Chase, Mary Ellen (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Mary Ellen Chase 1887-1973
American novelist, nonfiction writer, and teacher.
For further information on Chase's life and works, see CLC, Volume 2.
Known as a leader of the Maine school of writers, Chase was also a distinguished professor at Smith College for many years. Her considerable writing output included adult and children's fiction, biography, college texts, and other nonfiction. Although she was not popular with many academic critics, she found favor with readers who embraced her optimistic view of American culture.
Chase was born on February 24, 1887, in Blue Hill, Maine, which was home to her ancestors since 1692. She absorbed the seafaring tradition of her Maine forebears, remaining in her hometown until she entered the University of Maine in 1904. After teaching assignments in Wisconsin and Chicago, she wrote her first children's book while recuperating from an illness in Montana. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, where she also taught for four years. She taught at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul before accepting a position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1926. There she remained until 1955, at the same time pursuing her writing and lecturing career. She produced much of her best work at her summer home in Maine and in Cambridgeshire, England, where she lived for two years. Chase never married, believing that a writing and teaching career and marriage were incompatible. She died in Northampton July 28, 1973.
Scholars regret that Chase never kept a comprehensive list of her prodigious literary output, which ranged from juvenile and adult fiction, to Biblical studies, to biography, to academic textbooks. Her first fiction works were for young readers, and her early nonfiction efforts were designed for use in college teaching. In A Goodly Heritage (1932), A Goodly Fellowship (1939), and The White Gate (1954), she explored her own Yankee heritage and philosophized about teaching as a career. Chase also produced several popular studies of the Bible as literature, such as The Bible and the Common Reader (1944), which grew from her own deep Christian faith and her love of teaching. Her novels and juvenile books are steeped in the history and traditions of her native New England. Chase was strongly influenced by Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, whom she had met during childhood. In adult novels of Maine such as Silas Crockett (1935) and Windswept (1941), Chase imbued her characters and plots with a kind of spirituality. In fact, her insistence on traditional, humanistic values, even in her later work, was unusual in an increasingly cynical literary world. Although her philosophy may have been intellectually unfashionable, her works reached a wide audience and gave readers carefully written works of literature laced with interesting social history.
Nearly all the criticism on Chase from the late 1920s into the late 1960s was laudatory, with a tone suggesting deference to a well-loved professor. Most reviews of her novels and nonfiction work were short, complimenting Chase's subject matter and elegance of style. In 1962 the Colby Library Quarterly devoted a full issue to Chase, portraying her as a distinguished novelist of Maine, surpassed only by Jewett. Three critical biographies of Chase later helped to solidify her reputation. While Chase's works were neither overly sentimental nor always optimistic, they did establish a high standard of morality and expressed lofty ideals and a faith in the human spirit. Thus she was out of the mainstream of a great deal of serious American literature in the 1950s and 1960s—a time when writers were becoming more interested in the malaise of their time than in the force of spirituality or idealized traditions. Although only a few of Chase's works are read or reviewed today, she retains a respected place in the literary history of her time.
The Girl from the Big Horn Country (juvenilia) 1916
Virginia of Elk Creek Valley (juvenilia) 1917
The Art of Narration (nonfiction) 1926
Mary Christmas (novel) 1926
Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel (criticism) 1927
Uplands (novel) 1927
The Writing of Informal Essays [editor; with Margaret E. Macgregor] (nonfiction) 1928
Constructive Theme Writing for College Freshmen (nonfiction) 1929
The Golden Ass and Other Essays (essays) 1929
The Silver Shell (juvenilia) 1930
A Goodly Heritage (autobiography) 1932
Mary Peters (novel) 1934
Silas Crockett (novel) 1935
This England (nonfiction) 1936
Dawn in Lyonesse (novel) 1938
A Goodly Fellowship (autobiography) 1939
Windswept (novel) 1941
The Bible and the Common Reader (nonfiction) 1944
Look at America: New England [editor; with the editors of Look magazine] (nonfiction) 1944
Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson, 1768-1847 (biography) 1948
The Plum Tree (novel) 1949
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller...
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SOURCE: Boas, R. P. Review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel. Modern Language Notes 43, no. 5 (May 1928): 356.
[In the following review, Boas describes Chase's analysis of Thomas Hardy's censorship of a number of his serialized novels.]
