In advocating for the Prouty Garden, we get to meet and talk to many wonderful people, and hear many touching stories. Ahead of our landmark petition hearing, we were contacted by Jenny Thompson, a historian who has taken a special interest in Olive Higgins Prouty.
Jenny said, "How can I help?" And so we asked her to share more of Olive's background and her place in history. This led Jenny to pen a beautifully-written, scholarly article on Olive Higgins Prouty (who we affectionately call "OHP"), that we'd like to share with you today.
In case you were wondering, this was shared with the Commission prior to the hearing. It wasn't enough to change their minds, but we still share it in the hopes of honoring OHP's memory and furthering her legacy. We hope you will take time to read it and reflect on OHP's important place in American literary history.
“Working Hard for Something Worthwhile:”
A Portrait of Olive Higgins Prouty
by Jenny Thompson
“There are two things I want to avoid in my writing,” Olive Chapin Higgins Prouty (1882-1974) once said of her work, “sentimentality and melodrama.”1
Prouty, a successful writer who, over the course of her career, published ten novels, one collection of short stories, and a memoir,2 is best known for two works, Stella Dallas (1923) and Now, Voyager (1941), both of which were later made into films.3
Prouty’s above declaration was, no doubt, a reaction to the propensity of critics to deride novels written by women as little more than “romance” novels. Especially in the early part of the 20th century—the era when Prouty wrote—female writers operated beneath a shadow cast as far back as 1855 when Nathanial Hawthorne acidly described popular female novelists as “a damned mob of scribbling women.”4
It was not until 1921, when Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for a novel, that the stereotype was strongly (and publicly) challenged. This act of recognition underscored far more than a single remarkable writer’s talent. It also posed the idea that perhaps there were other women writing works of great literary merit. Although vast strides have been made in expanding recognition for women as writers since 1921, there remains a kind of void in the history of American literature when it comes to the female writers of the early 20th century. To be fair, at that time, all American writers battled against the charge that great literature had not yet been produced by such a young nation. (It was not until 1930 that an American writer, Sinclair Lewis, would receive a Nobel Prize for literature). But the American bestseller lists spanning 1900-1940 were replete with the names of female authors that have all but vanished from contemporary public consciousness (much less bookshelves). Among these are the names of prolific and wildly successful writers such as Kathleen Norris, Gertrude Atherton, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Fannie Hurst, and Olive Higgins Prouty.5
Their work is significant and deserves to be re-examined; in the scores of novels written by these once popular writers, one finds rich portraits of the lives of American women. Reading their long-forgotten novels today contributes to an understanding of the very nature of women’s lives in the early 20th century. As writers serious about their craft, these women brought to their work a point of view that was indeed distinctly female, and as such they took as the focus of their work the world(s) of the American woman. This was, after all, their “sphere,” and they subjected to scrutiny aspects of the traditionally “feminine realm”—domestic life, marriage, children, and romance. (And in some respects, their work provides a compendium of early 20th century material culture in their descriptions of clothing, food, transportation, and other minutia of everyday life.) But they also examined larger issues as they explored the social and cultural boundaries within which women existed at the time. Themes such as work, sex, money, power, poverty, politics, and art were all part of the substance of their books.
At the time they were produced, these novels had no shortage of readers. But along with the authors, the very audience itself (comprised primarily of female readers) was denigrated by some critics. “The commonplace woman is attracted by the illustrated dailies and weeklies,” one such critic wrote in 1918, “but she also needs large and continuous doses of religious sentimentality, of papier mache romance, briefly, of novels described in literary circles as ‘bilge.”6
Because these writers were so often labeled as writing sentimental or romance novels, their work was rarely taken seriously. In fact, many male critics saw fit to carry on in the tradition of Nathanial Hawthorne. “For most critics,” observed Blaine E. Taylor in an introduction to Olive Higgins Prouty’s memoir, Prouty’s “concentration on women struggling for freedom in a male dominated culture was not a ‘serious’ subject and her work has been unread and ignored.”7 Thus, Prouty and other female writers were relegated to the realm of the “popular.” Their works might be page-turners, and they might have been commercially successful, but they were not welcome into the (carefully guarded) realm of “literature.”
Still, their work should be required reading for any student of history. Not only do their books offer a glimpse into a time of transformation in American culture, but the lives of the writers themselves also offer a fascinating insight into what it took for women to pursue a career in writing in the early 20th century. At that time, few paths were open to women with literary ambitions, and in order to carry out one’s aspirations, one had to be determined.
