Bess Streeter Aldrich Essay - Critical Essays

Aldrich, Bess Streeter


Bess Streeter Aldrich 1881-1954

(Also wrote as Margaret Dean Stevens) American novelist and short story writer.

Best known for her novels set in the early settlement days of the American Midwest, Aldrich has been honored for her realistic portrayals of the American pioneering experience. Used often as supplemental reading in American history classes, Aldrich's novels and short stories are driven by their characters, many of them strong, fearless, and hardworking women. Her stories of pioneers were inspired by the experiences of both her mother's and father's pioneer families and are set in the prairies of the Midwest. Aldrich took special care to acknowledge the strength, hardiness, and loving sacrifices of pioneer women, and her protagonists are usually female paragons for whom family is of the highest importance.

Biographical Information

Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1881, Aldrich's family had a history of pioneering. Her grandparents, whose stories appear in her books, traveled with their families from Illinois to settle in Iowa when it was still a wilderness. Aldrich began to write at an early age, and at fourteen won a camera in a short-story contest. She earned her first writer's fee at the age of seventeen when the Baltimore News bought one of her short stories for five dollars. After training as a teacher at Iowa State Teachers College, Aldrich taught in high school and college for several years before her marriage, writing articles for teachers' magazines and short stories under the name of Margaret Dean Stevens.

In 1907 she married Charles Aldrich, and they moved to Nebraska. Her husband encouraged her to write under her married name, and she did so, publishing her first collection of short stories, Mother Mason, in 1924 and her first novel, The Rim of the Prairie, in 1925. Her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 1925 when the youngest of their four children was four years old. Subsequently, Aldrich supported her family with her writing, publishing a book every two years and writing a total of 168 short stories. From 1930 she also served as book editor for the Christian Herald. She died of cancer in 1954 at the age of seventy-four. After her death, the street in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she had lived was renamed Aldrich Road in her honor. A greater posthumous honor came in 1973 when she became the seventh person inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.

Major Works

Aldrich's most famous book, A Lantern in Her Hand (1928), became a worldwide best seller. It was written to honor her mother, embodied in the central character, and is based on stories Aldrich heard as a child from her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and stories sent to her by others who had experienced the pioneer life. Its sequel, A White Bird Flying (1931), was one of the three top-selling books of the year, along with Willa Cather's Shadows of the Rocks and Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Miss Bishop (1933), about a spinster teacher who devotes her life to her family and her students, was made into a film, Cheers for Miss Bishop, in 1941. Aldrich's last novel, The Lieutenant's Lady (1942), was based on the diaries of an army officer and his wife and also became a best seller.

Many of Aldrich's books are collections of her short stories. Mother Mason and The Cutters (1926) contain series of stories about pioneer families. Others, such as The Man Who Caught the Weather (1936) and Journey into Christmas (1949), are collections of stories first published in various periodicals.

Critical Reception

Aldrich's novels and short stories were extremely popular during the 1940s and 1950s, and her work was in much demand by periodicals such as Woman's Home Companion, McCall's, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Harper's Weekly. Although her writing was not critically acclaimed for its artistry, she enjoyed a wide readership who loved her simple, sentimental stories about hope and struggle, hardship and romance. She sold every story she wrote, although some of them were rejected many times before their sale. Her work was considered wholesome, uplifting, and cheerful, reflecting her personal attitude about life, but while she wrote of love and personal sacrifice, she avoided the subjects of sexual passion and the sordid and seamy aspects of humanity. Her work has been faulted for this, and for her insistence that marriage, family, and the rearing of children is woman's highest and most satisfying calling. These ideals were, however, those that she believed in firmly and exhibited in her own life.

Principal Works

Mother Mason (short stories) 1924

The Rim of the Prairie (novel) 1925

The Cutters (short stories) 1926

A Lantern in Her Hand (novel) 1928

A White Bird Flying (novel) 1931

Miss Bishop (novel) 1933

Spring Came On Forever (novel) 1935

The Man Who Caught the Weather (short stories) 1936

Song of Years (novel) 1939

The Drum Goes Dead (short stories) 1941

The Lieutenant's Lady (novel) 1942

Journey into Christmas and Other Stories (short stories) 1949

The Bess Streeter Aldrich Reader (short stories) 1950

A Bess Streeter Aldrich Treasury (short stories) 1959

Across the Smiling Meadow and Other Stories (short stories) 1984

The Home-Coming and Other Stories (short stories) 1984


Times Literary Supplement (review date 13 December 1928)

SOURCE: Review of A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich. Times Literary Supplement (13 December 1928): 992.

