Friday, June 24, 2016

Pride Month Profile: Helen Santmyer, irked by Sinclair Lewis, got the last word


Helen Hooven Santmyer (1895-1986)
Author, educator

In the annals of improbably famous American writers, Helen Hooven Santmyer rests in the pantheon. Her novel, ...And the Ladies of the Club, became a New York Times best-seller when she was 88 years old.

She was born in Cincinnati. Her father was, variously, a medical student, a traveling drug company rep, assistant auditor for Greene County, Ohio, and manager of a rope-making factory in Xenia, Ohio, where Santmyer grew up. After reading Little Women in 1904, she became a voracious reader, tearing through every book in the house. Then she decided she would be a writer, turning out poems and keeping a journal. Her mother encouraged her, setting up a writing room for her in the family home.

Helen was a bright girl, and on graduating high school- and recovering from typhoid- went to Wellesley. Her writing flourished, she graduated with honors in 1918, and emerged- like so many women in her time, with one foot in a feminist future, the other in a present that limited women, mostly, to housekeeping and childbearing. She swore never to marry, and smoked and drank, but when family called, she always returned home.

But at 23, Santmyer was determined to storm New York. She worked for a suffragist organization (“They considered a day lost when they hadn’t succeeded in getting into jail,” said Santmyer, a staunch Republican for most of her life. “My own approach is to avoid getting into jail”), and as secretary to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, then had to return to Xenia for a year to care for her ailing mother. She taught high school English, then returned to Wellesley for a two-year job.

In 1924 she landed a place to study literature at Oxford University. Many of her biographies claim her as one of the first women Rhodes Scholars. That stretches the facts a bit. Though the first women’s college opened in 1879, the University considered the idea so exotic it was not until 1920 that women in the then-four colleges were granted degree-earning status as full students. The Rhodes Trust- carried into law by Parliament- made clear the founders’ restriction of his scheme to men, and it was not until the late 1960s that American schools and women’s groups began lobbying the Trust to include women.

While expressing sympathy for the calls, the Trustees pointed out the practical difficulties- getting Parliament to amend the Trust law for starters. In addition, as one history puts it, “As there were only five women’s colleges, compared to 26 for men, Oxford could offer about a fifth as many places to women as to men.  To accept female Rhodes Scholars from overseas would be to deny a number of already coveted places to highly competent British women.  Oxford, the Trustees claimed, was simply not “in a position to offer hospitality to women from overseas on the same generous terms it can offer to men from overseas.”

Only after a Labor government passed an equality act in 1973 could the trustees find the support to get the Trust amended; in 1974, four Oxford men’s colleges went co-ed. Each college had it own statutes governing admission, some dating back centuries; but the once the parliamentary logjam broke, the first women Rhodes Scholars arrived in 1977. By 1979 every college in the university had gone co-ed.

Santmyer graduated with a bachelor of letters degree (she called it an invention “for American students who already had their bachelor's”) in English literature, producing a five-hundred-plus-page thesis on Clare Reeve, an 18th century novelist whose Gothic horror tale, The Old English Baron, influenced Mary Shelley in forming the plot for Frankenstein.

Santmyer’s first novel, Herbs and Apples, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1925; her second, a Gothic-tinged family drama titled The Fierce Dispute, came out in 1929. Neither made much of a wave in American letters. Half a century later,  she dismissed them as  ''youthful,'' adding, ''I would just as soon forget them.''

But they won her a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in 1930, and she began a series of sketches of life in Xenia. Santmyer also began blocking out a novel covering the lives of a group of small-town Ohio women between 1868 and 1932. Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 skewering of small-town life, Main Street, irritated the hell out of her, she told The New York Times in 1984:

'I remember feeling ready to contradict everything Sinclair Lewis had said. It was a good book but it was prejudiced. Not all small towns are wonderful, but I'd rather live in a small town than a big city, any day.

But progress was slow; she had to make a living. The Depression killed her father’s business. He sold the family home and they tried a fresh start in Orange, California, for three years. Her brother-in-law bought the house back in 1932, and the Santmyers returned to Xenia.

In 1935 Santmyer joined the faculty of Cedarville College as dean of students and professor of English. As might be expected of a woman who lived with another woman in that time, students remembered her is distant, a bit forbidding- even strange- and a perfectionist who expected the same of her students. She kept publishing, mostly articles and poetry, in The Atlantic, Scribner's Magazine, Midland, and Antioch Review.

Santmyer remained at Cedarville- her tenure interrupted by a number of illnesses- until the Baptists bought the college in 1953, demanding that all the employees and faculty join their denomination. Santmyer resigned, and, through her companion since 1926, Mildred Sandoe, became the reference librarian in Dayton, Ohio.