Olive Higgins Prouty, born in 1882, was just such a woman. Although she would devote much of her life to her family, societal obligations, and philanthropic works, (as befit an upper class woman of her time), she would also spend a fair portion of her life trying to carve out the time and place to pursue something she loved: writing.
Born into a wealthy family in Worcester, Massachusetts, Prouty was afforded the (at the time) rare privilege of attending college. The “one and only reason” that she chose to go to college was to focus on her writing. After graduating from Smith College in 1904 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, she longed to break free of her hometown. “I can’t be a writer unless I have a little experience,” she remarked. “I must get away from Worcester and family and home-ties.”8 She was never able to follow through on her dream to move to New York City and was, instead, bound to the duties of home, dubbing herself “general manager” of the household.
Behind the closed door of her room in her family’s home, she continued to pursue what she called her “bent” for writing. Now she was sending out stories to various publications, using an assumed name.9 Although she determined to “postpone marriage” until she had written something of “commercial value,” she was being courted by Lewis Isaac Prouty (1872-1951), a member of a prominent Worcester family who ran the family’s profitable shoe manufacturing company.10 She loved Lewis, and, after a very long courtship, agreed to marry him in part out of fear she might lose him, but also spurred by his suggestion that after they were married she could enroll at Radcliffe College11 and study writing. They were married on June 7, 1907 and set up house in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Two years later, in 1909, Prouty’s short story, “When Elsie Came Home,” was published in The American Magazine. Editor Albert A. Boyden paid Prouty $75 for the story, and for the six years that they worked together, he encouraged her to keep writing.12 In fact, Boyden, who worked with a variety of important American writers, including Booth Tarkington and Ida Tarbell, was one of Prouty’s first champions. Later, she would work with other editors who also supported her work, among them John M. Siddall (1874-1923) of The American Magazine and Ferris Greenslet (1875-1959) an editor at Houghton Mifflin Company with whom Prouty worked for a quarter of a century.
Prouty was encouraged by these editors, but she still faced the difficulty of balancing her writing with a home life that must be managed. Her first child, Jane, was born the same year her first story was published; in 1912, when Jane was only a toddler, her son Richard was born. Raising her little brood, along with the tasks of household and husband, she faced the challenge that so many women confront: how to navigate life’s demands and find, as Virginia Woolf put it, “a room of one’s own.”13
Such a room is a physical space to be sure—a place removed from the strains (and noises!) of daily life. But it is also symbolic. It is a necessary place, defined and occupied by a woman herself within which she may take control of her life. There, she can be removed from the judgment of and discrimination toward women in general, but especially toward women writers. Prouty was well aware of the ways in which women writers were dismissed as “scribbling women.”14 And one of her greatest challenges throughout the course of her life was to learn how to carve out a space where she could be alone—unburdened by judgment— to write.15 It was only then, as she described, that “there would steal over me that feeling of detachment from my own personality and my own problems, so conducive to writing about another’s.”16
Her own experiences did, however, inform her writing. When she met with great tragedy, she would turn to writing to help her ease her pain. In the span of just four years, her two youngest daughters, Anne (born 1919) and Olivia (born 1921) both died. Anne died just after she was born (“unexpected and undiagnosed”), while Olivia would grow “old enough to walk, to talk, to have a personality” before she died of encephalitis at the age of 18 months.17
Just as Prouty was beset by grief and sorrow, she witnessed the rise of her career. In 1922, she published one of her most successful works, Stella Dallas,18 published in The American Magazine in serial form before being released as a novel in 1923. Her advance for the serial alone was $10,000.19
The book, an examination of a mother’s love and sacrifice, was intimately connected to Prouty’s loss of her two daughters, and may have partially helped her navigate through her grief. But through writing alone she was incapable of restoring her health entirely, and she suffered a “nervous breakdown,” to use the term popular at the time. She found treatment at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA. Dr. Austen Fox Riggs (1876-1940), a pioneer in what was known as “psychosomatic medicine,” helped her regain her health.20 Part of his treatment was to identify what lay beneath her emotional state. After working with her, he advised her no longer to look upon writing as a pastime. “When you leave here,” he told her, “I want you to hire a room outside your home and work there on your writing three or four hours daily, five days a week.” When she protested that this would be too much for a wife and mother, he retorted: “There it goes! That New England conscience of yours! You mustn’t let it lead you. You must get on the right end of the leash and lead it.” Madame Curie, he added, “managed to be a wonderful mother, wife and scientist—all three.”21
Prouty followed his advice. And finding a “room of her own” proved to be her oasis. Her first writing room (or work-room, as she called it, and she rented several throughout her career) was located in a “shabby hotel” on the north side of Beacon Hill behind the state house in Boston. Her second was in the Hotel Bellevue, next to the state house; and the third was found in the Eben Jordan residence22 on Beacon Street. The fourth was a room in the Chilton Club, a woman’s club, located at 152 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay.23
She was in the midst of writing what would become the second of her major successes, Now, Voyager, when she acquired a fifth work-room, one facing Copley Square, which she called her “ivory tower.” The room was in an office building that housed a secretarial school, offering an added convenience of finding typists for hire at any time. “Once the door was closed it had great charm for me,” Prouty wrote. “There was no sound of elevators, radios, or vacuum cleaners. There was a telephone but the number wasn’t listed. I was determined not to allow that room to become contaminated.”24
Her true-life experience in the sanatorium formed the basis for Now, Voyager. The novel was one of several in her series chronicling members of the Vale family. This one focused on Charlotte Vale, a woman who is oppressed by an overbearing mother and by society’s expectations. She breaks down, finds treatment, and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery. (“Now Voyager depart!” wrote Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, “(much, much for thee is yet in store).”)
