Issue 131 |
Winter 2016-17

“We Live Close Together and We Live Far Apart”: A Look2 Essay on Susan Glaspell



“Who is Susan Glaspell?” That was the question The New York Times asked in half-inch type in May 1918. At the time, Susan Glaspell’s star was ascendant. Her name was already well known in the New York theater world for the one-act plays she had written for the Provincetown Players, the little theater she and her husband had founded in Provincetown two years earlier. Her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, had been a commercial and critical success in 1909, and two more novels had followed in 1911 and 1915.

By the early 1920s, Susan Glaspell was widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary American dramatists. In 1931, as her sixth novel was climbing the bestseller lists, Glaspell became only the second woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. One of the congratulatory cables she received after the prize was announced came from an old friend whose career she had helped to launch.

“An honor long overdue!” said the telegram from Eugene O’Neill.

The story of twenty-seven-year-old O’Neill showing up in Provincetown with a trunk full of unproduced plays has become one of the founding myths of American theater. Susan Glaspell is often no more than a footnote to that story. But from the beginning, the careers of the two playwrights were linked. Glaspell’s first and still most famous play, Trifles, premiered in Provincetown in the summer of 1916, in repertory with O’Neill’s debut, Bound East for Cardiff. The following year, the Provincetown Players took up residence on MacDougal Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village. According to critic Ludwig Lewisohn, Glaspell’s arrival on the scene was epoch-making. Her plays were modernist, experimental, and boldly political. “While Broadway blazed and buzzed,” Lewisohn wrote, “both history and literature were being made on MacDougal Street.”

Susan Glaspell wrote fifteen plays, nine novels, and dozens of short stories—including one, “A Jury of Her Peers,” that John Updike selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories of the Century (2000)—but her name usually draws a blank. Like so many women writers who wrote about the lives and experiences of women, she was dismissed as “minor,” and forgotten until feminist scholars rediscovered her in the 1970s. Until Persephone Books in London reprinted Fidelity in 1998 and Brook Evans in 2001, all of her novels were out of print. Yet readers who discover Glaspell often have the feeling of stumbling upon buried treasure. “What a beautiful and very intelligent novel! I can’t understand why Glaspell isn’t more well known,” wrote one reader of Fidelity on LibraryThing, the social networking site for readers. Another reader responded: “It is a moving and sensitive book which left me stunned with the beauty of the story and this writer’s talent.”

Glaspell’s final play, Springs Eternal, was unable to find a producer during her lifetime, and had to wait until 2013—sixty-five years after her death—to receive its premiere. The premiere took place at the Orange Tree Theater, in the London suburb of Richmond, which had been staging revivals of Glaspell’s plays since 1996. In an interview in 2013, Sam Walters, one of the founders of the Orange Tree, recalls talking to groups of American students who came to the theater:

I’ve done it to hundreds of American students: “Have you heard of Susan Glaspell?” I ask, and never once has one of them said yes. Never once. And then I say, “You may have heard of a play called Trifles?” And one or two will say, “Ah, yes.” But they’ve never heard the name Glaspell. So I say, “Go back to America, read her plays, read her novels.” I don’t know, I hope people are doing the same thing in America.

She is better known now than she was thirty, or even fifteen, years ago, but the question still arises: “Who is Susan Glaspell?”


Susan Keating Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, on July 1, 1876. Her great-grandparents had arrived in Davenport in 1839. By the time of Glaspell’s birth, Davenport was a prosperous city, with mansions on the bluffs and factories down by the river, and the fluidity of frontier life had solidified into a rigid social hierarchy in which the status of Glaspell’s family had fallen. Her great-grandfather, James Glaspell, had been one of Davenport’s most successful merchants. Her father, Elmer Glaspell, was never able to settle into a steady line of work. The family lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood, a few blocks from the top of the bluff where the mansions of Davenport’s high society stood. Susan Glaspell grew up at the edge of Davenport’s best society, and her position there shaped her. She wanted to belong, and to possess the status that came with belonging, but at the same time, she rebelled against the pretentions and conventions of Midwestern society.

She began her writing career straight out of high school, contributing an often satirical society column to a local newspaper, before heading to Des Moines to attend Drake University. At Drake, she distinguished herself as a member of the debate team and a writer for the school newspaper. After graduating in 1899, she stayed on in Des Moines as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. The stories she covered for the paper became grist for her imagination. One story—the notorious case of a woman who allegedly murdered her husband on their remote Iowa farm—became the inspiration for her classic one-act play Trifles and the short story “A Jury of Her Peers.”

