Friday, March 2, 2018

Women's History Month Birthday Book: "It is a racking thing to have a plague of ideas and no chance to get rid of them on paper. I've nearly gone mad at times."


Nowadays, children’s lit is the province of celebrities. Once it was one of a full palate of options to which American authors turned to make a living. One of the most remarkable was Inez Leonore Haynes Gillmore Irwin, whose fifteen volume Maida series delighted generations and readers- and her publishers- for nearly fifty years.

Inez Haynes was one of her father’s seventeen children by two wives, and was born in Rio de Janeiro in March 2, 1873. The family decamped there from Boston after one of the US economy’s periodic business depressions knocked the family business sideways; Brazil offered a much lower cost of living as well as some distance from the most insistent creditors.

Eventually the family returned, and Haynes did her college education at Radcliffe from 1897 to 1900. She became a feminist there, and a founder of the College Equal Suffrage League.

She married an editor, Rufus Gillmore, and they lived the progressive high life with regular visits to Paris and their friends among the Impressionists and exiled Russian revolutionaries. Her first novel came out in 1908, and the next year she published Maida’s Little Shop, the tale of a little girl, daughter of a wealthy widower, who did good deeds while keeping secret her own social standing. She was fiction editor for The Masses, a left-wing magazine.

Haynes and Gillmore divorced, and in 1916 she married the muckraking journalist and editor Will Irwin. They moved to Europe as war correspondents; afterward, Irwin served on the executive committee of Herbert Hoover’s European food relief efforts.


Home in America, Inez Irwin redoubled her efforts for feminist causes, serving on the advisory council of the National Women’s Party and issuing a constant stream of books, essays and articles. Even the Maida books contained a bracing strain of non-traditional thinking in her diminutive heroine.

They settled in the Bay area, Will’s home turf. Inez adored it:

California, where the spring comes in the fall and the fall comes in the summer and the summer comes in the winter and the winter never comes at all … Whatever San Francisco is or is not, it is never dull. Life there is in a perpetual ferment. It is as though the city kettle had been set on the stove to boil half a century ago and had never been taken off. The steam is pouring out of the nose. The cover is dancing up and down. The very kettle is rocking and jumping. But by some miracle the destructive explosion never happens.

Irwin’s endlessly-creative mind spanned most genres; a 1914 scifi novel reimagined Gulliver’s Travels by marooning a crew of men on an island inhabited by winged women. Angel Island wore well enough to be republished in 1988 with a preface by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Irwin won the O. Henry Prize for best short story in 1924 and in 1931 was the first woman elected president of the Writers Guild of America.

The Irwins retired to Martha’s Vineyard, where Will died in 1948. Inez lived to see the next wave of American feminism in full cry before she died, at 97, in 1970.

Henry Bemis celebrates the life and work of Inez Haynes Irwin in a copy of the first of the Maidy series:

Irwin, Inez Haynes, Maida’s Little Shop (Grosset & Dunlap, Reprint, c. 1940). First of a 15-book series for kids by the suffragette, World War I foreign correspondent and author Inez Haynes Irwin (1873-1970). Published in 1909 by a small publishing house, it was picked up by G&D, which published all but one of Irwin’s next fourteen novels in the series through 1955, and reissued in editions in 1910, 1929, 1931 and 1940. Hardcover, no dust jacket, good condition. Six pages of publisher’s ads in the back. HBB price: $20.

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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