The theme of self-discovery would reappear in many of Prouty’s novels. Prouty’s own life-quest to carve out time to serve her artistic and intellectual interests ran parallel to the lives of millions of women who also sought to give shape to their own lives. And indeed, her work as a whole offers insight into why so many women might have desired to embark on their own journeys of self-discovery to begin with.
As she chronicled the demands and challenges faced by women in the early 20th century, Prouty not only produced portraits of the intimate domestic aspects of a woman’s life, but also of the impact historic milestones in American history had on women, from the fight for suffrage to the experience of World War One to the age of the postwar “liberated” woman.
Prouty’s first novel, Bobbie, General Manager (1913) follows the trajectory of a young girl’s life as she grows into an adult and juggles the demands of family. In The Fifth Wheel (1915)25 the main character breaks from her family and the bonds of marriage to find herself making her own life in New York City. Not only does she find meaningful work, but she even becomes so bold as to take part in a suffrage parade (and rides a horse down the street). Dismayed by her action, her brother lectures her, observing that freedom is “a dangerous thing for women.” She responds:
[M]y own history proves just the opposite. . . . Once I had no excuse for existence unless I married. My efforts were narrowed to that one accomplishment. I sought marriage, desperately, to escape the stigma of becoming a superfluous and unoccupied female. Today if I marry it will be in answer to my great desire, and, whether married or not, a broader outlook and a deeper appreciation are mine. I believe that working hard for something worthwhile pays dividends to a woman always.26
In Conflict (1927), a woman finds herself in an unhappy marriage, unfulfilled and out of touch with the dreams she had for her life. Foreshadowing Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager, she suffers a breakdown and finds solace at a sanatorium in the care of a psychologist. There, she finds herself again and awakens in nature. “Now, burrowing her finger-tips down through the thick, tufted grass till they found the cool, coarse soil, she fancied that she was drinking of the hill’s strength, through her fingers, as the hardy little asters surrounding her drank through their roots, or the sturdy junipers, or the two rugged pines that stood like guards above her bed.”27
Prouty’s prose and plots are rooted in her age, and her work reflects the challenges faced by women born into a particular historic moment, a time when the act of defining one’s life as a woman was not so easily done. As Blaine E. Taylor observed, the restraints on women often caused them to express “only half the genius they possessed.”28
The recurrent themes in Prouty’s novels—themes that were woven through her very own life—provide a portrait of women’s lives in the early 20th century. These stories are indeed “women’s stories,” and it is owing to that very fact that they ought to be re-visited, to be rescued from obscurity and examined in the light of the present day. After all, the struggles that Prouty chronicled reflected the very real limitations faced by women at the time. In a sense, her work is a documentary of an era, deeply rooted in a time that preceded what is popularly known as the “women’s rights movement” of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, her work speaks to the continuation of the struggle for women’s rights, begun long before Prouty ever set pen to paper.