After a few years of gathering material in Des Moines, Glaspell was ready to return to Davenport and devote herself to writing fiction. Davenport society opened its doors to the successful young writer. She drank tea with the members of the exclusive Tuesday Club, but at the same time, she rubbed elbows with socialists and freethinkers at meetings of the Monist Society, founded in 1907 by Floyd Dell and his friend George Cram Cook.

The main idea of the Monist Society was that everything is one: past and present, you and I, the universe and the human mind. In part, the society had its origins in the effort to reconcile the theory of evolution with the idea of God. The Monists taught that evolution had produced a diversity of forms that were all expressions of a single reality, through which all things are connected. Both Glaspell and Cook were drawn to the idea of a deep spiritual connection—what Cook called “spiritual communism”—that could erase the boundaries between individuals. Glaspell returns repeatedly in her writing to the theme of loneliness, and the possibility of overcoming loneliness through the discovery of oneness with others.

The second chapter of The Glory of the Conquered, her first novel, opens with a retelling of the myth from Plato’s Symposium, expressing the Monist idea that love is “the union—or reunion—of the two halves of an originally perfect whole.” The novel was written during an attempt at a self-imposed separation from George Cram Cook. Glaspell spent several years living in France and Chicago, while back in Davenport Cook worked on keeping his second marriage together. After five years and the birth of two children, Cook filed for divorce.

George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell were married in 1913. The couple settled in Greenwich Village, and in the summer months rented a cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Cook had the idea of putting on plays in an old fish house at the end of the wharf. Cook’s idea was “to birth in our commercial-minded country a theater whose motive was spiritual”—to found not just a theater, but a “beloved community of life-givers” who created art for the sake of art and each other. The Provincetown Players included Floyd Dell, Louise Bryant and John Reed, Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood, Harry Kemp, and Mary Heaton Vorse—communists, socialists, feminists, radicals who came together to create the country’s most important experimental theater.

Glaspell began her career as a playwright with Suppressed Desires, a play satirizing the popularity of psychoanalysis with the Greenwich Village set, cowritten with George Cram Cook. The first play she wrote on her own was Trifles, based on the murder case she covered as a reporter in Des Moines. She followed Trifles with eight more plays for the Provincetown Players, including the three full-length plays—Bernice, Inheritors, and The Verge—that prompted Ludwig Lewisohn to proclaim Glaspell the “first creator of true American dramatic literature.”

In Trifles, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters come with their husbands to the isolated farmhouse where a man, Mr. Wright, has been found murdered and his wife arrested on suspicion of committing the crime. Mr. Peters, the sheriff, has come looking for clues—but it’s the women, with an eye for the details of domestic life, who come closest to reconstructing the crime. Standing in the accused woman’s kitchen, the two women realize that the tragedy could have been their own, and that, in failing to reach out to their neighbor, they are in some sense implicated in the tragedy. Mrs. Hale—the role Glaspell herself took in the original 1916 Provincetown production—says: “We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.” This could serve as an epigram for all of Glaspell’s writing. The play strikes many of the chords that ring throughout Glaspell’s work: silence and isolation; the significance of ordinary domestic tasks; the ways in which we try, and often fail, to connect with other people.

Cook and Glaspell left the Provincetown Players in 1922, at a time when the company was poised for commercial success with the Broadway transfer of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. To Cook, the move to Broadway would have meant a betrayal of the spirit in which the Provincetown Players was founded. He deplored “the up-town point of view of money and notoriety.” The purity of the creative impulse was spoiled when its object became commercial success, and the communal spirit of the theater was violated when “individual gifts and talents…sought their private perfection.” Theater to Cook was the embodiment of an idea of community, and that idea drew him to Greece, where Western theater had its origins in the communal ritual of Dionysus.

Somewhat reluctantly, Glaspell accompanied Cook to Delphi, where shepherds still herded their flocks through the ruins of the ancient sanctuary of Apollo on the side of Mount Parnassus. Soon Cook was dressing in a traditional Greek peasant costume and drinking with the locals at Andreas’ tavern. Glaspell, who spoke little modern Greek and was excluded from these male drinking parties, often felt lonely. Cook drank heavily, and dwelt on his failures and the decline of his physical powers. He was fifty. Delphi might have been a mid-life crisis if it hadn’t been the place where he died. In January 1924 he died of glanders, a rare illness he contracted from a stray dog. His grave lies in the little Greek Orthodox cemetery overlooking the archaeological site. On the ancient wall above his grave is a marble plaque dedicated to the memory of Susan Glaspell.

