Helen Hooven Santmyer Essay - Critical Essays

Santmyer, Helen Hooven

Introduction

Helen Hooven Santmyer 1895-1986

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Santmyer's works from 1984 through 1998. For criticism prior to 1984, see CLC, Volume 33.

Santmyer had a modest literary output beginning in the 1920s, but fame did not reach her until the publication of her 1982 novel “… And Ladies of the Club.” Thanks to some effective promotion and a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, this story of Midwestern small-town life became a bestseller when Santmyer was in her eighties. Thereafter critics and the public took a new interest in Santmyer's other works as well.

Biographical Information

Helen Hooven Santmyer was born on November 25, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio, but spent much of her life in Xenia, a small city in the southwestern part of the state, where both sides of her family had deep roots. Santmyer never stopped calling Xenia home, in spite of occasional forays elsewhere in the United States and abroad. She led a happy and rather conventional childhood, with plenty of time to develop her love of reading. In 1914 she entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she was encouraged to pursue a writing career. After a brief stint working for a suffragette organization in New York City, she became secretary to an editor of Scribner's magazine, where she was exposed to a number of famous writers such as Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1921 she returned home to Xenia to care for her ailing mother. Her father's largesse allowed her to spend three years at Oxford University in England, where she received a degree in literature in 1927. During this period she also produced her first novel, continuing her literary efforts when she returned to Ohio. After a brief time in California with her family, she began to teach at Cedarville College near Xenia, becoming dean of women and chair of the English department. In the mid-1950s she left teaching to become a reference librarian at the Dayton and Montgomery County Library until her retirement in 1959, living and travelling with her longtime friend Mildred Sandoe. In the mid-1960s, using notes she had accumulated over the years, she began work on what was to become “… And Ladies of the Club,” not completing the manuscript until 1975. Santmyer professed to be as shocked as anyone else when the 1984 reissue of the book provoked such a worldwide literary reaction. At the time in poor health and in a nursing home, she was able to enjoy her newfound success only until 1986, when she died on February 21, from complications of emphysema.

Major Works

Santmyer's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Herbs and Apples (1925), tells the story of a girl from Ohio who longs to go to New York to pursue a writing career but is thwarted by the onset of World War I. Her 1929 novel, The Fierce Dispute, focuses on a child whose mother and grandmother are engaged in a struggle for control of her future. Ohio Town (1962) is a collection of essays recalling the sights and sounds of Xenia in Santmyer's youth. Santmyer's “… And Ladies of the Club” attracted scant attention when it was first published by Ohio State University Press in 1982. When this saga of the lives of members of a small city women's club from 1868 to 1932 was reprinted by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1984, however, it became the selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, was widely reviewed, and brought a great deal of press attention to the elderly Santmyer. A posthumous novel, Farewell, Summer, appeared in 1988.

Critical Reception

Santmyer's early books were little noticed and little reviewed. The same could be said of “… And Ladies of the Club” in its initial incarnation in 1982. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, the Putnam edition of 1984 became the publishing sensation of that year, remaining on the bestseller list for thirty-seven weeks. The story of a nearly ninety-year-old lady who had supposedly worked on a book for fifty years was irresistible to the national news media. Many critics were kind to Santmyer, noting her faithfulness to detail and her accurate evocation of life at the turn of the century and beyond. Others found the book unnecessarily long, compared it unfavorably with books like Main Street and My Ántonia, or accused the publisher of unduly promoting a mediocre book for its publicity value. Because of the success of “… And Ladies of the Club,” Santmyer's other works, particularly Ohio Town, were reissued and also gained a modest amount of critical attention.

Principal Works

Herbs and Apples (novel) 1925

The Fierce Dispute (novel) 1929

Ohio Town 1962 (essays)

“… And Ladies of the Club” (novel) 1982; reprinted in 1984

Farewell, Summer (novel) 1988

Criticism

Trudy Krishner (review date 27 January 1984)

SOURCE: Krishner, Trudy. “The Goal of a Lifetime Won at Last.” Christian Science Monitor (27 January 1984): 19.

[In the following review, Krishner gives a preview of “… And Ladies of the Club,” noting its fortunate selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and G. P. Putnam's Sons.]

For Helen Santmyer, success has come somewhat later than it does in most careers. Miss Santmyer, an 88-year-old retired librarian, is being hailed as the literary equivalent of Grandma Moses.

Her novel about small-town life, which she began in the 1920s and finally finished as a nursing home resident in the 1980s, has been published by a university press and is about to be republished in large, lucrative editions by the Book-of-the-Month Club and G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Suddenly Helen Hooven Santmyer is a literary celebrity. Reporters and photographers invade her nursing home accommodations in this quiet southwestern Ohio town. And, as the headlines indicate, the story is of triumph—the goal of a lifetime finally achieved.