“I’m so convinced,” says the main character, Ruth, in The Fifth Wheel, “that wider activities and broader outlooks for women generally are a wise thing, that if I had a fortune left me I would spend it in establishing trade-schools in little towns all over the country, like the Carnegie libraries, so that all girls could have easy access to self-support. I’d make it the custom for girls to have a trade as well as an education and athletic and parlor accomplishments. I’d unhamper women in every way I knew how, give them a training to use modern tools, and then I’d give them the tools. They won’t tear down homes with them. Don’t be afraid of that. Instinct is too strong. They’ll build better ones.”29
Prouty’s own search for a room of her own found her creating spaces for others to inhabit, whether fictional or physical, such as the garden she helped create and which she endowed at Boston Children’s Hospital. Created in loving memory of her two daughters, Anne and Olivia, the garden was a healing space. Prouty described it simply:
“It is a walled garden. The paths are hard-topped and gentle-sloped for the wheeled chairs and wheeled beds. There is a flag-stoned terrace off the nurses’ dining-room with umbrella-ed tables. There’s a pool, a fountain, a bronze statue of St. Francis lent by the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and a bird-bath. There are birds. There are trees. There are flowers. There are children. Perpetual children.”30
The idea that Prouty’s works have been all but forgotten, and now that the garden she helped bring into being, (relying on some of America’s most talented and significant landscape designers31) is far more than a shame. Forgetting and destroying are acts that re-commit us to the idea that such work does not matter, that the garden (or Prouty’s writing) is purely “sentimental” and of no lasting value; in essence, both acts silence the past; and they silence Prouty herself, recommitting her to obscurity at the very moment she justly deserves to take her place in the cultural canon.
Indeed, both forgetting and destroying are acts that go against the tide of history: among the academic community, as well as within the sphere of public history, there is a great effort being made to preserve and restore the significant cultural works of the last century, particularly those made by women. In particular, the movement toward historic preservation of women’s history sites (public and urban landscapes, for example) is notable in relation to the Prouty Garden. At a time when there is momentum to preserve “women’s history as a part of public culture” and to “restore the memory of women’s lives and work in the public landscape,”32 a decision to save the Prouty Garden would affirm the past while still very much moving forward. Allowing for the continued existence of a precious and meaningful piece of greensward within Boston, a city so richly endowed with history, would be a brave and generous gesture toward Prouty herself. Saving the garden would be like finding that precious “room of one’s own,” and ensuring that it will remain, quiet and peaceful, an affirmation to all of those who seek self- expression and inspiration.
Works by Olive Higgins Prouty
1913 Bobbie, General, Manager
1915 The Fifth Wheel
1918 Star in the Window
1919 Good Sports (short stories)
1922 Stella Dallas
1931 White Fawn
1938 Lisa Vale
1941 Now, Voyager
1947 Home Port
1961 Pencil Shavings (memoir)
1997 Between the Barnacles and Bayberries, and Other Poems, a limited edition
About the author:
A graduate of San Francisco State University, Jenny Thompson holds an M.A. in American Studies from the George Washington University and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland. She has taught courses in American history and culture at the University of Maryland and at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Her work focuses on 20th and 21st century American history and culture, the cultural history of American wars, and the history of images. Her publications include War Games: Inside the World of 20th Century War Reenactors (Smithsonian Books), My Hut: A Memoir of a YMCA Volunteer in World War One (editor), Evanston: A Tour Through the City’sHistory (editor), and The First Fifty Years: A History of Alpha Phi Fraternity, 1872-1922 (Friesens Press). Her essays and reviews have appeared in various anthologies and publications, including The New York Times. She currently serves as Director of Education at the Evanston History Center and works as a consultant on a variety of public history projects. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
1 Olive Higgins Prouty, Pencil Shavings. (Second Edition, 1985). Worcester, MA: Commonwealth Press, 1961, 154.
2 Prouty privately published a memoir, Pencil Shavings, in 1961. In 1985, the Goddard Library at Clark University in Worcester, MA, issued a second edition of the book, along with a volume of Prouty’s previously unpublished poetry, Between the Barnacles and Bayberries, The Collected Poetry of Olive Higgins Prouty. Clark University holds Prouty’s papers, which were donated to the library in 1975. The collection included many items that were sealed until the 21st century. The entire collection is now open to researchers. Blaine E. Taylor, the library’s director at the time, wrote the introduction to the second edition of Pencil Shavings.
3 Stella Dallas was brought to the screen three times; in 1925, as a silent film; in a 1937 version starring Barbara Stanwyck; and in 1990, as Stella, starring Bette Midler. Now Voyager, starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid, was released in 1942. In 2007, the Library of Congress inducted the film into its National Film Registry.
