Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Susan Allen Toth’s first book, Blooming, is a thematic autobiography of 211 pages, covering the time period of her grade-school years in Ames, Iowa, through her arrival at Smith College to begin her freshman year. Throughout her tracing of formative influences, apprehensions, and successes in her life, there are several important consistencies of attitudes and values that are evident throughout her book.

First of all, she expects good things from life but is apprehensive about how to get them, so she is eager for life experiences. Furthermore, her character is firmly rooted in the Protestant work ethic, which accounts for the industry and tenacity with which she deals with challenging or distasteful tasks; as she grows up she believes that work is an essential ingredient of adult life. Friends, specifically female friends, form a rich and sustaining network for her. Boyfriends, however, seem more like prizes to be won than friends in whom to confide. Boyfriends may be transient, but girlfriends are enduring. Given less prominence in her autobiography are her widowed mother and older sister.

As Toth records each experience in her life and infuses it with meaning and significance, she does so by relating it in some way to an anecdote involving her daughter, Jennifer, whose girlhood is more complex and less ambiguous than that of her mother. A common practice in the book, in fact, is for Toth to begin a chapter with a memory about her daughter, which then serves as a catalyst for important related recollections of her own childhood.

Blooming is topically organized, with each of its eleven chapters exploring a significant theme or period in Toth’s life. The first, titled “Nothing Happened,” gives the backdrop of Toth’s personal orientation as an outgrowth of the moral, religious, and ethnic composition of the town in which she was reared. In the 1950’s, the town of Ames was a small, racially homogeneous, conservative white society with very little crime, where tragedies, if they did occur, were only “freakish twists of...

(The entire section is 853 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

There is, perhaps, no more universal story—in fact and in fiction—than the story of maturation, or, as Susan Allen Toth would have it, of “Blooming.” Regardless of gender, place, or era, everyone must grow up. It is a process few people forget, a journey which although unique for each individual nevertheless follows similar outlines, moments and phases of trauma and pleasure. The most common aspect of the maturing process is, more times than not, the telling about it in retrospect—bloom remembering bud. In that sense, “blooming” is never-ending—at least not in memory.

In Blooming Susan Allen Toth looks back, at the age of forty-one, at the girl she once was: “Sue Allen from Ames, Iowa.” That is how she announced herself when, one September on a Northampton, Massachusetts, train platform (dressed in a wool suit of her own careful making) she greeted the larger world of Smith College—a new and different phase of her life, another kind of blooming, but one very much conditioned by her home in Ames and all that it meant to her.

Writing from the vantage point of a professor of English in a small college in St. Paul, Minnesota, some twenty-four years later, Toth retraces what adolescence in the relatively stable decade of the 1950’s was like, growing up in yet another college town, and destined to become—like her mother before her—an English instructor, fascinated with language and the magical powers of telling, of narration, of re-creating oneself in words. As such, Toth’s is not a dramatic or daring life story. Rather, it is ordinary and even provincial. It is, however, a poignant story, far from trivial, given the author’s sense of what it means to be a woman, now divorced, with a young daughter, Jennifer, who in the final judgment is the best and truest audience for these rememberings.

Blooming is not directly dedicated to Toth’s daughter, however. It is her mother, Hazel Erickson Allen Lipa, who has this distinction. One senses throughout the book that what the author wishes to communicate is the notion of continuity; she wishes to tell about the tie which exists between her mother and her own daughter—and by implication the bond which exists between all daughters, all women. As such, there is very little mention in Blooming of Toth’s father or of her husband, Jennifer’s father. Although Toth’s mother was widowed, leaving her with two daughters to rear on the modest salary of an Iowa State University faculty member; and although the author is divorced, leaving her responsible for her own daughter’s upbringing, there is no whimpering, though there is much empathy, in Blooming. One can only speculate that though perhaps more painful, as memoir, the book would be all the richer if more were said about fathers and husbands—and about Toth’s sister, who, given the female emphasis of the book, is curiously denied any detailed consideration.

Blooming is not a tract for the feminist movement in the sense that it champions a world of women without men, but it does speak confidently, if not boldly, for the women’s movement, for females—for a world, even if glimpsed only in potential, where the ideal of male/female equality or androgyny is realized.

