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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Susan Glaspell (1876-1948)

[6016] Arthur Rothstein, Douglas County Farmsteads, Nebraska (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-004276-D DLC].

Born in Davenport, Iowa, Susan Glaspell grew up in a Midwest that was settled only decades before, but was developing rapidly as the post-Civil War economic boom transformed the United States. After graduating from high school, Glaspell worked as a reporter for the Davenport Morning Republican and then for Davenport’s Weekly Outlook, where she edited the society pages. As a student at Drake University, Glaspell began writing for the college newspaper, and following her graduation became a statehouse reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, where she gained familiarity with the workings of American government. After two years as a journalist, she turned her attention to fiction, and her short stories appeared in magazines such as the Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s. For a short time in 1903, she studied English at the University of Chicago’s graduate school. Her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, was published in 1909.

Glaspell gave up journalism in 1901 and returned to Davenport, where she met the free-thinking George Cram Cook, a fellow member of the local progressive organization called the Monist Society. Though Cook was married when they met, he left his wife and married Glaspell, then thirty-six, and together they moved to the East Coast in 1913. Over the next ten years, they lived part of each year in New York’s Greenwich Village and part in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cook was a writer as well as a theatrical director, and the couple helped to found the Provincetown Players, a landmark organization in the development of American theater. The most famous of its members, Eugene O’Neill, authored plays such as Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Glaspell wrote nine plays for the Provincetown Players from 1916 to 1922, including her best-known one-act play Trifles. The commercial success of the Provincetown Players in some ways limited the company’s ability to experiment, and in 1922 Glaspell and her husband left the group.

Glaspell continued to write through the 1930s and 1940s, publishing drama and fiction and remaining committed to writing experimental and overtly social work. Her play Alison’s Room, which received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1930, follows the struggles of Alison Stanhope, a poet modeled upon Emily Dickinson, and considers the difficulties female artists face as a result of their gender. Much of Glaspell’s work considers women’s roles in society and the conflicts faced by American women who pursue individual fulfillment. Trifles examines the ways that expectations of women can confine them and offers a potential remedy for this problem in the communal efforts of women resisting the traditional roles to which men assign them. Glaspell’s focus on the lives of women and their roles in American society challenged conventions of what could be shown on the American stage, and her stylistic innovations and promotion of new experiments in drama helped to shape American theater. After decades of critical neglect, Glaspell’s significant contribution to the development of American drama has begun to be recognized.

Teaching Tips

  • Like many other female authors writing about women, Susan Glaspell did not receive much critical attention until the “rediscovery” of forgotten texts during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Trifles is an especially effective play to help students consider what influences both our cultural values and the literary canon: the male characters’ dismissal of women’s realm of expertise parallels decisions made about what characterizes “great” literature. Students may have difficulty seeing what is at stake in the play’s subtle storyline; the “clues” the women find in Minnie Wright’s housekeeping may not be immediately obvious to students, as they are not to the men who ignore them. To be certain that they have understood the subtext of the dialogue and stage directions, you might ask students to explain what happens in several of the moments when the female characters discover something that the men cannot see.
  • Ask students to think about the dramatic form and their experience of reading a text that was not meant to be read but performed. You might ask them to consider the added dimensions of authorship in the case of drama: is the author of the script the sole author, or do the director, actors, and set and lighting designers complicate how we assign authorship? Ask them to think about how the dialogue and stage directions move the plot forward, and how the dramatic form shifts the way the story is presented. Glaspell adapted this play to the short-story form in “A Jury of Her Peers,” which you might read in conjunction with the play to answer some of these questions.


Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What do Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale discover in Minnie Wright’s house? How do you explain their decision not to tell the Sheriff and County Attorney about what they found? Why do you think the title of the play is Trifles?
  2. Comprehension: According to Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, what is the life of a farmer’s wife like? How does the description of the life Minnie Wright must have led help to make sense of her behavior?
  3. Context: At the time this play was produced, the suffrage movement in the United States had come close to reaching its goal: suffrage was granted to women in 1919. What does this play suggest about the way society viewed women and their fields of “expertise” (largely centered in the home)? Why do you think society evaluated women in this way?
  4. Context: Examine the photograph of the “Women’s club making a quilt” featured in the archive. What does the image suggest to you about the lives of these people? How does the image help you to understand what Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters say about the life of a farm woman?
  5. Exploration: Consider other texts that deal with the challenges women face in their lives. What connections can you draw between Triflesand Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Louisa May Alcott’s Work (1873), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976)? What shapes the female characters’ beliefs about themselves and their place in society? How do cultural traditions inform gender roles in these texts?

Selected Archive Items

[6016] Arthur Rothstein, Douglas County Farmsteads, Nebraska (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-004276-D DLC].
Landscape of field, farmhouses, trees, and sky. Often termed a regionalist, Susan Glaspell centered much of her work in the Midwest, where she was born.

[7286] Federal Art Project, Alison’s House by Susan Glaspell: A Poetic Romance (c. 1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1151].
Poster for production of Alison’s House at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles. Glaspell’s experimental plays often explored women’s roles in the society.

[7287] Russell Lee, Farmhouse on the Heavily Mortgaged Farm of Theodore F. Frank (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-010149-D].
Farmhouse and surrounding land in the Midwest. Glaspell, who was born in Iowa, often explored the lives of women in agricultural and rural settings.

[7288] John Vachon, Members of the Women’s Club Making a Quilt, Granger Homesteads, Iowa (c. 1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-060927-D].
Domestic scene of group of women quilting. Glaspell incorporated scenes of women working in domestic settings into her plays.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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