After Cook’s death, Glaspell returned to Provincetown, and spent the next three years assembling a collection of his poems and writing his biography, The Road to the Temple (1926). She also began a relationship with Norman Matson, a writer sixteen years her junior. Her next novel, Brook Evans, appeared in 1928, and was acclaimed as “a small-scale masterpiece.” It was followed in 1929 by another bestseller, Fugitive’s Return. After a nearly six year interval since her last plays for the Provincetown, the years 1928 to 1931 marked a remarkable resurgence of Glaspell’s career as a novelist. As a playwright, she had also found a new champion in Eva Le Gallienne, who included Glaspell’s play Inheritors in the first season of her new Civic Repertory Theater in New York (1927). In 1931, Glaspell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House, which Le Gallienne gave its first performances at the Civic Repertory Theater. Glaspell’s bestselling Ambrose Holt and Family, published in the same year, would be her last novel for nearly a decade.

After the break-up of her relationship with Matson in 1932, Glaspell spent the first half of the 1930s struggling with alcoholism and severe writer’s block. “I have to find out if I don’t write because I drink,” she told a friend, “or drink because I don’t write.” But in 1936, she was given a new direction in life when she was appointed director of the Chicago-based Midwest Playwright’s Bureau, part of the WPA’s Federal Theater Project. For two years, she read scripts and promoted the work of struggling playwrights, including the young Arthur Miller. She returned to Provincetown reinvigorated in 1938. Edmund Wilson, who occasionally stayed in Glaspell’s house while she was away, wrote in his diary, “Susan seemed much better for her years in the West, seemed to have resigned herself to become an old lady.”

The year after her return to Provincetown, Glaspell published a new novel, The Morning Is Near Us, that proved to be one of her most critically and commercially successful. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and briefly topped Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on the bestseller lists. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights, but the film was never made. In her final years, Glaspell maintained close friendships in Provincetown’s literary community (John Dos Passos was a particularly close friend), and unlike most of the other writers in Provincetown took an active part in local civic life. Among the locals, she was known as “The Lady Who Wrote.” She would publish two more novels, Norma Ashe (1942) and Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945), before her death in 1948.


In 1942, Glaspell was informed by her publisher that a government order required them to surrender the plates of all but two of her books to be melted down for ammunition. After her death, her novels remained out of print for half a century. Her one-act play Trifles continued to appear in anthologies, but otherwise her groundbreaking contribution to modern American drama was all but forgotten. There wasn’t a single scholarly article on Susan Glaspell until 1964, when Arthur Waterman sought to revive Glaspell’s reputation as a major American playwright.

While he makes a solid case for Glaspell’s importance as a playwright, Waterman provides some insight into the reasons for the decline in Glaspell’s reputation as a novelist. When Glaspell moved from Davenport to Greenwich Village, he writes, she moved “from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth, from the culture of the Midwest to that of the East, and…from being a conventional novelist to becoming an experimental playwright.” He praises Glaspell as a “dramatist of ideas,” a nonconformist, an idealist who satirized the middle-class conventions of her Midwestern upbringing. At the same time, he dismisses her fiction as “minor,” as belonging to “the local color tradition” and “designed for the Midwestern feminine audience and patterned to suit that public’s taste for escapist fiction.” There is in Waterman’s assessment a clear bias against the Midwestern, the traditional, the feminine.

Since the publication of Waterman’s article, scholars who have studied Glaspell’s novels have found in them the same qualities of idealism and nonconformity, the same spirit of rebellion and some of the same characteristics of modernism that Waterman found in the plays. Her novels are populated with women who, like Glaspell herself, were born in the Midwest, but come to see it through their experience of, or their longing for, somewhere else. They strain against the conventions, puritanism, repression, and isolation of the early twentieth-century Midwest.

What may be most characteristic of Susan Glaspell as a writer is her ambivalence. To begin with, she was ambivalent about the Midwest: the place of her childhood, the place she left behind as an adult. She admired the sturdiness and openness of the pioneers, but pushed back against the conservatism of the pioneers’ grandchildren. At the same time, she could be ambivalent about the East Coast: she satirized the faddishness of the Village, and recognized that intolerance could take root even in Provincetown. Her play Inheritors (1921) tackles anti-immigrant sentiment in the Midwest in the wake of the First World War; her last novel, Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945), takes on both Midwestern isolationism and Cape Cod anti-Semitism.

Women in Glaspell’s novels and plays are ambivalent about motherhood, about relationships, about community. They often come to realize that it’s possible to become trapped by the thing one wants the most. In Fidelity, Ruth Holland returns home eleven years after leaving town with another woman’s husband, and longs to be accepted by the conservative society her action has outraged. She yearns for the “simple feeling of being one with others,” and finds it oppressive to be an outsider: “It had become monstrous always to have to feel that something about her made her different from other people.” She wants to be part of a community, but refuses to compromise in order to belong. Like Glaspell herself, Ruth heads East, looking for a place where she can be herself.

