Helen Hooven Santmyer Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Helen Hooven Santmyer 1895-1986

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Santmyer's works from 1984 through 1998. For criticism prior to 1984, see CLC, Volume 33.

Santmyer had a modest literary output beginning in the 1920s, but fame did not reach her until the publication of her 1982 novel “… And Ladies of the Club.” Thanks to some effective promotion and a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, this story of Midwestern small-town life became a bestseller when Santmyer was in her eighties. Thereafter critics and the public took a new interest in Santmyer's other works as well.

Biographical Information

Helen Hooven Santmyer was born on November 25, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio, but spent much of her life in Xenia, a small city in the southwestern part of the state, where both sides of her family had deep roots. Santmyer never stopped calling Xenia home, in spite of occasional forays elsewhere in the United States and abroad. She led a happy and rather conventional childhood, with plenty of time to develop her love of reading. In 1914 she entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she was encouraged to pursue a writing career. After a brief stint working for a suffragette organization in New York City, she became secretary to an editor of Scribner's magazine, where she was exposed to a number of famous writers such as Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1921 she returned home to Xenia to care for her ailing mother. Her father's largesse allowed her to spend three years at Oxford University in England, where she received a degree in literature in 1927. During this period she also produced her first novel, continuing her literary efforts when she returned to Ohio. After a brief time in California with her family, she began to teach at Cedarville College near Xenia, becoming dean of women and chair of the English department. In the mid-1950s she left teaching to become a reference librarian at the Dayton and Montgomery County Library until her retirement in 1959, living and travelling with her longtime friend Mildred Sandoe. In the mid-1960s, using notes she had accumulated over the years, she began work on what was to become “… And Ladies of the Club,” not completing the manuscript until 1975. Santmyer professed to be as shocked as anyone else when the 1984 reissue of the book provoked such a worldwide literary reaction. At the time in poor health and in a nursing home, she was able to enjoy her newfound success only until 1986, when she died on February 21, from complications of emphysema.

Major Works

Santmyer's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Herbs and Apples (1925), tells the story of a girl from Ohio who longs to go to New York to pursue a writing career but is thwarted by the onset of World War I. Her 1929 novel, The Fierce Dispute, focuses on a child whose mother and grandmother are engaged in a struggle for control of her future. Ohio Town (1962) is a collection of essays recalling the sights and sounds of Xenia in Santmyer's youth. Santmyer's “… And Ladies of the Club” attracted scant attention when it was first published by Ohio State University Press in 1982. When this saga of the lives of members of a small city women's club from 1868 to 1932 was reprinted by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1984, however, it became the selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, was widely reviewed, and brought a great deal of press attention to the elderly Santmyer. A posthumous novel, Farewell, Summer, appeared in 1988.

Critical Reception

Santmyer's early books were little noticed and little reviewed. The same could be said of “… And Ladies of the Club” in its initial incarnation in 1982. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, the Putnam edition of 1984 became the publishing sensation of that year, remaining on the bestseller list for thirty-seven weeks. The story of a nearly ninety-year-old lady who had supposedly worked on a book for fifty years was irresistible to the national news media. Many critics were kind to Santmyer, noting her faithfulness to detail and her accurate evocation of life at the turn of the century and beyond. Others found the book unnecessarily long, compared it unfavorably with books like Main Street and My Ántonia, or accused the publisher of unduly promoting a mediocre book for its publicity value. Because of the success of “… And Ladies of the Club,” Santmyer's other works, particularly Ohio Town, were reissued and also gained a modest amount of critical attention.