Susan Keating Cook / Matson

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Susan Keating Cook / Matson (Glaspell)

Birthplace: Davenport, Scott County, Iowa, United States
Death: July 27, 1948 (72)
Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States (Cancer, Pneumonia)
Place of Burial: Truro, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Elmer S Glaspell and Alice Feeney Glaspell
Ex-wife of George "Jig" Cram Cook and Norman Haghejm Matson
Sister of Charles Ray Glaspell and Selas (Frank) Frank Glaspell

Occupation: Writer, Poet
Managed by: Anne Elizabeth Sparks
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Susan Keating Cook / Matson Glaspell, Susan (1876-1948)

Playwright, Actor, Story Writer, Biographer, Novelist. Active 1900-1948 in USA, North America

Feminist criticism has been re-instating Susan Glaspell in the canon of American women writers for well over two decades now, but as happens so frequently with “rediscovered” authors, only the play Trifles and the story she based on it, “A Jury of Her Peers”, have received sustained critical attention and have been included in college syllabi. However, as a number of recent scholarly contributions on Glaspell have shown, her plays, stories and novels probe the mores and transformations of her time, applying and adapting European thought to early twentieth-century America. Nietzsche and Strindberg, arguably the greatest influences on Glaspell’s mind and writing, resonate in her most experimental play, The Verge, while Freud and psychoanalysis inspire Suppressed Desires; Glaspell understood human nature well, as her explorations of the actions and motives of her protagonists attest. Her wide reading, which included Goethe, Browning, Dickinson, Keats, Balzac, Shaw, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Thoreau, Gibbon, Haeckel, Darwin and Bergson, informs her writing, as do the progressive social movements she observed closely and critically. Glaspell’s writing reflects her belief in the power of the will to overcome all obstacles so strongly that the darker, naturalistic currents in her work frequently go unnoticed, as does her social criticism. In the Road to the Temple, she expressed her convictions very simply: “the tide comes, the tide goes. You cannot know that and leave things just as they were before” (257). Her contemporary, Isaac Goldberg caught some of her complexity when he wrote: “Glaspell is the woman of thought . . . [she] thinks her feelings” (472-73).

Susan Keating Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, on 1 July 1876, the middle of three children and the only daughter of Elmer Glaspell and Alice S. Keating. Her mother’s family were recent immigrants from Ireland but, on her father’s side, she proudly traced her lineage back to John Carver and William Bradford, the first two governors of Plymouth Colony, who had landed on Cape Cod, where Provincetown is today. The frontier had drawn the Glaspells further and further west, until, in 1836, they had settled in Iowa, on land just outside the newly platted town of Davenport. James Glaspell was elected the first elder of the Davenport Christian Church, and he successfully combined his church responsibilities with teaching and farming. Unfortunately, by the time Elmer Glaspell inherited his share of the property, not only had it been reduced significantly in size, but it was on the wrong side of the recently constructed railroad tracks. Poor German immigrants moved into this area, and the young Susan Glaspell, while seeing herself as different from and superior to the immigrant children, found it difficult to gain acceptance into the Davenport social and literary circles. Her later success as a journalist, story writer and novelist however, opened all doors: she even joined the Tuesday Club, presided by Alice French (aka Octave Thanet), the doyenne of Davenport letters, and was invited to lecture the socialites of Davenport on modern fiction.

Although her parents could not pay high tuition fees, after serving for over a year as society editor for the Davenport Weekly Outlook, Glaspell was finally able to go to college. In September 1897, she left for Drake University, Des Moines, an institution founded by the Christian Church in order to offer a liberal education in the sciences and arts to young men and women, regardless of colour or creed. She quickly assumed the role of leader, and was successful both academically and socially, publishing stories in the university literary magazine, the Delphic, presiding the Debating Society and representing Drake at oratorical contests. On graduating, Glaspell took a post on the Des Moines Daily News, where she was assigned the statehouse and legislative beat. Although she had regarded this posting with trepidation, it gave her an insight into the workings of government and the law, which she was able to use in many of the stories she would write. One experience in particular stood out: the Hossack murder that she covered as from 3 December 1900. Linda Ben-Zvi has shown how the scene of the murder and a growing understanding of Mrs Hossack’s life affected Glaspell and eventually led to her best known play Trifles (1916) and the story “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), a re-writing of the play after the rights to Trifles had been transferred to the Washington Square Players.

