Who was Gertrude Atherton, and what did she contribute to American literature?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton was an independent-minded woman writer often compared to Henry James and Edith Wharton. Having eloped with the man who was courting her mother, Gertrude moved from San Francisco to another part of California. After her son George died of diphtheria and her husband killed at sea, Mrs. Atherton began to write in order to support herself, becoming a prolific author of books, short stories, and magazine articles. Atherton is renowned for her California series, which is composed of several novels and short stories dealing with the social history of California. Her semi-autobiographical novel Black Oxen was even made into a silent film starring Clara Bow.  But, it was her anonymously published The Randolph’s of the Redwoods, purported about a local family's troubles, that established her as a writer of enticing and controversial ideas such as women's sexuality and independence.

After she visited Europe, Atherton lived in England where she wrote Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897) about an independent woman; also while in England she wrote American Wives and English Husbands (1898). Senator North (1900). Years later, having stayed in Germany for some revitalizing treatments, Atherton wrote historical books, one about the philosopher Aspasia The Immortal Marriage (1927); Alcibiades in The Jealous Gods (1928), and a story of Dido in Dido, Queen of Hearts (1929).

In a Dictionary of Literary Biography, Charlotte S. McClure wrote that Atherton

...redefined women's potential and presented a psychological drama of a woman's quest for identity and for a life purpose and happiness within and beyond her procreative function"

Certainly, Mrs. Atherton knew of women's repression, and her valorous efforts for women's equality and for a cultural identity for the young state of California mark her as a significant figure in both literature and California's history. Her depictions of European life also mark her as an author with an eye for detail and a sprawling story that readily engaged her readers. 

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