Episcopal bishop of Iowa. George French, with capital from the sale of his business in Massachusetts, helped to found a lumber company, the first of his successful businesses in Davenport.

    George French was elected mayor of Davenport in 1861 and in 1862, and was 12 times elected treasurer of the local school board. His lumber company received the contract to build Camp McClellan, the first Civil War training camp in Davenport. It was in such a family of wealth, education, social position, and economic prosperity that Alice French grew up. Her family encouraged her education, and she claimed to have read all of the books in her uncle's—Bishop Lee's—theological library by the time she was 15. Her father's position and wealth and her distinguished New England ancestry were major influences on her attitudes throughout her life, and she always assumed that money and power were hers by inherited right.

    Alice French enrolled in Vassar College in 1866 for one year. She graduated from Abbott Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, where she was an honor student and one of two students chosen to read commencement essays. After graduation she returned to Davenport and resumed a life of reading, writing, and participating in social activities within her parents' circle of acquaintances.

    Her first published writing was a short story, "Hugo's Waiting," printed in the Davenport Gazette on February 18, 1871, under the pen name Frances Essex. Thereafter Alice French concentrated on her writing for the next 50 years, supported by an inheritance from her father, who had been president of the First National Bank, president of the Davenport and St. Paul Railroad, and founder of the Eagle Plow Manufacturing Company. Alice French received stock dividends from the manufacturing company for the rest of her life. Her income from her writing was sufficient to support an ordinary lifestyle, but French lived on a much grander scale.

    Throughout her life she was acquainted with and friends of prominent people. Among her father's business friends were Marshall Field, Andrew Carnegie, and Robert Ingersoll, and in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt became an admirer of her writings. Twice she was invited to dine at the White House; Roosevelt visited her in Davenport, and in 1916 she was invited to his home, Sagamore Hill, at Oyster Bay, New York. These contacts with famous and influential people spurred her grand lifestyle, but gradually the income from her father's company failed to keep pace, and she was constantly forced to write hack pieces to meet expenses.

    Alice French is most famous as an author under the pen name Octave Thanet. Her earlier writings often were essays on political and economic subjects, but all of her works were published in the leading magazines of the day—Scribner's Monthly, Lippincott's Monthly, Sunday Afternoon—and in April 1896 she had short stories in both the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Bazaar. Octave Thanet's attempts at writing novels were enthusiastic, but failed to meet the standards of her short stories. She published 17 books, several of them collections of her short stories, and hundreds of essays and stories. The peak of her literary career no doubt was the publication of The Man of the Hour in 1905, which was the fourth-best-selling book that year. Her novel By Inheritance was the fifth-best-selling book in 1910. The Man of the Hour was based on her observations and research during the Pullman Strike in 1894, and she ardently took the side of management. By Inheritance was an attempt to justify the racial discrimination of the time and the futility of trying to educate African Americans. A literary but not a financial success was her edited collection, The Best Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1890).

    Most critics consider Octave Thanet to be a competent writer of what was called "local color," and she was one of the first authors to use the Midwest as a locale. However, her stories usually depended on abrupt and cleansing events that had little to do with the plot in order to arrive at endings that taught a moral lesson. She also commonly used too much dialect and strange characterizations, and she loved to write about unusual scenes that did nothing to advance her plots.

    Alice French traveled widely and often. In 1881 she joined Andrew Carnegie on a three-month vacation in England and Scotland. In 1893 she stayed at the home of Marshall Field for two months while she attended the Columbian Exposition, gathering material for a six-part series. In 1883 she joined a friend, Jane Allen Crawford, in purchasing Clover Bend plantation in Arkansas, and the two women spent winters there until 1909. They joined their Davenport households in 1905 and continued to live together until Crawford's death in 1932. Many of Thanet's short stories were based on the folklore she heard around Clover Bend, and it was there that she made her most grotesque ventures into dialect writing. Sometimes publishers had to include glossaries and reading aids to help readers decipher what the characters were actually saying.

    French was an opponent of foreigners, naturalization of immigrants, labor unions, education for African Americans, social experimentation, and socialism, and she often lectured against woman suffrage. Her literary style was no longer much appreciated after the outbreak of World War I, and her reputation suffered because of the flaws in her writing. Nonetheless, her works reflected the attitudes of people of her class at the time she was writing and were popular with readers, and sales of her work between 1890 and 1910 regularly brought a return of at least $6,000 annually. Octave Thanet helped to further regionalism in U.S. writing, and she helped to popularize the Midwest as the setting for literature. But she died in poverty and obscurity in a rented room in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Sources The Alice French Collection in the Newberry Library, Chicago, contains letters, diaries, manuscripts, ledgers, and memorabilia. See also George L. McMichael, Journey to Obscurity: The Life of Octave Thanet (1965); Sandra Ann Healey Tigges, "Alice French: A Noble Anachronism" (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1981); Edgar Rubey Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa (1931) (with a full-page portrait); Clarence Andrews, "A Patrician Who Tried to Face Reality," Iowan 18 (Winter 1969), 26–27, 50–54. Obituaries appeared in the Davenport Democrat, 1/9/1934; and Annals of Iowa 19 (1934), 318. Alice French wrote chapter 7, "The Writers of Iowa," in Johnson Brigham, Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens (1915). There she wrote a prophetic sentence: "Who knows where abides the staying quality?"
Contributor: Loren N. Horton

Cite as: Horton, Loren N. "French, Alice Virginia" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017