In April 1901, after two years of reporting, Glaspell returned home to Davenport in order to write. She was by this time well into her twenties and, having completed a university degree and lived and worked independently – achievements neither valued nor expected in a young woman, particularly in a small Midwestern town – she still had to find a husband. However, Glaspell was set on becoming a published writer; during the first decade of the century, her stories started appearing in Harper’s, Leslie’s, Munsey’s, The Speaker, The American, Booklovers Magazine and The Black Cat, which awarded first prize in its 1904 competition to her story “For Love of the Hills”. In all, Glaspell wrote over fifty stories, published in a wide variety of magazines; although she quickly learned to comply to the type or pattern of story demanded by the Ladies’ Home Journal or Harper’s Monthly Magazine, she never betrayed her radical, feminist stance, even when she did disguise it with a veil of irony or humour as in “Whom Mince Pie Hath Joined Together” (1913).

During her years in Davenport, Glaspell also worked on her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered (1909), an exploration of art, science and love; here, she explored the position of a succesful young woman painter, married to a scientist who cannot imagine that her work “amount[s] to anything” (32) simply because of her sex. Undaunted, this New Woman continues painting but, on her husband’s death, she decides his work was of greater value than hers and tries to complete his groundbreaking experiments in order to give him everlasting fame. Eventually, recognizing where her talents lie, however, she returns to art and paints a portrait of the man she had loved, thus immortalizing him. The novel bears witness to Glaspell’s non-conformist stand on matters of marital relationships, but it is still moored in turn of the century realism and viewpoint. It is an example of art prefiguring life for, in 1924, when Glaspell’s husband died, she felt called upon to make his achievements in the theatre known and wrote his biography, The Road to the Temple (1927).

During Glaspell’s years of writerly seclusion in Davenport she joined the Monist Society, which, as she explained in The Road to the Temple, attracted those who were “out of sorts with what we were supposed to believe” (191). George Cram (Jig) Cook and the future novelist Floyd Dell were the instigators of this group of socialist non-believers. They were both attracted by Glaspell’s curious mix of old-world standards and progressive convictions, and Cook, then enamoured of Molly Price and waiting for a divorce from his first wife, fell in love with Glaspell. Eventually, after his second marriage had also ended in divorce, Cook and Glaspell married; the ceremony took place in Weehawken, New Jersey, on 14 April 1913. They had fled the gossips of Davenport to Greenwich Village in New York and, with other bohemian radicals, spent their summers on the sand dunes of Provincetown, Cape Cod.

Although Susan Glaspell considered herself first and foremost a novelist, she is best known today for her work from 1915-1922, years she devoted to the Provincetown Players, the Little Theatre credited with giving birth to the American Drama. Responsibility for the founding and running of the Players is generally ascribed only to George Cram Cook, her husband; however, given Cook’s visionary afflatus, it is doubtful that the Provincetown Players could have lasted more than one season without Glaspell’s more pragmatic mind and energy. The Provincetown Players came into being as a result of the newly-formed Washington Square Players’ rejection of Glaspell and Cook’s skit on psychoanalysis, Suppressed Desires, in 1915. Cook decided to have their play performed in Provincetown, as part of a double bill with Neith Boyce’s short play Constancy, in her home. The performance was repeated for friends and neighbours that had not been able to attend in an old shed on Mary Heaton Vorse’s rickety wharf. The following year, 1916, Cook, driven by his conviction that a native theatre could reshape American society, which he already saw as threatened by World War I, announced a summer season of plays in Provincetown. It was then, demanding his wife write a play, that he made arguably his most significant recorded pronouncement on the theatre: when she demurred arguing she had no knowledge of plays, he growled, “You’ve got a stage, haven’t you?” (Road to the Temple 256) It was thus that she wrote Trifles, stepping the bare, makeshift stage of the wharf, and seeing her characters come to life.