When she looked back on the seven years she and her husband spent with the Provincetown Players, what Glaspell recalled most fondly was the sense of belonging to a community:

We were supposed to be a sort of “special” group—radical, wild. Bohemians, we have even been called. But it seems to me we were a particularly simple people, who sought to arrange life for the thing we wanted to do, needing each other as protection against complexities, yet living as we did because of an instinct for the old, old things, to have a garden, and neighbors, to keep up the fire and let the cat in at night.

The bohemian domesticity of Provincetown and the Village appealed to Glaspell. She wanted the freedom to express herself, but she also wanted her home and her garden.

Gardening was a potent metaphor for Glaspell: an image of both luxuriant natural growth and careful tending and control. The Verge (1921), the most experimental play she wrote for the Provincetown Players, begins and ends in a greenhouse where Claire is attempting to create a new breed of plant she calls Breath of Life. “We need not be held in forms moulded for us,” Claire says. “There is outness—and otherness.” Driven to the point of madness, Claire comes to realize that creating a new form of beauty brings her no closer to the platonic ideal of beauty itself. As she tells her lover near the end of the play, “Beauty is not something you say about beauty.”

Claire’s idealism isolates her and eventually leads to madness. She rejects the safety and sanity represented by her competent and conventional sister Adelaide, who wants to draw Claire back into the circle of ordinary human relations. “There’s something about being in that main body,” Adelaide says, “having one’s roots in the big common experiences, gives a calm which you have missed.” There is something of both Claire and Adelaide in Glaspell herself: the experimenter and the defier of convention, and the woman who wants to put down roots in “the big common experiences.”

The heroine of Glaspell’s novel Ambrose Holt and Family (1931) is a young wife and mother named Harriette, whom everyone calls Blossom. Her husband treats her like a doll or a pet, but she desperately wants to claim her true name: “She was not a flower, or a kitten, or a doll; she was a woman who thought and felt.” The novel begins with “Blossom” in her garden—the one place, it seems, where she has been able to express herself. The gardener hired by her father looks disapprovingly at the unorthodox groupings of flowers she has planted without massing them together in a conventional way.

“Don’t you ever get tired doing things the right way? Just following the right way?” she asks the gardener.

“It has been found best,” the gardener replies.

Convention is strong, but here and there, Harriette has rebelled against the traditional order of things: “Only here and there, for she knew the massing was right, so her garden was not unlike the work of a social experimenter who goes a little way but stays safe in the main body.”

This is a good programmatic statement of Glaspell’s stance as a writer. She’s drawn to the traditional ways in which people come together—as husbands and wives, as members of families and communities—but she pushes back against the limitations those traditional structures have placed on individuals, especially on women.

A contemporary critic called Ambrose Holt and Family “a tragi-comedy of idealism,” adding that Susan Glaspell “is the best person in the world to act as mediator between the idealist and the rest of humanity.” Glaspell stands on the side of the idealists, but at the same time, she recognizes the hazards of idealism. The pursuit of an ideal can involve immense sacrifice and even tragedy. Sometimes the attainment of an ideal, as Claire realizes in The Verge, brings into being a new form of constraint. Intergenerational conflict is a hallmark of Glaspell’s novels and plays, as children rebel against the ideals of their parents, or seek to reclaim the lost ideals of an earlier generation.

In an early story, “His America” (1921), an immigrant farmer who has fought all his life for progressive ideals and against the monied interests who control politics, finds that his son has joined “the other party.” The son believes that the only way to get things done is to ally himself with the monied interests—to be a realist.

“You came here, throbbing with the love for America,” the son says; “and with your ideal America you’ve fought the real, and you’ve worked and you’ve believed and you’ve sacrificed. Father, what’s the use?”

The father is confronted with his own failure, but in the end concludes that his ideal America still exists. It’s the America of the future, an America that will be “won by men who believed that they had failed.”

“Was there not here an answer to ‘What’s the use?’ For he would leave America as he came to it—loving it, believing in it. What were the work and failure of a lifetime when there was something in his heart which was his?”

There is a sense in Glaspell’s work that believing in an ideal is more important than achieving it—that failure and work left undone are paradoxically what make progress possible. There always has to remain the hope of going a step further or striking out in a new direction. In her last novel, Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945), Glaspell imagines an alien race observing the planet Earth and reporting that the planet was bent on its own destruction. “We would look very bad from afar, she thought, but they only see a spectacle, cannot look into our hearts, so they do not know—where the hope lies. But we know—where the hope lies.”