This book [Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel] is a valuable study of the changes which Thomas Hardy made in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure to render them acceptable to the taste of the magazine readers of the eighties. In all three the serial versions were bowdlerized so that no Victorian could take offense. The changes are often meticulous, sometimes far-reaching, and always with an eye to the prudish decencies. And they are sometimes astonishingly drastic as in Tess where the magazine version omits the episode of the seduction, an episode which is “the motivating incident of the story.” Jude the Obscure naturally suffers most.
Miss Chase points out the important issue, “how far are we justified in condemning Hardy's literary ethics?” To answer this question she summarizes in four pages the progress of “realism” in the nineteenth century novel. She then places Hardy “above all preceding or contemporary English realists,” and maintains that he “belied his own philosophy of life.” The only defense which Miss Chase can present is Hardy's...
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SOURCE: Rinaker, Clarissa. Review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 28 (January 1929): 144-47.
[In the following review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel, Rinaker expresses some doubt that Victorian readers actually compelled Hardy to make changes in the serialized versions of his novels.]
Here is a book [Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel] that threatens the reputation of Thomas Hardy as a conscientious literary artist, however the facts disclosed by Professor Chase may be interpreted after further study of his life and letters. It shows that Hardy made very radical changes in his novels when they were published serially, changes much more important than the prefaces to the books would suggest. Professor Chase's conclusions are based on a study of three novels, a comparison of the texts of the serial issues with two or more book editions of The Mayor of Casterbridge (Graphic, 1886, 1st ed. 1886, 2nd. English and Harper's eds.), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Graphic, 1891, 1st ed. 1891, 5th Eng. and Harper's eds.), and Jude the Obscure (Harper's Monthly, European ed., 1894-5, 1st Eng. 1896 and Harper's eds.)1 She has noted changes in incident and plot, in characterization, in setting, minor additions and alterations, and changes in diction. Changes in incident and plot she finds...
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SOURCE: Young, Stanley. “A Fine Page in America's Past.” New York Times Book Review (17 November 1935): 1.
[In the following essay, Young describes Silas Crockett as somewhat romantic in tone but inspiring in its message.]
Follow the Maine Coast from Bath to Bar Harbor, from Casco Bay to Penobscot to Eastport, and you will find the background for Mary Ellen Chase's fine romantic story [Silas Crockett] of four generations of a seafaring family. You will find, too, the remnants of the Crocketts who made maritime history for a hundred years and who, like the family of Mary Peters, knew the coast before change was upon it, before the last sound of hammer and mallet closed the clipper-ship era and all the brave journeying of Yankee sailors around a world traversed by white sails.
In Silas Crockett, with whom this chronicle opens, there was bred that spirited love of the sea common to the early, pure-strained English families of New England's coastal towns. His grandfather, Captain Reuben Shaw, had fought pirates off the Guinea coast, turned privateer in 1775, followed the fur trade to Puget Sound, and tacked around Cape Horn to enter the lively competition for the new Cantonese trade. Likewise, for thirty years of his life, his father, James Crockett, had sailed as shipmaster to the uttermost ends of the world, returning with cargoes that turned the great house at...
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SOURCE: Whicher, George P. “She Teaches with Enthusiasm.” New York Herald Tribune Books (16 November 1939): 3.
[In the following review, Whicher recommends A Goodly Fellowship, regretting only that it is somewhat too rosy in its portrait of the teaching profession.]
This book is not a novel, though it reads like one, but a second installment of autobiography. Ten years ago Miss Chase wrote in A Goodly Heritage the story of her childhood in Maine. She now adds the chronicle of her thirty years as a teacher [in A Goodly Fellowship], beginning, after a brief survey of her own education, with her first experience in conducting a district school in her native state, and tracing her gradual rise in the profession through Western boarding schools and advanced study at home and abroad to the secure dignity of a professorship in Smith College. One gathers very quickly that the teaching profession has never been a second choice with her, but from the first a favorite vocation. Far from being a “stickit” writer collapsed into an educator, Miss Chase is a born teacher who has found in teaching a path to the good life and has followed it from strength to strength. From her success as a teacher has come not a little of the confidence and surplus power that have made her a popular novelist and lecturer.
