Bess Streeter Aldrich Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.