Critical Context

Though Weeds was favorably reviewed in 1923 (Sinclair Lewis, an old friend and former fiance being one of the reviewers), it never became popular. The book was revived in 1972 through the efforts of Matthew J. Bruccoli in his Lost American Fiction series under the auspices of the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale; Kelley’s selected papers are in a collection there, while her letters to Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair are in collections of the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana.

The reissuing of her novel brought her more critical attention, especially from the aspect of regionalism and feminism, but the novel has never become popular. Her second novel, The Devil’s Hand, about life in California’s Imperial Valley as seen through the eyes of two female protagonists, was written between 1925 and 1929. It was finally published in 1974, eighteen years after her death.

Her first novel garnered more critical acclaim than the second; neither was widely read. Nevertheless, Weeds has been called by many “a little masterpiece” of its type, a sensitively rendered and fully realized portrait of poor Southern life.

Both books are loosely autobiographical. Kelley was born in Ontario, Canada, and earned an honors degree in languages at the University of Toronto. She migrated to New York in 1905 and worked on Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary. In 1906, she became Upton Sinclair’s secretary and lived in Helicon Hall, a Socialist commune in Englewood, New Jersey. There she met and became engaged to Sinclair Lewis; though she married another man, they remained friends. After divorcing Alan Updengraff, she and her two children lived with sculptor Claude Fred Kelley, whose last name she assumed. From 1914 to 1945, they lived as tenant tobacco farmers in Kentucky, boardinghouse managers in New Jersey, and chicken farmers in California. Though both she and her husband were educated, they lived the life she describes in Weeds. They tried to make their living from the land while pursuing their art. The theme of human alienation from nature came naturally to Kelley, as did her portrayal of a woman and mother whose artistic soul is all but smothered by the harsh economic realities of her life.