Any one who has assumed that the life of an American teacher is a dull...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
SOURCE: “The Education of an American Teacher.” New York Times Book Review (19 November 1939): 6.
[In the following review of A Goodly Fellowship, the reviewer writes approvingly of Chase's descriptions of her teaching experiences.]
These autobiographical chapters by the author of Mary Peters and Dawn in Lyonesse might have borne the subtitle “The Education of an American Teacher,” for such a phrase would have suggested the receptivity of the writer's attitude and both the breadth and the boundaries of her book's material. But it would have offered no hint of the lively observation that accompanies Miss Chase's experience, nor of the salty tang of her wit. Writing with the modesty of one who is always learning, yet with convictions by no means lukewarm, recalling her response to American life in greatly differing aspects from Maine to Montana, emphasizing always the teacher rather than the novelist in her own work, Mary Ellen Chase has produced a book [A Goodly Fellowship] of delightful remembrance and commentary. Although this volume is in a sense a sequel to A Goodly Heritage, it can be fully enjoyed by itself. And although it contains much thoughtful consideration of the practice and theory of teaching and the prerequisites of success in teaching, it is bright with shrewd, sharp laughter and alive with a number of interesting characters. Miss Chase recounts...
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SOURCE: Jones, Bess. “Chase. …” Saturday Review 24 (15 November 1941): 12.
[In the following review of Windswept, Jones praises the nobility of Chase's descriptions of a high-minded New England family but finds the writing a little too genteel.]
A reviewer who speaks of “novels of character,” “novels of atmosphere,” “novels of action,” is undoubtedly dated. For most current novelists, apparently preferring to avoid the suspicion of any single intent, refuse to admit the need for any single-minded technical procedure. Miss Chase fortunately can afford a little labeling. Openly inviting the description of her newest book [Windswept] as a “novel of place,” she directs all her literary skill toward giving that aim validity. As in her other works, the scene is again Maine, this time on that bleak, yet compelling coast which is admittedly not a land for the gregarious, but which allows life to find its way unhurried and unbullied.
Philip Marston first recognized the quality of the place, but his accidental death left to his son John the congenial task of realizing its promise. The solidity of sound, simple taste gave it foundation. The honest workmanship of Caleb Perkins, a local man of pithy words and cleancut sawing, built the house to stand, and young John's sturdy instinct for the appropriate kept its wide, gracious rooms free of heirlooms, the whatnots...
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SOURCE: Woods, Katherine. “Two Novels of Distinction: Ciro Alegria's Story of Peru—Mary Ellen Chase's Novel of Maine.” New York Times Book Review (15 November 1941): 1.
[In the following review of Windswept, Woods says that she finds beauty in Chase's celebration of traditional values.]
House and headland, Windswept stood solitary and stalwart against the buffeting of gales and ocean, on the bold eastward-pressing coast of Maine. Philip Marston bought the untouched stretch of shore and wilderness in 1880 and planned the house for his son and himself; and young John Marston built the long, low dwelling on the little promontory seventy feet above the sea and lived there as his father had dreamed. Here he brought his wife and here they reared their children. Winters might be spent in New York or elsewhere, but for the Marstons Windswept was the word that meant home.
Yet not for the Marstons only, and never closed in behind isolation as a barrier. Life shut no gates here on other lives or cultures or memories. It was as if in the very remoteness of the headland of Windswept, in the depth of the roots that were planted there, an understanding could be nurtured that would be large enough to touch humanity's universal fundamentals and to give and gather strength and beauty from all man's ages and around the world. Jan and Philomena, Caleb Perkins and Mrs. Haskell, Eileen's vivid...
(The entire section is 1099 words.)
SOURCE: Feld, Rose. “Land, Sea and Man: A Splendid Way of Life.” New York Herald Tribune Books (16 November 1941): 1-2.
[In the following review, Feld paints a glowing picture of Windswept, Chase's novel of the Maine seacoast.]
