restricted access Part I: Susan Glaspell’s Drama of Denunciation
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19 Once a child was staying at my house. I had been playing with him and then said, “I must go upstairs now.” “Why?” he said. “Because I am writing a book” . . . The child was still on the stairs calling Why? And suddenly I called back, “Because I want to!” And that seemed to come nearer the truth. And yet I couldn’t stop at all. That’s all very well but why do you want to? Why indeed? . . . Maybe if you are really a writer, not just someone trying to be rich or important, maybe you write a book because you have to. A real book comes out of an inner compulsion. —Susan Glaspell, “On the Subject of Writing” why indeed? Why did Susan Glaspell write books? As J. Ellen Gainor laments, Glaspell “gave few interviews” and “kept only the sketchiest of diaries” and thus left behind almost no testimony of her creative process (“Woman’s Honor” 70). “On the Subject of Writing,” an unpublished essay archived in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, is one of the very few documents—rare enough to deserve special mention —in which Glaspell indulges in metaliterary introspection. The only explanation and justification the author put forward to account for her creative activity was her “compulsion” to write. She could not determine any pragmatic motives behind her writing other than her inherent urge to compose books. Yet, by considering the circumstances under which she became a writer or, in other words, what inspired her to write in the p a r t i • susan glaspell’s Drama of Denunciation d r a m a o f d e n u n c i a t i o n 20 first place, the researcher eventually finds out about her mysterious motivations . In November 2010, at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, I chanced upon the fragment of an article from the Morning Telegram titled “Susan Glaspell, Author, Playwright by Chance.” The paper, promisingly subtitled “Interesting Career of Greenwich Village Writer Who Helps the Provincetown Players—She Tells of the Joys of Her Work and Its Aims,” was signed Chloe Arnold and dated December 30, 1917. The opening of the article reads: Susan Glaspell became an author on account of politics and a playwright purely by accident. I say this for the reason that it would be difficult to enumerate any preliminary events . . . Now about the writing . . . as soon as [Miss Glaspell] had attained any age worth considering she got a job reporting on a paper. Des Moines is the capital of the State, in consequence an admirable place for a potential writer, or so Miss Glaspell says. It soon became her business to regale the readers with all the news from the State House. She wrote about the sessions of the Legislature and interviews with important politicians. “Almost everything,” she said, “in politics, is a story. As soon as I discovered that I commenced to write. Yes, of course, I had thought I might be a writer.” And these are the circumstances under which she became a playwright. Contrary to what Arnold claimed, Glaspell did not become a playwright by accident: immediate “preliminary events” explaining why Glaspell started to write plays are directly related to the birth and history of the Provincetown Players. Glaspell began writing fictions when she discovered that, in her own words, “almost everything in politics is a story.” For the young woman, this discovery came as an epiphany that stirred her to become a “writer.” In this short statement, Glaspell seems to disclose the secret of her origins as an artist, to reveal the genesis of her work. Politics—that is, the rules governing the lives of individuals in both the public and private spheres—functioned for Glaspell as a pre-text lending itself to emplotment. Politics was akin to a “story” in d r a m a o f d e n u n c i a t i o n 21 the commonplace metaphorical sense of a “lie.” To the question “What inspired Susan Glaspell to write?” we can thus answer: the duplicity of American democracy. A large majority of the American population was not granted citizenship, and the individual’s freedom to dispose of his or her own person was limited: democracy was thus relative in the United States, especially in the eyes of Glaspell’s radical peers, who deplored that the great democratic ideal had become a lie. In scorning some of the fundamental...