Mary Ellen Chase Chase, Mary Ellen (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Ellen Chase 1887-1973

American novelist, nonfiction writer, and teacher.

For further information on Chase's life and works, see CLC, Volume 2.

Known as a leader of the Maine school of writers, Chase was also a distinguished professor at Smith College for many years. Her considerable writing output included adult and children's fiction, biography, college texts, and other nonfiction. Although she was not popular with many academic critics, she found favor with readers who embraced her optimistic view of American culture.

Biographical Information

Chase was born on February 24, 1887, in Blue Hill, Maine, which was home to her ancestors since 1692. She absorbed the seafaring tradition of her Maine forebears, remaining in her hometown until she entered the University of Maine in 1904. After teaching assignments in Wisconsin and Chicago, she wrote her first children's book while recuperating from an illness in Montana. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, where she also taught for four years. She taught at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul before accepting a position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1926. There she remained until 1955, at the same time pursuing her writing and lecturing career. She produced much of her best work at her summer home in Maine and in Cambridgeshire, England, where she lived for two years. Chase never married, believing that a writing and teaching career and marriage were incompatible. She died in Northampton July 28, 1973.

Major Works

Scholars regret that Chase never kept a comprehensive list of her prodigious literary output, which ranged from juvenile and adult fiction, to Biblical studies, to biography, to academic textbooks. Her first fiction works were for young readers, and her early nonfiction efforts were designed for use in college teaching. In A Goodly Heritage (1932), A Goodly Fellowship (1939), and The White Gate (1954), she explored her own Yankee heritage and philosophized about teaching as a career. Chase also produced several popular studies of the Bible as literature, such as The Bible and the Common Reader (1944), which grew from her own deep Christian faith and her love of teaching. Her novels and juvenile books are steeped in the history and traditions of her native New England. Chase was strongly influenced by Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, whom she had met during childhood. In adult novels of Maine such as Silas Crockett (1935) and Windswept (1941), Chase imbued her characters and plots with a kind of spirituality. In fact, her insistence on traditional, humanistic values, even in her later work, was unusual in an increasingly cynical literary world. Although her philosophy may have been intellectually unfashionable, her works reached a wide audience and gave readers carefully written works of literature laced with interesting social history.

Critical Reception

Nearly all the criticism on Chase from the late 1920s into the late 1960s was laudatory, with a tone suggesting deference to a well-loved professor. Most reviews of her novels and nonfiction work were short, complimenting Chase's subject matter and elegance of style. In 1962 the Colby Library Quarterly devoted a full issue to Chase, portraying her as a distinguished novelist of Maine, surpassed only by Jewett. Three critical biographies of Chase later helped to solidify her reputation. While Chase's works were neither overly sentimental nor always optimistic, they did establish a high standard of morality and expressed lofty ideals and a faith in the human spirit. Thus she was out of the mainstream of a great deal of serious American literature in the 1950s and 1960s—a time when writers were becoming more interested in the malaise of their time than in the force of spirituality or idealized traditions. Although only a few of Chase's works are read or reviewed today, she retains a respected place in the literary history of her time.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Girl from the Big Horn Country (juvenilia) 1916

Virginia of Elk Creek Valley (juvenilia) 1917

The Art of Narration (nonfiction) 1926

Mary Christmas (novel) 1926

Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel (criticism) 1927

Uplands (novel) 1927

The Writing of Informal Essays [editor; with Margaret E. Macgregor] (nonfiction) 1928

Constructive Theme Writing for College Freshmen (nonfiction) 1929

The Golden Ass and Other Essays (essays) 1929

The Silver Shell (juvenilia) 1930

A Goodly Heritage (autobiography) 1932

Mary Peters (novel) 1934

Silas Crockett (novel) 1935

This England (nonfiction) 1936

Dawn in Lyonesse (novel) 1938

A Goodly Fellowship (autobiography) 1939

Windswept (novel) 1941

The Bible and the Common Reader (nonfiction) 1944

Look at America: New England [editor; with the editors of Look magazine] (nonfiction) 1944

Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson, 1768-1847 (biography) 1948

The Plum Tree (novel) 1949

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (biography) 1950

Readings from the Bible [editor] (nonfiction) 1952

The White Gate (autobiography) 1954

Life and Language in the Old Testament (nonfiction) 1955

The Edge of Darkness (novel) 1957

Sailing the Seven Seas (juvenilia) 1958

Donald McKay and the Clipper Ships (juvenile biography) 1959

The Lovely Ambition (novel) 1960

The Psalms for the Common Reader (nonfiction) 1962

Dolly Moses (juvenilia) 1963

The Prophets for the Common Reader (nonfiction) 1963

Victoria: A Pig in a Pram (juvenilia) 1963

Richard Mansfield, the Prince of Donkeys (juvenilia) 1964

A Journey to Boston (nonfiction) 1965

The Story of Lighthouses (juvenilia) 1965

A Walk on an Iceberg (juvenilia) 1966

R. P. Boas (review date May 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boas, R. P. Review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel. Modern Language Notes 43, no. 5 (May 1928): 356.

[In the following review, Boas describes Chase's analysis of Thomas Hardy's censorship of a number of his serialized novels.]

This book [Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel] is a valuable study of the changes which Thomas Hardy made in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure to render them acceptable to the taste of the magazine readers of the eighties. In all three the serial versions were bowdlerized so that no Victorian could take offense. The changes are often meticulous, sometimes far-reaching, and always with an eye to the prudish decencies. And they are sometimes astonishingly drastic as in Tess where the magazine version omits the episode of the seduction, an episode which is “the motivating incident of the story.” Jude the Obscure naturally suffers most.