Out of a deep feeling for a stretch of sea-bitten land, out of a profound respect for simple humankind, out of a warm and friendly erudition, Mary Ellen Chase has fashioned a glowing and lasting novel. When most of this year's crop of fiction is forgotten readers will turn to Windswept, to savor again its moods of nature, its diversity of character and its pervading philosophy of strength. To call the book a story about Maine is to give it scant stature; an ocean ever varying in color and sound embraces the miles of rugged land which Philip Marston in 1880 called Windswept, and in many ways that ocean, its strength and its sweep, represents the strength and sweep of the lives which found fulfillment there. It explained the friendship and love which existed between all the Marstons and Jan Pisek, the Bohemian immigrant who was part of their development and growth; it made possible and natural the friendships held with others, irrespective of roots or station.
“This land could be no one's but ours,” declared Jan Pisek, when his friend, Philip Marston, received the news that the isolated stretch of rugged Maine coast that held him with a deep...
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SOURCE: Undset, Sigrid. “A Treasury for All Mankind.” New York Times Book Review (24 December 1944): 1, 14.
[In the following essay, novelist Undset outlines some minor disagreements with Chase's biblical interpretations in The Bible and the Common Reader while treating the book as a whole in positive terms.]
It always seemed to me that literary elaborations on subject-matter borrowed from the Bible never improved the old stories. It is true that the Ages of Faith produced a wealth of religious poetry and drama which belong among the treasures of our spiritual inheritance. The Mysteries of the Middle Ages—the Latin hymns and sacred songs in the vernacular—the great religious epics—even a work like the Old Norse “King's Mirror” (which draws upon the Book of Proverbs for the advice of a father to his son on practical as well as spiritual matters) prove the immeasurable debt of European letters to the Scriptures of the Hebrew people. But in the eyes of the old authors the Bible was divinely inspired and nobody could improve upon it. They were content to borrow gold from its hoarded treasures and never dreamed of gilding the lily.
Modern novels and drama, however, when they borrow their matter from biblical narratives, usually spoil the old story, and especially when they try to explain in terms of modern psychology the behavior of bearers of names which have been...
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SOURCE: Nichols, Lewis. “Brahmins, Sea Captains, Town Fairs.” New York Times Book Review (13 July 1947): 6.
[In the following review of Look at America: New England, a picture book with commentary by Chase, Nichols notes that Chase treats New England in poetic terms.]
Knowing a good thing when their camera sees it, the editors of Look have been turning a contemplative eye on New England. For this, the second of their regional guide books, they have tracked down the cod and the Brahmin, the sea captain and the Connecticut Valley farmer, and have packaged them under a familiar corporate label. Look at America: New England is both the title and the invitation, and the latter is well worth accepting at once. The volume will be an excellent non-driving companion for the back seat of the car as the family starts out on vacation—up the Post Road, of course—and later upon the shelves for the cold, reflective days of fall.
Naturally, New England is more than a region of America, although the editors of Look, being politic and uninterested in self-immolation, must call it that. To waste no time about it, New England is America, and everything lying west is an appendage, or series of appendages, some good and some bad. New England has retained its unity and pride with an enthusiasm rivaled only by Texas; although a cynic alien to both might conclude that a Texan...
(The entire section is 811 words.)
SOURCE: Baldwin, Alice M. Review of Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson. South Atlantic Quarterly 48 (1949): 308-09.
[In the following review of Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson, Baldwin notes her approval of Chase's biography of a distinguished pastor from her hometown of Blue Hill, Maine.]
Jonathan Fisher was a pastor of the Congregational Church in the little seacoast village of Bluehill, Maine, from 1796 to 1837 and resident there until his death in 1847. Fortunately his diaries, notebooks, letters, sermons, and church documents, most of which he wrote or copied in a secret code devised by himself while a student at Harvard College, have been preserved, as well as many of his books and paintings. Years of patient deciphering have made possible this notable biography [Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson], which not only records the life and work of an amazing man, but gives a rarely vivid picture of the way of life and thought in rural Maine in the early nineteenth century.
“A Leonardo da Vinci of his own time and place,” Miss Chase calls Jonathan Fisher. A theologian, linguist, mathematician, surveyor, builder, cabinet-maker, practical farmer, wood engraver, painter of no mean ability, prolific writer of prose and verse, zealous missionary, and conscientious pastor and preacher, his interests and achievements are almost incredible. He was a perfect example of the Puritan...
(The entire section is 557 words.)
SOURCE: Williamson, Samuel T. Review of The White Gate. New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954): 5.
[In the following review of The White Gate, Williamson praises Chase's memoir of her Maine childhood.]
