Study Guide

Susan Allen Toth

Susan Allen Toth Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Susan Allen Toth is an important Midwestern chronicler of the life of the common person. Her writing shows how a relatively mundane life may seem intriguing if it is told with sensitivity and sympathy for humanity. Born in Ames, Iowa, where she also grew up, she had a quiet and happy childhood with her mother, Hazel Erickson Allen Lipa, an English teacher at Iowa State University, and her sister, Karen, one year older than Toth. Her father, Edward Douglas Allen, a promising economist at Iowa State, died when she was seven years old; her mother did not remarry until Toth’s college years.{$S[A]Allen Toth, Susan;Toth, Susan Allen}

Toth’s childhood and adolescence are recorded in detail in her first book, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, which is a thematic collection of reminiscences from her grade-school years to her arrival at Smith College. The book depicts incidents and people, apprehensions and successes, that shape the person she would become in adulthood.Blooming also describes Toth’s early propensity for omnivorous reading, her immersion in the Protestant work ethic (from baby-sitting to detasseling corn), and the social and psychological importance of cultivating many girlfriends and boyfriends.

Blooming’s eleven chapters explore Toth’s early interests and experiences: the town swimming pools and her family’s summer lake retreat, her friends and classes and parties, holiday celebrations, and preparations for and departure to college. Ivy Days: Making My Way out East, a memoir of Toth’s four years at Smith College and her first two years of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, has seven chapters that tell of Toth’s alliance with and adjustments to all sorts of other women, her fledgling attempts at social drinking and smoking, her embarrassments and boredom on uninteresting or threatening dates, her apprehensions and successes in college classes, and her enchantment with campus scenery and with East Coast families of her friends.

Ivy Days is not only more mature chronologically than her first book but also tighter in its prose and more symbolic in its language. Apples packed in a bag for lunch on the train home from college symbolize freedom and health, a quilt made by her aunt signifies solace and love in her claustrophobic dormitory room in Lawrence House, and six-foot-long college scarves curled on other girls’ shoulders broadcast popularity and romantic involvement. Ivy Days is a book at once universal and particular in its topics of uprooting, moving, becoming homesick, and reaching out to others.

Ivy Days is also about charting direction for life. Toth embarks on a history major after considering art history and...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)