4 Quoted in John L. Idol Jr., and Melinda M. Ponder, ed., Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, 21.
5 At one time, Norris (1880-1966) was the highest paid fiction writer in the U.S. She published roughly 80 novels. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Atherton (1857-1948) published more than 50 novels; Fisher (1879-1958) published at least 15 novels, along with many more non-fiction works and short story collections; Hurst (1889-1968) wrote numerous popular novels including the bestseller Imitation of Life (1933).
6 Walter Lionel George, A Novelist on Novels. London: W. Collins Sons, 1918, 11.
7 Blaine E. Taylor, Introduction. Pencil Shavings, xxviii.
8 Pencil Shavings, 108, 114.
9 Pencil Shavings, 123.
10 The Prouty Shoe Manufacturing Company. New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial. Volume 4. Edited by William Richard Cutter Vol. 4. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1914, 2313.
11 Radcliffe was Harvard University’s “sister” school. Opened in 1894, it was an outgrowth of the Harvard Annex, a course of study offered to women owing to the fact that Harvard Univeristy was closed to women (and would remain all male until 1943). Prouty did indeed study writing at Radcliffe. Enrolled in a class taught by John Hays Gardiner, assistant professor of English, Prouty found herself in a setting she described as “marvelously reviving.” Pencil Shavings, 125.
12 Pencil Shavings, 128-129.
13 Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own,” London: Hogarth Press, 1929.
14 Much has been written about the writer Sylvia Plath’s negative characterization of Prouty as the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty was a strong supporter of Plath as a writer. Plath would receive a scholarship at Smith College endowed by Prouty, and the two women knew each other personally. Prouty supported (and helped pay for) Plath’s treatment after she suffered a nervous breakdown. Connie Ann Kirk, Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, 38, 56. The relationship between Prouty and Plath has been examined by numerous scholars and it appears that it was far more complex than Plath’s literary characterization of Prouty suggests. In fact, Plath referred to Prouty as her “literary mother.” Steven Gould Axelrod, “The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath,” in American Poetry Review, March-April 1985, reprinted in Linda Wagner-Martin, ed, Sylvia Plath. New York: Routledge, 1997, 316.
15 In Pencil Shavings, Prouty titled one chapter “A Room of My Own.”
16 Pencil Shavings, 183.
17 Pencil Shavings, 145.
18 Along with three film versions of Stella Dallas, a play and a radio series based on Stella Dallas were produced over the years. Prouty did not at all like the radio series. It was far removed from her original book and paled in comparison to the original story.
19 Pencil Shavings, 155.
20 “Dr. Austen Fox Riggs,” Psychosomatic Medicine, April 1940, 228.
21 Pencil Shavings, 181.
22 46-47 Beacon Street. In 1924, the Jordan family sold the much remodeled property to the Women’s Republican Club of Massachusetts. Eben Jordan, Sr. was the co-founder of the Boston Department Store, Jordan, Marsh and Co. and of the Boston Globe. Robert E. Guarino, Beacon Street: Its Buildings and Residents. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011, 117-118.
23 Pencil Shavings, 181.
24 Pencil Shavings, 200.
25 Prior to the publication of the novel, The Fifth Wheel, the story was published in serial form in several issues of The American Magazine, 1915-1916. Many of Prouty’s books were first published in serial form prior to the book’s release. Both the book and serial version of The Fifth Wheel were illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg.
26 Olive Higgins Prouty, The Fifth Wheel. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1916, 289.
27 Olive Higgins Prouty, Conflict. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927, 195.
28 Blaine E. Taylor, Introduction. Pencil Shavings, xiii-xiv.
29 The Fifth Wheel, 289-290.
30 Pencil Shavings, 204.
31 Prouty was responsible for contracting with the Olmsted Brothers firm to design the garden. Founded by Frederick Law Olmsted (designer, with Calvert Vaux, of New York City’s Central Park among many other projects), the firm is today considered one of the most important landscape architect firms in the world. The project designer was one of the firms well known partners, Edward Clark Whiting (1881-1962). Whiting had worked on the Proutys’ own garden, “Wishingstone” (and the Olmsted Brothers firm worked on many other projects for the Proutys over the years). The garden was modeled after the Museum of Modern Art’s terrace and garden. The firm of landscape architects Shurcliff and Merrill completed the project, and it opened in October 1956, supported by an endowment from the Prouty family.
32 Dolores Hayden, “The Power of Place Project: Claiming Women’s History in the Urban Landscape” in Restoring Women’s History Through Historic Preservation, ed. Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer B. Goodman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, 199, 213.