The doctor next door charged Edward Everett Chase $5 for bringing his second daughter into the world, and $1.50 for each of two post-natal visits to mother and child. Whatever way you look at it, lawyer Chase got a bargain for his $8. For his daughter, Mary Ellen, grew to be a Professor of English Literature at Smith College and author of Windswept and Mary Peters. On a flyleaf of this, her latest book, Miss Chase's publishers list eight of her works, then give up, adding “etc.”
The White Gate is no mere “etc.” It is recollections of a childhood during the final years of the last century in a Maine seacoast village halfway between the Penobscot and Mount Desert. And in words of the title of one of her books, it's a goodly heritage.
Between the very young and the very old is an indefinable bond, invisible but no less real, which bridges the gap of one or even two intervening generations. It may be that when memory fades in the very old, a childlike simplicity takes its place. On the threshold of old age, say in the sixties, childhood memories seem stronger than of youth and middle age, and they tend to crowd out what has...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
SOURCE: Iorio, John J. “Mary Ellen Chase and the Novel of Regional Crisis.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 21-34.
[In the following essay, Iorio asserts that several of Chase's novels effectively delineate the decline of old New England life as well as the indomitable spirit of the characters.]
When Mary Ellen Chase was born in 1887, many of the forces of cultural change that were to shape and sustain her fiction a half-century later were already engaging the energies of a continent. The old agrarianism, allied with maritime power in New England, and centered on handicrafts, individualism, and the town, retreated before the new capitalism with its aggressive gods of technology, progress, and megalopolis. Long before the end of the century, that sacred ethos that had produced Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville had exhausted its motive concept. Neither Hebraic injunctions nor the newer Victorian decorum could cope with the fissures of the new imagination. By the time Miss Chase had published her first story in 1908, this cultural metamorphosis, revealing itself more often in grotesquery than in beauty, had established a new metaphor of national experience and meaning. In this metaphor we see not only the baffling, Titan-face of modern America, but more important for Miss Chase's writing, a new pattern of regional energy and assertion—a pattern in which power and poetry fall away from...
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SOURCE: Milbank, Helen K. “Mary Ellen Chase: Teacher, Writer, Lecturer.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 5-13.
[In the following essay, Milbank presents an overview of Chase's long career.]
It is fashionable these days for institutions of higher learning to invite successful novelists and poets to spend a semester or longer on the campus, hopefully to teach a course in “creative writing,” or perhaps just to be there as an object of interest to visitors and an example to students. Sometimes the Great Man or Great Woman turns out to be a good teacher, sometimes not.
“Creative-ness,” some Geniuses have explained, “is stifled by the demands of the classroom.” The demands of the classroom not only never stifled Mary Ellen Chase's creative abilities, they seemed on the contrary to enhance and excite them. Those institutions fortunate enough to have Miss Chase on their faculties were thus never troubled by this problem. The University of Minnesota and Smith College, the one for eight years and the other for thirty, had at one and the same time a born teacher and a writer whose works reach with deceptive ease from textbooks to best-selling novels. Tucked in are scholarly studies, biographies, short stories, book reviews and books for children. And nowhere along the line have colleagues or students been aware of any conflict in Mary Chase's mind between “creativeness”...
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Cary, Richard. “A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Mary Ellen Chase.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 34-45.
As complete a list of Chase's published works to 1962 as Cary could assemble, given Chase's disinterest in keeping accurate records of when and where she published.
Squire, Elienne. “Bibliography.” In A Lantern in the Wind: The Life of Mary Ellen Chase, pp. 205-08. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Fithian Press, 1995.
Bibliography of mostly primary works.
Westbrook, Perry D. “Selected Bibliography.” In Mary Ellen Chase, pp. 166-71. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.
Selected list of primary works, with a short secondary works section.
Chase, Evelyn Hyman. Feminist Convert: A Portrait of Mary Ellen Chase. Santa Barbara, Calif.: John Daniel, 1988, 182 p.
Written by Chase's sister-in-law, a biography which claims that Chase belatedly embraced the ideals of American feminism.
Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. “A Portrait: 1962.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 1-4.
Personal reminiscence of Chase, written by her longtime companion and fellow professor at Smith College.
Squire, Elienne. A Lantern in the...
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