Santmyer, Helen Hooven
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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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 already living out her days in a nursing home. They know this book was printed in a small edition by the Ohio State University Press. All this is unusual enough, but the truly miraculous aspects of this curious story are that this book was then picked up by a successful commercial publisher and has been made a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It must be a throwback to a certain kind of philanthropy, a respect for culture as such, the culture described within the pages of this vast volume.
There are problems with this unending narrative, physical and cultural problems aplenty. To read “… And Ladies of the Club,” you're going to have to pick it up. It's chunky and thick, about the size, shape and...
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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 how many times it turned down William Kennedy's Ironweed before wreathing the book in loot and laurel. An even noisier lemming rush chased John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Eleven years after its young author, depressed by innumerable rejections of his novel, committed suicide, his mother persuaded Walker Percy to persuade Louisiana State University Press to publish the book. It became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
As Reagan would say, here we go again. In 1982, Ohio State University Press printed a few hundred copies of a 1,176-page novel called “… And Ladies of the Club,” by Helen Hooven Santmyer, an octogenarian resident of a nursing home in a small...
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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 it concerned her second Ohioana-Award book, “… And Ladies of the Club.” Readers have also seen her photograph, taken with her permission, in several issues of the Quarterly. But Miss Santmyer was “discovered” by the national press when it was announced that her 1,334-page novel about life in small-town Ohio was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
G. P. Putnam's Sons first printing is 150,000 copies and paperback rights have been auctioned for ＄396,000. Life magazine (June 1984) has featured Miss Santmyer and the bestseller she published at age 88. The book is also being serialized in Family Circle magazine and adapted for a television miniseries. Several Ohio communities...
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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 that our campus is only four miles from where she resides, I have had the opportunity to interview her and her friends, who have staunchly defended her on this point. At one point, I seriously considered jettisoning the conference because of its apparently controversial nature, but close study of the text made me desist. In this essay, I should like to consider some ten key points seriatim on the novel's attitude toward blacks.
1. The Zack episode. When I first picked up the novel, I automatically turned to the page describing how a black worker in a rope factory gets into an accident and is tended by Dr. Gordon. His name may sound a bit odd and as though it is making fun of him, at first, but upon careful reading we...
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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 works, a genteel matriarchy lives in a once magnificent, now dilapidated family manse behind a locked iron gate. The trio, consisting of the disapproving grandmother, Mrs. Baird, her shamed daughter Hilary and granddaughter Lucy Anne, live cut off from the rest of the community. The tension between mother and daughter for the child's spirit and affection propels the plot, which hinges on the mystery surrounding the child's father, a musician, and the rosewood piano in the attic. For all its gothic posing, dark glances and histrionic dialogue, this is a colorless novel in which the few psychological insights are not sufficient to invest the narrative with vitality or credibility.
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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 that in some instances it appears the characters are dropped in merely to bring human vibrancy to a relaxed, beautiful, rural setting.
Imagine this: “The water made a rainbow in the sun over the row of cabbages, and you could smell the fresh dampness as far as the summer kitchen.” Or, “In Grandmother's yard were petunias and verbenas and marigolds—all the strong-colored flowers of midsummer.”
And: “We were in the heat of summer then. Days were long heavy, somnolent; locusts sang in all the trees, a stupefying chorus. It was too hot to do anything but read, or swing lazily in the hammock without reading. I looked for locust shells on the tree trunks and collected them. The heat made one...
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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 book is a compilation of columns on Portage County history written after his retirement in 1982. Santmyer, a former professor of English, librarian, and dean of women who published several books in her lifetime, writes a more impressionistic work, portraying the life of the Greene County town of Xenia by focusing on the places which figured strongly in people's lives. A re-issue of a work first published in 1962, Santmyer's book is a valuable resource for local historians in the wake of the 1974 tornado which devastated Xenia. …
Santmyer is better known for her ponderous 1982 work of fiction, “… And Ladies of the Club,” than for the non-fictional Ohio Town. The novel gained her some notoriety at the...
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Quay, Joyce Crosby. Early Promise, Late Reward: A Biography of Helen Hooven Santmyer. Manchester, Conn.: Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends, Inc., 1995, 134 p.
Self-published, chronological biography of Santmyer written by an Ohio native who interviewed Santmyer and did extensive research among her papers.
Bourjaily, Vance. “The Other Side of ‘Main Street.’” The New York Times Book Review (24 June 1984): 7.
Bourjaily favorably reviews “… And Ladies of the Club” as a fascinating re-creation of the life of a small town.
Brownmiller, Susan. “‘… And Ladies of the Club’ Life, Death, Boredom on Main Street.” The Chicago Tribune, (10 June 1984): 13.
Explains that Santmyer's writing in “… And Ladies of the Club” is occasionally inspired but mostly limited in perspective.
Filler, Louis. “An Ohio Masterpiece: Prospects for Renewal.” In The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person, Jr., pp. 106-14. Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1994.
A reevaluation of “… And Ladies of the Club.”
Hill, Eldon. Review of Ohio Town, by Helen Hooven Santmyer. Indiana Magazine of History 59, no. 1...
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