Thus, much of the impact of the book comes from the juxtaposing of the author’s girlhood and her womanhood, her world as a daughter in the “old days” as her daughter thinks of it, and her womanhood, her daughter’s present. Each of the book’s eleven chapters begins in the present of the 1980’s, italicized as inner musing become lyrical reverie. The themes of that present—whether dealing with recreation such as swimming or, thematically and metaphorically more significant, of gardening, cooking,...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, Susan Allen Toth recalls her experiences as a young girl in Ames, Iowa, in the 1950’s. She describes the pleasures and trials of growing up female in a small community during a time when gender roles were clearly defined. Each chapter explores one facet of everyday life as Toth recounts experiences from her junior high and high school years. By beginning each chapter with an incident in her life in the 1970’s as a single mother, teaching college English courses, Toth compares her own girlhood with that of her daughter and considers how her earlier experiences have affected her adult life.

Beginning with a chapter called “Nothing Happened,” Toth suggests that despite its limitations, small-town life offered rich opportunities for a young girl to develop intellectually and personally. After describing a conversation that she had as an adult with other women who insisted that growing up in a small Midwestern town was “hell,” Toth acknowledges that her life was not exciting and that Ames did not offer all the cultural or intellectual resources that she later found in college and in cities. She insists, however, that her world was a “garden” that nurtured her into adulthood with a strong sense of safety and community.

The book examines the central experiences of Toth’s life, which, as the first chapter suggests, were neither unusual nor particularly exciting. In Toth’s telling, however, these experiences are shown to be both important and interesting. She describes the town’s climate as generally peaceful, with only a few divorces and one murder to interrupt the flow of daily life. Yet she admits that the town probably was more...

(The entire section is 700 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The structure of Blooming makes it more of a memoir than an autobiography, but like many of the women’s autobiographies written and studied in recent years, it provides a previously unrecognized female perspective on everyday life. Toth takes her own experiences seriously, and her sympathetic, ironic voice suggests that experiences that appear simple and unimportant on the surface may be central to a woman’s life. Indeed, in Blooming as in other women’s autobiographical writing, daily life and ordinary women move from the neglected margins to center stage. In this book, the common experiences of white, middle-class, midwestern women and girls become the key to understanding what it means to be female in the 1950’s and beyond.

While Blooming has not received much critical attention from critics in women’s literature or women’s studies programs, the book represents an unusual example within the growing field of women’s writing about their own lives. Although other writers, such as Nancy Mairs and Patricia Hampl, have written memoirs that reflect on the experiences of growing up female, Toth’s books, both Blooming and Ivy Days, offer unusually positive, sympathetic visions of women’s lives. Instead of focusing on the limitations of gender or on the struggles of understanding oneself, but without ignoring the pain and self-doubt of adolescence or the impact of gender on her experiences, Toth emphasizes the sweetness and security of small-town life.

Toth continued writing about her own life in Ivy Days, which describes her experiences at Smith College; How to Prepare for Your High School Reunion (1988), in which she comments on life in middle age; and Reading Rooms (1980), a book that collects Toth’s and other readers’ feelings about reading.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Barbre, Joy Webster, et al., eds. Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. The essays in this collection, which grew out of a national conference, examine the context, forms, and use of voice in women’s personal narratives. None addresses Toth specifically, but they provide helpful background material.

Benstock, Shari, ed. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. In this essay collection, a number of feminist critics examine theories of autobiography and analyze central examples of women’s use of the genre in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While none of the articles addresses Toth’s work in particular, the approaches included here offer valuable models for critical analysis of Toth’s memoir.

Booklist. LXXVII, May 1, 1981, p. 1185.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Heilbrun writes critically about how traditional accounts of women’s lives have represented women as passive, rather than active, and she argues for closer readings of women’s life stories. This book is useful for its analytical approach to women’s autobiographical writing.

Library Journal. CVI, April, 1, 1981, p. 788.

Lochner, Frances C., ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 105. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. This reference entry offers a brief biography of Toth, a useful listing of her publications, and a short comment from the author on her goals in writing.

Ms. X, July, 1981, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 24, 1981, p. 4.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVII, June 11, 1981, p. 26.