The growth of feminist scholarship since the early 1970s has helped bring about a revival of interest in Susan Glaspell. In a 1972 essay, Tillie Olsen compiled her own early version of the VIDA Count (an annual calculation of how many women and men are published in notable literary journals) and found that—based on inclusion in the syllabuses of literature courses, in anthologies, book reviews, and scholarly studies—one woman writer was represented for every twelve men. Fewer women received critical recognition, and more women writers were neglected or forgotten. “Women’s books of great worth suffer the death of being unknown, or at best a peculiar eclipsing,” Olsen wrote. Women’s writing was devalued and neglected because critics were predominantly male, and because the prevalent critical attitude was “that women’s experience and literature written by women are, by definition, minor.” In the essay, later published in the book Silences, Olsen was interested in the forces that silenced women writers—the pressures on women that prevented them from writing, the critical attitudes that suppressed their work.

Among the forgotten works Olsen singles out as being worthy of rediscovery was Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), the short-story adaptation of Trifles. In 2009, when Elaine Showalter published the first full-length study of American women writers, she titled it A Jury of Her Peers, and began with a discussion of Glaspell’s story. It’s a story about silencing, and in the end a story about suppressing the evidence not only of a crime but also of the silent and narrow life a woman has been forced to live.

Silent women are prominent in Susan Glaspell’s work. Aloof women, women who stand apart from the society around them, women who have withdrawn from life in the wake of tragedy. In the 1917 Provincetown Players production of her play The Outside, Glaspell herself took the role of Allie Mayo, a woman who hasn’t spoken a word in the twenty years since the death of her husband at sea. In Fugitive’s Return, Irma Shrader stops speaking after the death of her only child—and withdraws to the isolated mountain village of Delphi. In Fidelity, Marion Williams withdraws into icy aloofness after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. In The Glory of the Conquered, Ernestine Hubers withdraws to her childhood home after the death of her brilliant and beloved husband.

“It was the simple law of living things,” Glaspell writes in The Glory of the Conquered. “The animal wounded beyond all thought of life seeks only a place of seclusion.”

Most of these women are brought back to life through their response to the suffering of others. Allie Mayo finally speaks when she sees another woman heading down the same life-denying path. Marion Williams finds a new connection to life when she nurses a servant girl who has suffered a miscarriage. Irma Shrader rediscovers her voice when she stops the villagers in Delphi from killing a stray dog.

Glaspell recognizes that personal tragedy is disintegrating and isolating, that it shatters our sense of wholeness, and her characters attempt to recreate that wholeness through work that connects them to the rhythms of life, and through a rediscovery of a sense of their oneness with other people. In The Glory of the Conquered, Ernestine’s friend Dr. Parkman advises her to do “anything—painting pictures or scrubbing floors—that will bring you back to a sense of living—the obligations of life—show you that something is yours…” Twenty-three years later, in Fugitive’s Return, Glaspell writes of Irma’s realization that “she might be scrubbing a floor and have more dignity than in ascending noble old steps.” Ordinary tasks like scrubbing a floor promise to restore her connection to her own life and to the lives of others—“as if,” Glaspell writes, “all those things man does in common make man one.”

Glaspell’s biographer, Linda Ben-Zvi, has observed that “unlike O’Neill, whose characteristic punctuation point was the exclamation mark, Glaspell’s is the dash, denoting the silence and the silencing of her women characters.” Look at a page of Glaspell’s writing—play or novel—and you notice the dashes everywhere: the scattering of silences and hesitations, the signs of a struggle for words. Here’s an example from The Verge, where Claire tries to explain her experiments with plants:

Out there—[giving it with her hands] lies all that’s not been touched—lies life that waits. Back here—the old pattern, done again, again and again. So long done it doesn’t even know itself for a pattern—in immensity. But this—has invaded. Crept a little way into—what wasn’t.

Claire struggles for self-expression, but comes to realize that any form of expression—even the new and unexpected form—reduces life to a mold: “always smothering it with the word for it.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, in her last novel, the old Iowa farmer and journalist Judd Rankin says of his home place:

White men have been here only seventy years, and God knows they’ve had their hands full. It’s been a nose-to-the-grindstone life—and that’s made a grindstone people. Only it hasn’t! There is—much that waits. I’ve felt it in the silences between men, a man’s eyes when he doesn’t know you are looking. Sometimes you know that a dreamer is there—but in bondage; a bondage of—sheepishness, I think it is.

“There is—much that waits.” Silence in Glaspell can mean the failure or the suppression of speech, but it can also look forward to something still waiting to be expressed.