He parents died in the mid-1950s, and Santmyer retired in 1959. Back in the family home, aided by “Miss Sandoe,” she finally had time to write. Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia, was published by Ohio State University Press in 1963, and won critical praise in the region. Her riposte to Sinclair Lewis took another decade to finish. Chain-smoking Chesterfields, she cranked out a giant manuscript, not even showing it to Miss Sandoe until she was done.

Her health began to fail; there were eight spells in a local hospital and nursing home between her 80th and 85th birthdays. She sent the manuscript- in eleven boxes- to Ohio State to see if they’d be interested. They had done well by her with Ohio Town a decade before, so she thought they deserved a first look.

They were, though they asked her to pare down the sprawling tale a bit. Santmyer dictated changes to Miss Sandoe from her hospital bed, and the 1394-page, $35 novel, ...And The Ladies of the Club came out in 1982. It sold only a few hundred copies commercially; the rest were bought by Ohio libraries.

Blind in one eye, suffering from emphysema, a wisp of a woman at 83 pounds, Helen Santmyer seemed set to live out her days in obscurity, Miss Sandoe a few doors down the hall. “Here,” she said,  “time just doesn't matter, but I'm not doing any writing now. I think age excuses me from making any more effort.''

Then, unknown to Santmyer, things began to happen. The New York Times described the improbable chain of events this way:

The book gained a new lease on life when Grace Sindell, a resident of Shaker Heights, Ohio, overheard a woman tell a librarian that ''. . . And Ladies of the Club'' was the best novel she had ever read. Intrigued, Mrs. Sindell checked the book out and finally persuaded her son, Gerald, a Los Angeles director, writer and producer, to read it.

''Usually by the time my parents give me a book, it's already been bought for movies or television,'' Mr. Sindell said yesterday. ''I couldn't find the book here in Los Angeles, so I finally had to get it from Ohio State.''

Mr. Sindell showed it to Stanley Corwin, a Los Angeles producer who formerly was president of Pinnacle Books and a vice president of Grosset & Dunlap and of Prentice-Hall.

''I hadn't read very far when I realized this was a special kind of book and that it needed to come out as a book that other than librarians would see,'' Mr. Corwin said yesterday. He and Mr. Sindell flew to Ohio and acquired from Ohio State University Press all world publication, television and motion-picture rights to the book. Mr. Corwin contacted his college classmate and friend, Owen Laster, the head of the literary department at the William Morris Agency in New York City, and the agent for James A. Michener, Gore Vidal and Robert Penn Warren.

Mr. Laster also thought the book was special. ''When I heard about how Miss Santmyer had been working on it for so many years, I knew that this was a book that had some wonderful things surrounding it,'' he said. ''But when I read it, I was overwhelmed with its quality, and I sensed that this book could have a second life and I wanted to help give it that.''

Mr. Laster took the book to Phyllis Grann, president and publisher of Putnam's, who was initially concerned about the book's bulk. ''But not after I had read the first 25 pages,'' she said. ''After that I knew I just could not not buy it.''

Mrs. Grann, who edits such authors as Frank Herbert, Robin Cook and Dick Francis, said that she made the decision to acquire the book solely on the basis of its literary merit. ''Even before we sold it to Book-of-the- Month, I felt it was such a mesmerizing book that we had to do it,'' she said. ''Publishers can't always worry about money, and if you do pay attention to the bottom line, you have the luxury every once in a while of indulging your taste.''

Putnam’s published the four-pound novel- 350 pages longer than Gone With The Wind, at 600,000 words, as long as War and Peace- in early 1984. Critics panned it.  "The book is relentlessly dull...reading it becomes a chore ..." The New York Times said of Santmyer's multigenerational saga of Republican politics, weddings and county fairs, adultery and small-town bigotry.

Even Santmyer thought her magnum opus no masterpiece. "I don't think it's that good," she told an interviewer. "And I don't think it's that important. To be important a book has got to have something dramatic in it."

The public thought differently. The Putnam edition sold 162,000 hardcover copies and reached #1 during its 37 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. A paperback version sold a million copies.  The Book of the Month Club named it a Main Selection.

Her old books were republished; People magazine ran a profile. Only a mystery novel, The Hall with Eight Doors, remained unpublished. In an interview, Santmyer quipped, “Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I’m such an old lady.”

After two years of celebrity, she died in 1986, at ninety years of age. Miss Sandoe- born in 1900- lived to see her 94th year. In 1906, the eleven-year-old Helen Santmyer wrote in her diary, "When I am famous someone will want to write my life. I hope it will be done before I die. I would like to read it--they can write about my death in an appendix afterward."

And that was how it turned out. Her official biography, Early Promise, Late Reward, was published for her centenary in 1995. Her last published work, a novella written in the 1930s, she forgot having produced. A niece remembered it and recovered it from her papers. Published in 1988, it was a grace note to the small-town, midwestern life of the late 19th and early 20th century Helen Santmyer sought to preserve: Farewell Summer.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #HelenHoovenSantmyer #AndThe LadiesoftheClub

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.