[In the following brief review of A Lantern in Her Hand, the critic notes the novel's “absorbing interest.”]

There is imaginative power in this story [A Lantern in Her Hand] of pioneering days in Iowa and Nebraska, and even the most homely and trivial happenings in the eighty years of Abbie Deal's life are so dramatically treated as to give the chronicle of her struggle against an adverse destiny an absorbing interest. Abbie herself is a memorable figure, with her sturdy loyalty and romantic longings, the heritage of her aristocratic Scotch and peasant Irish ancestors. Jolting in the covered wagon as it made its slow advance westward over the prairies from the little village of Chicago, the child Abbie listened avidly to her sister's oft-told tale of the lovely lady, Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie. All through her maidenhood the legend of Isabelle, made concrete in the shape of a string of pearls, a family heirloom, acted as a beacon to Abbie's thoughts of fame as singer, writer, or painter. When she was nineteen, just after the Civil War, Abbie refused a chance of going to New York and married Will Deal. The Deals took the trail westward from Cedar Falls to the young State of Nebraska, where Abbie reared her six children with indomitable courage through all the hard years of famine and drought, grasshopper plagues and snow, until the determination of the early settlers bore its fruit in rolling miles of rich cornland and wealthy cities.

Bess Streeter Aldrich (essay date December 1941)

SOURCE: Aldrich, Bess Streeter. “The Story Germ.” The Writer 54, no. 12 (December 1941): 355-7.

[In the following essay, Aldrich illustrates how to build character and a story line by describing how she created Miss Bishop.]

Several times in the past years your editor has asked me to contribute an article and each time I have been too busy, or thought I was, which is nearly the same thing. This morning another pleasant request has arrived and in the same mail a letter from a young woman with that old query: “Can you help a beginning writer? Where do you get your ideas? How can … ?” etc., etc. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is the hand of Fate, but the...

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Bess Streeter Aldrich (essay date November 1950)

SOURCE: Aldrich, Bess Streeter. “Working Backward.” Writer 63 (November 1950): 350-53.

[In the following essay, Aldrich uses her story “Journey into Christmas” to show how she builds a story and characters.]

A number of years ago I wrote an article for The Writer titled “The Story Germ.” Several young writers were kind enough to tell me it was helpful to them. In that article I stressed the point that plots for stories seldom come to one in their entirety, but that, given some small situation or dramatic moment or distinctive human trait, one can work out a story based on that little happening or emotional period or outstanding characteristic....

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Abigail Ann Martin (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Martin, Abigail Ann. “Bess Streeter Aldrich.” In Bess Streeter Aldrich, pp. 5-41. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1992.

[In the following essay, Martin provides a critical discussion of Aldrich's major works.]

“Nebraska,” wrote Bess Streeter Aldrich, “is only the state of my adoption, but I am sure that I feel all the loyalty for it which the native-born bears … while I am not a native Nebraskan, the blood of the midwestern pioneer runs in my veins and I come rightly by my love for the Nebraska pioneer and admiration for the courage and fortitude which he displayed in the early days of the state's history …” (Introduction to The Rim of...

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Carol Miles Petersen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Petersen, Carol Miles. Introduction to The Collected Short Works 1907-1919, pp. vii-xiii. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

[In the following introduction to a collection of Aldrich's short works, Petersen gives a critical overview of Aldrich's writing.]

In describing how to write a short story, Bess Streeter Aldrich noted the author must “live the lives of his characters, crawling into their very skins. … He must be an actor. More than that, he must play all the parts.”1 In playing “all the parts,” Bess Streeter Aldrich brought to her readers the pleasure of well-written stories that reflect her own personality: her...

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Further Reading


Peterson, Carol Miles. Bess Streeter Aldrich: The Dreams Are All Real. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, 237 p.

Includes a complete bibliography of Aldrich's work.


Meier, A. Mabel. “Bess Streeter Aldrich: A Literary Portrait.” Nebraska History 50, no. 1 (1969): 67-100.

Biographical chronology of Aldrich's life and writings.

Additional coverage of Aldrich's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 70; and Literature Resource Center....

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