Miss Santmyer's 1,344-page novel, “… And Ladies of the Club,” spans the years 1868-1932 in the small fictional Ohio town of Waynesboro. It follows a group of women across the generations.

Work on it absorbed Miss Santmyer's attention year after year, decade after decade. In the '20s she conceived of the book as a kind of answer to Sinclair Lewis, the tart-tongued novelist who, she felt, had gotten life in small-town America...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Carolyn See (review date 10 June 1984)

SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “The Time When Women Belonged.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 June 1984): 1.

[In the following review, See paints “… And Ladies of the Club” as a ponderous yet valuable look at the realities of small-town life.]

What we will be looking at here in a shamefully short review is a true literary curiosity, an artifact much more than a novel, a monument of words, a tool for the student of American history, a private compilation, a channeling of tremendous, idiosyncratic effort.

Most people interested in publishing must know by now that “… And Ladies of the Club” is the life's work of an obscure woman...

(The entire section is 1343 words.)

Michael Malone (essay date 21-28 July 1984)

SOURCE: Malone, Michael. “… And Ladies of the G.O.P.” Nation 129 (21-28 July 1984): 52-4.

[In the following essay, Malone takes a jaundiced view of “… And Ladies of the Club,” asserting that it is graceless and of dubious literary quality.]

Properly publicized, nothing succeeds like failure, particularly when its hucksters belong to the industry that inflicted the initial wound. Hollywood, for example, adores films excoriating its powerful heartlessness and takes sentimental satisfaction in rewarding its own victims: Ingrid Bergman wins an Oscar for having been ostracized by those who give Oscars. Publishing is no different: it fervently gloats over...

(The entire section is 3163 words.)

Anne Barry (essay date autumn 1984)

SOURCE: Barry, Anne. “Helen Hooven Santmyer: ‘I Awoke One Morning and Found Myself Famous’ (Lord Byron).” Ohioana Quarterly 27 (autumn 1984): 88-9.

[In the following essay, Barry describes the successful saga of “… And Ladies of the Club,” emphasizing the Ohioana Award given to Santmyer in 1983.]

The first item on the New York Times News Quiz for Saturday 14 January was: “Posing for this photograph, the first anyone has been permitted to take of her, was a new experience for 88-year-old Helen Hooven Santmyer, but her other novel experience was even more noteworthy. What was it?”

Readers of Ohioana Quarterly know...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Robert F. Fleissner (review date June 1986)

SOURCE: Fleissner, Robert. Review of “… And Ladies of the Club,” by Helen Hooven Santmyer. CLA Journal 29 (June 1986): 486-89.

[In the following review, Fleissner defends “… And Ladies of the Club” against charges of racism.]

Because Central State University hosted a most successful conference on Helen Hooven Santmyer's best-selling novel, “… And Ladies of the Club,” in January, 1985, it is particularly important to come to terms with the issue of race. A number of prominent reviewers (for example, in Newsweek and in the New York Times) have pinpointed racism as a defect in this work. But is it? Owing to the fact...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Sybil Steinberg (review date 9 October 1987)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. Review of The Fierce Dispute, by Helen Hooven Santmyer. Publishers Weekly 232 (9 October 1987): 79.

[In the following brief review, Steinberg gives an unfavorable assessment of Santmyer's second novel The Fierce Dispute.]

The success of “… And Ladies of the Club” has prompted reissue of the author's earlier works. [The Fierce Dispute], her second, was originally published in 1929—and the years have not been kind. Dated in form and content, it is what was once called a “woman's book,” but a contemporary audience will find its simple sentimentality tame. In the Ohio town familiar to readers of Santmyer's other...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Rose Russell Stewart (review date 19 May 1988)

SOURCE: Stewart, Rose Russell. “A Midsummer Romance in 1905.” Blade (19 May 1988): F7.

[In the following review, Stewart notes a pleasant sense of nostalgia in Santmyer's posthumous novel Farewell, Summer.]

After a long, difficult day of meeting the demands of family, work, and community, how nice it is to settle down to a book that doesn't force my emotions to stretch from one end to another.

Farewell, Summer is a novella that relieves its reader of emotional upheavals by discussing current or historical turmoils. Rather, it amuses with fond childhood memories.

The author so expertly describes the scenery of country life...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

Sally A. Myers (review date summer/autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Myers, Sally A. Review of Loris Troyer's Portage Pathways and Santmyer's Ohio Town. Northwest Ohio Quarterly (summer/autumn 1998): 167-70.

[In the following review of a reissue of Ohio Town, Myers says that this book of essays is superior to Santmyer's more famous “… And Ladies of the Club.”]

Loris C. Troyer's Portage Pathways and Helen Hooven Santmyer's Ohio Town reflect two very different approaches to local history, from counties at opposite ends of the state. Troyer, an editor emeritus of the Ravenna-Kent Record-Courier, chronicles important people and events in a portion of the old Western Reserve. Troyer's...

(The entire section is 738 words.)