Susan Glaspell’s life and work (1876-1948) reflected the dramatic changes of the early and middle 20th century. As opportunities for women began to slowly expand, she jumped at every offer that came her way. Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, but she lived most of her adult life on the East Coast. She became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, also known for her short stories, acting, and co-founding of the groundbreaking Provincetown Theater on Cape Cod. Her innovative writing explored women’s domestic lives and emotions, and gave a new importance to daily family life. In “A Jury of her Peers,” her most widely read short story published in 1917 (and earlier dramatized in her 1916 play Trifles), Glaspell reversed the male view of the “insignificance of kitchen things.” Two farm women cleverly solve a murder mystery by their keen focus on everyday kitchen items and utensils. These two women discover clues that the abused wife has murdered her violent husband. To protect the wife from harsh legal punishment, they hide evidence to ensure that she will not be convicted in a court of law. Glaspell placed importance on the home and the power of women, and her early readers were both amused and surprised by this new perspective.
Glaspell married at age 37 and became the third wife of George Cram (“Jig”) Cook. Their marriage was an equitable and creative partnership for the time, although Glaspell was sometimes plagued by Jig’s drinking and infidelity. Jig was also a dynamic playwright, producer, and director, and together they produced many plays and nurtured other young writers. Despite her flourishing career, Glaspell yearned to become a mother. Unfortunately, she suffered multiple miscarriages and understood that she would never become a biological mother. In 1913, after one devastating miscarriage, Glaspell recalls (in her biography of Jig, The Road to the Temple) the terrible details:
But the doctor is not jovial that day in the fall. The other doctor is out of town – no one to give an anesthetic; the nurse has not come from Boston. Jig helps the doctor. I was turned the other way, but saw his face in the glass, as he was carrying things away…. “Another time,” we said. “It will be different another time.”
It was not “different another time” and she suffered her final miscarriage in 1914. Glaspell sadly wrapped and put away the gifts of baby clothes, saving them until the end of her life. When friends tried to comfort Glaspell by telling her, “You have your work. Your books are your children, aren’t they?” She writes in response, “And you look at the diapers airing by the fire, and wonder if they really think you are like that….” (The Road to the Temple) Glaspell refuted her friends’ comments, but did go on to find many ways to build a new kind of family. She channeled her maternal energies into her roles as stepmother, godmother, and author of a children’s story, all while becoming a vital leader of the Provincetown Theater and artist colony. She inspired readers, audiences, and friends to find solace in their own lives.
After the miscarriages, she wrote to her father, “Things that we love can be taken away from us; but what that loving had made of us is a thing we do not lose.” In her wisdom, she saw that her tragic losses shaped her character and writing, and led her to explore broader ideas of family. She recalled of her Provincetown artist colony:
We were supposed to be a sort of “special” group – radical, wild, Bohemians, we have 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 … Most of us were from families who had other ideas—who wanted to make money, played bridge… And so, drawn together by the thing we really were, were as a new family… (The Road to the Temple)
In this progressive community of writers and artists, she found the “old things” in a new way. As with any group, the later years brought some friction and fights within the tight-knit community. Nevertheless, the colony functioned as a close and warm family of neighbors and friends for many years of Glaspell’s life.
Glaspell also found deep satisfaction in her role as a committed and caring stepmother (and step-grandmother) to Jig’s children from an earlier marriage. She worked hard to establish relationships with her stepchildren, Nilla and Harl, and eventually Nilla’s son Sirius. Nilla could be a difficult and resentful adolescent, but she needed Glaspell’s guidance and refuge as she shuttled between divorced parents on opposite sides of the country. Glaspell was well-suited to her parenting role, and provided boundaries and security for her stepchildren, even as she dealt with her own increasing health problems and excessive drinking.
After her husband Jig died in 1924, Nilla and Harl continued to spend much time with Glaspell in Provincetown, until Nilla eventually pulled away because of her turbulent romantic relationships. Still, Glaspell continued to provide support to Harl and Sirius. After Sirius went off to Greece for many years, he returned to Glaspell when he needed to prepare for his Harvard education. Like any family matriarch, she weathered the ups and downs in her stepchildren’s (and step-grandson’s) lives, as she dealt with her own aging and medical problems.
In 1931, Glaspell was only the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for her play Alison’s House. This prize came with bitter and heated backlash against her. Her depictions of unconventional relationships, marriages, and family lives were sometimes disdained and judged inconsequential by critics and readers. However, in 1935, she was selected to a leadership position with the Federal Theater Project, in recruiting new playwrights and finding worthy manuscripts for theater production. Throughout all of this prodigious work, she suffered health problems and would sometimes think back about her painful miscarriages and losses. The loss was triggered most terribly when her lover Norman Matson, a writer 17 years her junior, left her for a teenaged pregnant girlfriend. At the time of their break-up, she was 56 years old. In her notebook, Glaspell wrote about “his leaving her for one who is younger and can give him the other things he wants.” Implicit in this statement is her inability to give him a child.
Again, Glaspell found meaning in her pain by helping another woman. A young woman associated with the Provincetown colony, Francelina Sousa Hubbard (relative of composer and conductor John Philip Sousa) found herself divorced and pregnant. Glaspell hired her, loaned her money, and gave her the cherished baby clothes she’d packed away 27 years earlier. In later interviews, Francelina recalls Glaspell retrieving the clothes from an old wooden chest and airing them on the line, and telling her, “Take them. It will make me very happy to think someone is putting them to use.” In her life and writing, Glaspell deeply understood the complexity of women’s lives and put her words into action.
Eight years before her death, Glaspell became the godmother and namesake of a baby girl, Susan Marie Meyer, daughter of another young Provincetown friend. Inspired by the little girl, Glaspell wrote a beautiful children’s Christmas story, “Cherished and Shared of Old,” published in Redbook magazine in 1940.
This story of an empty-nester mother who takes in two refugee children during World War II has many parallels to today’s politics. On a personal level, Glaspell tells us how children, even if not one’s biological children, can bring joy and heal wounds. In the story, the children fill a void in the mother’s life and reconnect her to estranged neighbors. Glaspell writes that the old pain and anger left, “But something else came flooding into that moment: It was the children had done this. The children whom hate had driven here – brought love. Like a miracle it seemed.” Glaspell sees how all women’s lives are connected by shared experiences, and that by helping each other, everyone’s lives are improved.
Glaspell writes of these shared experiences in Trifles, “I know how things can be—for women … 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…” The two women in Glaspell’s play know that women share a bond of understanding about domestic life: children, marriage, and “kitchen things.” One of the characters sadly reveals, “I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died—after he was two years old, and me with no other then—” Glaspell is clearly writing about her own suffering here, in a way that provides meaning for all women and readers. Her writing takes the personal and makes it universal, in her deep knowledge of “how things can be—for women.” This was her great gift to all of us.
For several decades, Glaspell and her books faded from the public domain and memory. Fortunately, her life and work have been rediscovered. In the 1970’s, several female scholars stumbled across her writing while researching other better-known authors. These women recognized the value of this literature and they began to research and write about her life, plays, and stories. As a result, her work is now found in anthologies of important short stories and plays. Her words seem as fresh and relevant today as ever before. She showed how to create family and honor the ordinary lives of women, through the bonds of friends and extended families. She continues to inspire and instruct her readers on the “same things” that unite all women.