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


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Suckow, Ruth
(August 6, 1892–January 23, 1960)

–author—was born in Hawarden, a small town in Sioux County on the Big Sioux River in far northwestern Iowa, where her father was the pastor of the Congregational church. Suckow's book New Hope (1942) portrays Hawarden during the period from 1890 to 1910 and describes the two-year stay of a young minister in the life of a new town.

    After leaving Hawarden in 1898, the Suckow family lived in a number of towns in northern Iowa. In 1907 Suckow's father accepted a position at Grinnell College. She graduated from Grinnell High School in 1910 and entered Grinnell College that fall. While a student at Grinnell, she became involved in dramatics. Instead of graduating from Grinnell, she left home to study at the Curry School of Expression in Boston from 1913 to 1915. Her novel The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925) reflects her experience in Boston. She left Boston to join her mother and older sister, who were living in Colorado because of ill health. She enrolled at the University of Denver, where she earned a B.A. in 1917 and an M.A. in English in 1918.

    While in Denver, Suckow became interested in beekeeping, and she spent a summer as an apprentice in a beeyard. After her mother died, Suckow moved to Earlville, a small town in eastern Iowa just west of Dubuque. For six years in the 1920s, she ran a small apiary at the edge of town near an orchard, and she began to write. She spent her winters in other places, chiefly in New York's Greenwich Village.

    In 1921 her first published story ("Uprooted") appeared in the Midland, edited by John T. Frederick and published at that time in Iowa City. That story later appeared in Iowa Interiors (1926), her fine collection of short stories. At Frederick's suggestion, she sent some stories to the Smart Set, a magazine edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, who accepted her stories. Others were published in American Mercury, also edited by Mencken. Her first novel, Country People (1924), was followed by a remarkable number of novels published by Alfred A. Knopf. Echoes of Hawarden appear in many of them. In 1934 Farrar & Rinehart published Suckow's longest novel, The Folks, which followed the lives of a small-town Iowa family and was a Literary Guild selection.

    In 1929 Suckow had married Ferner Nuhn of Cedar Falls, Iowa, a man of many talents with an interest in the study of American literature. After their marriage, the couple lived in various parts of the United States, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to rural New England. In the mid 1930s they spent two years in Washington, D.C., where Nuhn did various forms of editing and writing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was then under the direction of fellow Iowan Henry A. Wallace. From 1937 to 1947 the couple lived in Cedar Falls, where Nuhn managed some family business interests.

    In 1943 Suckow established contacts with conscientious objectors to World War II. (She had found World War I profoundly disturbing, and her relationship with her father had been damaged by his activities supporting the war.) In 1944 she traveled to the West Coast to visit six Civilian Public Service camps and one mental hospital. She spoke on writing and literature, read manuscripts, and encouraged the young men. At the camp in Waldport, Oregon, she met the poet William Everson, and she continued to correspond with him for some years after the war.

    In the late 1940s Suckow and Nuhn left Cedar Falls for health reasons: Suckow had arthritis, and Nuhn suffered from hay fever. They moved first to Tucson, Arizona, and later to their final home in Claremont, California, where they were active in the Society of Friends (Quakers). Little came from Suckow's pen in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952 Rinehart published Some Others and Myself, seven short stories and a remarkable spiritual memoir. In 1959 Viking brought out The John Wood Case, her last novel, which concerned an embezzlement case in a church. She died in 1960 at her home in Claremont.

    Suckow is sometimes recalled as a "regionalist," but she did not consider herself such a writer. She said that she wrote about "people, situations, and their meaning."Her fiction was often set in Iowa, but was not parochial in outlook. Today her writing has value for readers who enjoy good storytelling as well as for social historians looking for details about life in the early 20th century, particularly in the small towns of Iowa.
Sources Suckow's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. The only biography is Leedice McAnelly Kissane, Ruth Suckow (1969). See also Suckow's memoir in Some Others and Myself (1952). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 1/24/1960.
Contributor: Robert A. Mccown