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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Glaspell, Susan Keating
(July 1, 1876–July 27, 1948)

–Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist—was born in Davenport, Iowa, to Elmer and Alice (Keating) Glaspell, descendants of pioneer settlers. She graduated from Davenport High School and then worked as a reporter for Charles Eugene Banks's Davenport Republican and as society editor of the Davenport Weekly Outlook before earning a Ph.B. from Drake University in 1899.

    After graduating from Drake, Glaspell covered the statehouse beat for the Des Moines Daily News and soon was given her own column, "The News Girl."In 1901, after covering the Margaret Hossack murder trial for the Daily News, she returned to Davenport to write short fiction. The following year, she moved to Chicago, where she took two graduate courses in literature and worked as a journalist and freelance writer. In 1904 she returned to Davenport and renewed her friendship with writer George Cram Cook. Like Cook and his friend Floyd Dell, she became involved in progressive social and political activities; in 1910, along with Cook, she led the fight against censorship in Davenport when the library board refused to buy a book titled The Finality of the Christian Religion.

    Glaspell and Cook began an affair while he was married to feminist journalist Mollie Price. The affair sparked a scandal in Davenport social circles and earned the disapproval of some family members and friends. Both writers left Davenport and, after separate sojourns in Chicago, settled in Greenwich Village, marrying in 1913. They began summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

    There, in 1915, they formed a theater collective, the Provincetown Players, whose mission was to develop a native American drama that would provide an alternative to the commercial entertainments of Broadway. Glaspell's best-known plays– Trifles (1916), Inheritors (1921), and The Verge (1922)—were produced by the Provincetown Players. The frequently anthologized one-act play Trifles, which implies that the desolation of the Iowa prairies was partly responsible for the death of one of the central characters, was based on the Hossack trial that Glaspell covered for the Des Moines Daily News.

    Several of her other plays, most notably Inheritors (1921) and Chains of Dew (1922), were inspired by her Iowa background. Set in a small Iowa college town in the Mississippi Valley of her birth, Inheritors explores the tension between midwestern isolationists and proponents of a wider world outlook. Chains of Dew, probably based on the life of Davenport poet Arthur Davison Ficke, focuses on a Mississippi Valley lawyer-poet whose creative impulses derive from his being torn between professional and familial responsibilities at home in Iowa and the more intellectually stimulating attractions of New York.

    In 1922 Glaspell left the United States with Cook to pursue his lifelong dream of living in Greece. They remained there until Cook's death in 1924. Glaspell then returned to Provincetown, where she fell in love with writer Norman Matson and lived with him until 1932. Prior to her split with Matson, Glaspell published a biography of Cook, The Road to the Temple (1927), and a collection of his poetry, Greek Coins (1925). A play she cowrote with Matson, The Comic Artist, was produced on Broadway in 1933. Two years earlier, Alison's House, set in Iowa and loosely based on the life of Emily Dickinson, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. That recognition, along with the frequency with which Trifles has been anthologized and produced, undoubtedly explains why Glaspell's work has endured into the 21st century.

    Always a supporter of progressive social causes, Glaspell moved to Chicago in 1936 to direct the Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theatre Project. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, she also wrote several speeches and articles supporting American involvement in World War II. Glaspell published prolifically during the final decades of her life. She died in Provincetown in 1948.

    Her experimental works of drama are often the focus of Glaspell scholarship, but Glaspell's short stories and novels are far more indicative of her Iowa upbringing. Her second novel, The Visioning (1911), is set on Arsenal Island, midway between Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois. Glaspell draws attention to contemporary social issues through the development of her protagonist, society-girl Katie Jones, who begins to question conventional ideas about gender and class. In 1912 Glaspell published Lifted Masks, a collection of short stories based on situations she had encountered while writing for the Des Moines Daily News. She also published a number of stories set in "Freeport," a fictional midwestern small town modeled on Davenport, in popular magazines such as Harper's, American Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, and Pictorial Review.

    Her best early novel, Fidelity, also set in "Freeport," firmly established her as a prominent regionalist: Glaspell's theme of a female protagonist attempting to escape the socially restrictive conventions of midwestern small-town life begins in Fidelity and continues throughout several of her other novels. Brook Evans (1928), Fugitive's Return (1929), Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), The Morning Is Near Us (1940), Norma Ashe (1942), and Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945) are all set, in whole or in part, in Glaspell's native Mississippi Valley, but only Judd Rankin's Daughter successfully engages the multiple perspectives of midwestern thinking and presents an appropriately complex view of the region. Her early novels show a hint of bitterness toward the Midwest, particularly toward the "Freeport" society that shunned her after her affair with Cook. As her writing matured, however, Glaspell's views softened; Judd Rankin's Daughter, her final novel, best represents a holistic interpretation of Iowa life.
Sources The Berg Collection of the New York Public Library is the major repository of Glaspell's papers. The 1980s and 1990s saw the publication of a number of book-length biographies and scholarly studies of Glaspell, the most recent of which is Linda Ben-Zvi's Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (2005).
Contributor: Marcia Noe And Emily Monnig

Cite as: Noe, Marcia and Monnig, Emily. "Glaspell, Susan Keating" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017