Susan Glaspell was an American playwright and novelist, best known for Trifles, a one-act play loosely based on John Hossack’s murder case. The Pulitzer-winning dramatist is famous for her contributions to the feminist movement in the early 20th century and the establishment of the Provincetown Players, a non-commercial theatre company consisting of amateur artists, actors, and writers. In her literary and dramatic works, the Midwestern author raised awareness of women’s rights and gender inequality by introducing the characters who resisted oppression in a male-dominated society (Ismael and Jassim 1). The purpose of the following research paper is to analyze the biography of Susan Glaspell and identify her sources of inspiration and personal experience with social issues.
Early Years and Midwestern Influence
The writer’s traditional upbringing in a rural setting significantly impacted her career and commitment to social justice. Susan was born in 1876 in Davenport, Iowa, and raised on a remote farm near the town, where she learned to appreciate hard work and education (Ben-Zvi 22). The traditions of the era also affected the author’s childhood, as her mother was a proponent of conservative upbringing and encouraged Susan to regularly attend the church. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which was organized in 1876, celebrated the era of new technologies, inventions, advertising, and unlimited possibilities of 19th-century America (Ben-Zvi 3). The impact of modernization caused farms to become obsolete and replaced with new residential developments. However, the girl was proud of her pioneer ancestors, and Susan’s understanding of the world was shaped by her grandmother’s stories about American settlers and Indians.
The presence of female authority figures in the family determined Glaspell’s focus on the issues of women’s rights. The author’s grandmother, Susan Glaspell, who lived until the age of eighty-nine, was a pioneer feminist and her primary role model because of the woman’s seemingly boundless youthful energy, power, and vitality. Alice Keating Glaspell, Susan’s mother, was a school teacher and a person who had a great influence on the future playwright and encouraged her to pursue a literary career. Alice grew up without a father and advised her daughter against getting married, as she considered a husband as a potential obstacle for Susan’s talent and success. The characters in her works, The Verge and The Comic Artist, display the complexity of the relationships between women. Thus, from her childhood years, Susan Glaspell learned to satisfy the expectations of her mother and grandmother, so she prioritized career and independence over marriage and translated her feminist upbringing into short stories and plays.
Education and Journalistic Career
Glaspell resisted conforming with the conventional roles of 19th-century women and pursued higher education. In 1899, she graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she earned a philosophy degree, published several short stories, and worked as a local college correspondent (Nemo and Glaspell). The college experience introduced the author to journalism and helped her reserve the position of a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News upon graduation (Ben-Zvi 22). While working as a reporter at Des Moines Register in 1900, Glaspell covered the murder case of John Hossack that served as an inspiration for her 1916 play Trifles (Black). The criminal case suggests that Hossack’s wife, Margaret, was initially declared innocent, but the authorities sentenced her to life imprisonment. Glaspell sympathized with Margaret, the victim of domestic violence, and commemorated her experience in Trifles (1917), featuring a victimized female character (Ismael and Jassim 2). She eventually returned to Davenport and managed to publish her hometown-inspired stories in major magazines, such as Harper’s and the American, before leaving journalism to become a full-time fiction writer.
Marriage and involvement in feminism
In Davenport, Glaspell met George Cram Cook, or “Jig,” a professor of English literature. Her marriage to Cook was controversial because he was a twice-divorced man, and she kept her own family name, which was considered unusual at the time (Jouve 3). The woman moved to the Greenwich Village in New York City to escape gossip about her allegedly immoral relationship. There she joined two prominent feminist debating groups: Heterodoxy and the Lucy Stone League, broadening her worldview and impacting her writing (Black). George was another major influence on Susan’s career because he encouraged her to assist amateur writers by helping them produce plays. Together they established the influential non-commercial theatre company called Provincetown Players in 1915 (Gainor 10). George’s support in playwriting allowed his wife to earn a living from producing short stories and novels and enjoy financial autonomy (Jouve 3). Thus, the creative collaboration with Cook offered Glaspell the opportunity to focus on writing and become a productive novelist.
The couple had problems associated with George’s past marriages and the differences between the members of the unconventional family of dramatists. The suffragist movement and interwar years redefined Susan’s understanding of a domestic space, and she perceived it as a war-like home front, which is evident from her works (Klein et al. 46). In numerous interviews, the novelist mentioned that George forced her into writing Trifles, which the woman viewed as a threat to her independence (Ben-Zvi 172). Living with a feminist activist writing about tragic female characters might have been challenging for Jig, who was egoistic and insensitive to the needs of others (Ben-Zvi 110). Moreover, Susan’s weak health manifested in her heart problems and fertility issues. Cook had a daughter, Nilla, from his second marriage, who blamed Susan for her parents’ divorce. Glaspell wanted to have a family of her own but suffered multiple miscarriages, which placed a heavy emotional burden on the married couple.
Later Years and Death
Susan Glaspell was considered a successful writer in her time for her tragic portrayal of women’s hardships and their downfall. Her novels, The Visioning and Fidelity, received critical praise from The New York Times, and the writer gained recognition as an influential American novelist. Her most popular works are dedicated to the survival of women in a patriarchal society and their protest against discrimination and limitations imposed by powerful males. Nevertheless, Susan Glaspell’s first best-selling novel, The Glory of the Conquered (1909), is free of gender issues, as it narrates a romantic story of a blind scientist and his wife (Jouve 3). Prior to World War II, the dramatist realized the power of literature and wanted to use it as a weapon for fighting political oppression and eradicating tyranny. In 1924, a year after Cook’s death, Susan began the relationship with a young writer Norman Matson (Ben-Zvi 303). Despite Norman’s allegedly parasitic lifestyle, Susan’s work issues were related to the deaths of her mother and her friend Katie, as well as her own declining health leading to her death in 1948 (Ben-Zvi 328). Glaspell suffered from stomach cancer and died of pneumonia complications in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
In conclusion, Susan Glaspell was a prominent novelist, playwright, and feminist activist, whose personality and career were shaped by her Midwestern upbringing and the influence of strong female figures. The controversial marriage to George Cook provided the author with a chance to combine independent short story writing with dramatic activities and help amateur playwrights gain recognition. Glaspell’s journalistic work and her contribution to modern American literature and theatre were praised by critics and contemporaries.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Black, Cheryl. “Susan Glaspell, Pioneering Playwright of Midwestern Roots and Modernist Invention.” Purdue University, Web.
Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theatre, Culture, and Politics, 1915–48. University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Ismael, Zaid Ibrahim, and Jinan Waheed Jassim. “Moving Out of the Attic: Susan Glaspell and the American She-Tragedy.” English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2018, pp. 1–7.
Jouve, Emeline. Susan Glaspell’s Poetics and Politics of Rebellion. University of Iowa Press, 2017.
Klein, Emily, et al., editors. Performing Dream Homes: Theatre and the Spatial Politics of the Domestic Sphere. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Nemo, August, and Susan Glaspell. Essential Novelists – Susan Glaspell. The Complexity of Womanhood. Tacet Books, 2019.