Recognizing that they needed more plays for the season Cook had already announced, Glaspell convinced the young Eugene O’Neill, a playwright in search of a theatre, to read a play to the as yet unnamed Provincetown Players. He gave them Bound East for Cardiff which, on Glaspell’s urging, was accepted. By the end of that summer season, Cook and O’Neill, with the support of Jack Reed, were determined to take the troupe to New York and re-create themselves on the model of Maurice Browne’s Chicago Little Theatre. The Provincetown Players took over the ground floor of a brownstone at 139 Macdougal Street, just off Washington Square, which they transformed into the Playwrights’ Theatre. Two years later they moved to number 133. The Players, in their seven years of existence, true to Cook’s mandate to provide the American playwright with a stage, performed 97 plays by 47 American playwrights; Eugene O’Neill wrote 14 plays for them. Susan Glaspell contributed 11, of which The Verge (1921) was the most innovative, theatrically exciting and intellectually stimulating.

The Provincetown Players began by performing short plays, such as Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires (co-written with Cook) and Trifles, both realistic and relying heavily on symbolism; her other short plays experiment with fusing realism, symbolism and expressionism, as in The Outside, or with realism, stylisation, stereotypes, allegory, docudrama and farce or comedy as in Woman’s Honor, The People or Close the Book. As Ellen Gainor has indicated, Glaspell “exemplifies the unique development of American dramatic modernism” by her “incorporation of multiple stylistic influences” (74) drawn from the European drama of the turn of the century and beyond. In Bernice, her first longer play, she returned to the framework of the detective or mystery story and the device of the absent woman protagonist – which had been so successful in Trifles – to create, once again, an insightful exploration of human motives. In these plays Glaspell develops the themes she had introduced into her stories: criticism of patriarchal oppression of women and the minimal options allowed them by society, the bonding of women, social or family responsibility versus individual desire or ambition, and criticism of all conventions that interfere with human freedom.

The three full-length plays Glaspell wrote for the Provincetown continue her exploration of the individual in society and of the possibilities of the theatre. Glaspell wrote the unpublished Chains of Dew in 1919 with a Broadway production in mind; she filed it with the Library of Congress on 21 February 1920. However, it proved too “cluttered” (Boulton) with ideas for Broadway, and was eventually performed by the Provincetown in 1922. Chains of Dew is a comedy, with the birth-control movement and the conflict between the private and the public for backdrop; it criticizes the hypocrisy and the staid attachment to convention of Midwestern society matrons while at the same time laughing gently at the young women of New York that bobbed their hair and threw themselves into social causes. The deeper text, that reviewers all missed, is the story of two women who, having savoured emancipation, decide to return to the constricting bands of motherhood and wifehood in order to enable Seymor to continue inhabiting the legend of the tortured, self-sacrificing poet he had created for himself.

Inheritors (1921), takes up the theme of responsibility to oneself and one’s convictions, both personal and political, and to those around us. Madeleine, the young protagonist, decides to sacrifice her freedom rather than stagnate under patriarchal laws and prescriptions she finds unacceptable. The play was Glaspell’s direct response to the Treason and Sedition Acts of 1917. With The Verge (1921) Glaspell again created a strong woman protagonist who refuses to conform to what society expects of her as a wife and a mother. Christopher Bigsby, unable to classify “this startlingly original work” which, as he says, combines “comedy and melodrama, symbolism and expressionism, feminism and a critique of feminism, social criticism and metaphysical enquiry” has to admit that it is a “radical revisioning of all aspects of theatre” (19), such as no playwright had ever dared risk. The Verge also experiments with language, using what today we do not hesitate to consider an early example of “écriture féminine” (Noe 129-42 and Ozieblo 183).

In 1922, Glaspell and Cook departed for Greece, where they settled in Delphos, spending the summer months on the slopes of the Parnassos, in the company of the shepherds tending their flocks. One of Glaspell’s finest stories, “The Faithless Shepherd” (1926), was inspired by this experience. After Cook’s death in 1924, Glaspell returned to the United States; she had convinced herself that her duty to Cook was to make his work for the theatre known and appreciated. She hoped that the new group, headed by Eugene O’Neill and working at their old theatre on Macdougal Street, would help her in this task, but she was disappointed by their lack of enthusiasm and withdrew to the cottage in Provincetown that she and Cook had bought as a summer refuge. There, she met Norman Matson, seventeen years her junior, who would accompany her for the next seven years, till he left her for the daughter of a friend of hers. The years with Matson were productive: during this time Glaspell collaborated on a play with him (which she later repudiated), The Comic Artist (1928), wrote the biography of Cook, The Road to the Temple (1927), the best-selling novels Brook Evans (1928), Fugitive’s Return (1929) and Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), and the play Alison’s House (1930) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1931. Although Glaspell would return to the theatre to write Springs Eternal, a play about America’s involvement in World War II, it was neither performed nor published. She would rewrite it as Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945), which would be her last novel.

Glaspell’s novels have received less critical attention than her plays, although in their time, they reached the best-selling lists where they competed with Ernest Hemingway or John Galsworthy for first place. Glaspell moved between genres with a unique fluidity, picking up the same themes, manifesting her modernist desire to go beyond stale clichés, and challenging received notions of the subject and style of a novel; a British reviewer of Brook Evans placed Glaspell together with Virginia Woolf, considering their work to be “inimitably feminine” and “as unique in kind as it is eminent in quality” (I. R. M.). Martha Carpentier affirms that the novels “remain a buried treasure, a rich vein of unmined literary wealth, portraying her deep understanding of the empowering ties between women and their origin in the pre-oedipal mother-daughter relationship, as well as her innovative use of a female semiotic” (1-2). In the novels, Glaspell could explore the same themes as those we find in the plays and stories, but the genre allowed her to probe more deeply and to come up with surprising twists of plot that bring out the tension between the values of the past and the present and between traditional morality and progressive models of behaviour and thought that characterize all her writing.

From 1936 to 1938 Glaspell worked for the Federal Theatre as the Director of the Midwest Play Bureau in Chicago, searching for “good plays from the soil” as she put it (qtd. in Ozieblo 252), and so continuing the work that she and George Cram Cook had initiated in Provincetown. Her job was to stimulate the writing of new plays, and then select for performance those most likely to succeed. Among the plays that she managed to get onto the stage in spite of Washington bureaucracy and censorship are Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog and Arnold Sundgaard’s Spirochete, a Living Newspaper on syphilis.

Susan Glaspell died in Provincetown, on 27 July 1948, of viral pneumonia and embolism, and her ashes were scattered in Truro, close to the farmhouse where she had lived with Matson, and written her best novels.

Works cited Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder, She Wrote”: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Ed. Linda Ben-Zvi. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction. Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Boulton, Agnes to Eugene O’Neill. 25 February 1920. Agnes Boulton Papers, Harvard Theater Collection, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University. Carpentier, Martha C. The Major Novels of Susan Glaspell. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics 1915-1948. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Glaspell, Susan. The Road to the Temple. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. Glaspell, Susan. The Glory of the Conquered. New York: A. L. Burt, 1909. Goldberg, Isaac. The Drama of Transition: Native and Exotic Playcraft. Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1922. I. R. M. “Three Novels by Women.” The Oxford Magazine. 14 June 1928, 627. Noe, Marcia. “The Verge: L’Écriture Féminine at the Provincetown”. Ed. Linda Ben-Zvi. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Ozieblo, Barbara. Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. (reviewed: Noe, Marcia "Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography" Legacy - Volume 18, Number 1, 2001, pp. 114-115 University of Nebraska Press)

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Susan Keating Cook / Matson's Timeline

July 1, 1876
Davenport, Scott County, Iowa, United States
July 27, 1948
Age 72
Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States
Truro, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States