Miss Chase points out the important issue, “how far are we justified in condemning Hardy's literary ethics?” To answer this question she summarizes in four pages the progress of “realism” in the nineteenth century novel. She then places Hardy “above all preceding or contemporary English realists,” and maintains that he “belied his own philosophy of life.” The only defense which Miss Chase can present is Hardy's statement that he, like all novelists of his time, was “the slave of stolid circumstance” and that without the approval of the magazines and the circulating libraries he could not have received a hearing. One can believe his statement when one finds a contemporary reviewer referring to the complete version of Jude in such terms as “outrageous lubricities,” “rancid revelations,” and “a bundle of flash stories.”

Clarissa Rinaker (review date January 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rinaker, Clarissa. Review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 28 (January 1929): 144-47.

[In the following review of Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel, Rinaker expresses some doubt that Victorian readers actually compelled Hardy to make changes in the serialized versions of his novels.]

Here is a book [Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel] that threatens the reputation of Thomas Hardy as a conscientious literary artist, however the facts disclosed by Professor Chase may be interpreted after further study of his life and letters. It shows that Hardy made very radical changes in his novels when they...

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Stanley Young (essay date 17 November 1935)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Stanley. “A Fine Page in America's Past.” New York Times Book Review (17 November 1935): 1.

[In the following essay, Young describes Silas Crockett as somewhat romantic in tone but inspiring in its message.]

Follow the Maine Coast from Bath to Bar Harbor, from Casco Bay to Penobscot to Eastport, and you will find the background for Mary Ellen Chase's fine romantic story [Silas Crockett] of four generations of a seafaring family. You will find, too, the remnants of the Crocketts who made maritime history for a hundred years and who, like the family of Mary Peters, knew the coast before change was upon it, before the last sound of hammer...

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George P. Whicher (review date 16 November 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Whicher, George P. “She Teaches with Enthusiasm.” New York Herald Tribune Books (16 November 1939): 3.

[In the following review, Whicher recommends A Goodly Fellowship, regretting only that it is somewhat too rosy in its portrait of the teaching profession.]

This book is not a novel, though it reads like one, but a second installment of autobiography. Ten years ago Miss Chase wrote in A Goodly Heritage the story of her childhood in Maine. She now adds the chronicle of her thirty years as a teacher [in A Goodly Fellowship], beginning, after a brief survey of her own education, with her first experience in conducting a district school in...

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New York Times Book Review (review date 19 November 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Education of an American Teacher.” New York Times Book Review (19 November 1939): 6.

[In the following review of A Goodly Fellowship, the reviewer writes approvingly of Chase's descriptions of her teaching experiences.]

These autobiographical chapters by the author of Mary Peters and Dawn in Lyonesse might have borne the subtitle “The Education of an American Teacher,” for such a phrase would have suggested the receptivity of the writer's attitude and both the breadth and the boundaries of her book's material. But it would have offered no hint of the lively observation that accompanies Miss Chase's experience, nor of the salty...

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Bess Jones (review date 15 November 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Bess. “Chase. …” Saturday Review 24 (15 November 1941): 12.

[In the following review of Windswept, Jones praises the nobility of Chase's descriptions of a high-minded New England family but finds the writing a little too genteel.]

A reviewer who speaks of “novels of character,” “novels of atmosphere,” “novels of action,” is undoubtedly dated. For most current novelists, apparently preferring to avoid the suspicion of any single intent, refuse to admit the need for any single-minded technical procedure. Miss Chase fortunately can afford a little labeling. Openly inviting the description of her newest book [Windswept] as a...

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Katherine Woods (review date 15 November 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Woods, Katherine. “Two Novels of Distinction: Ciro Alegria's Story of Peru—Mary Ellen Chase's Novel of Maine.” New York Times Book Review (15 November 1941): 1.

[In the following review of Windswept, Woods says that she finds beauty in Chase's celebration of traditional values.]

House and headland, Windswept stood solitary and stalwart against the buffeting of gales and ocean, on the bold eastward-pressing coast of Maine. Philip Marston bought the untouched stretch of shore and wilderness in 1880 and planned the house for his son and himself; and young John Marston built the long, low dwelling on the little promontory seventy feet above the sea and...

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Rose Feld (review date 16 November 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Feld, Rose. “Land, Sea and Man: A Splendid Way of Life.” New York Herald Tribune Books (16 November 1941): 1-2.

[In the following review, Feld paints a glowing picture of Windswept, Chase's novel of the Maine seacoast.]

Out of a deep feeling for a stretch of sea-bitten land, out of a profound respect for simple humankind, out of a warm and friendly erudition, Mary Ellen Chase has fashioned a glowing and lasting novel. When most of this year's crop of fiction is forgotten readers will turn to Windswept, to savor again its moods of nature, its diversity of character and its pervading philosophy of strength. To call the book a story about Maine...

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Sigrid Undset (essay date 24 December 1944)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Undset, Sigrid. “A Treasury for All Mankind.” New York Times Book Review (24 December 1944): 1, 14.

[In the following essay, novelist Undset outlines some minor disagreements with Chase's biblical interpretations in The Bible and the Common Reader while treating the book as a whole in positive terms.]

It always seemed to me that literary elaborations on subject-matter borrowed from the Bible never improved the old stories. It is true that the Ages of Faith produced a wealth of religious poetry and drama which belong among the treasures of our spiritual inheritance. The Mysteries of the Middle Ages—the Latin hymns and sacred songs in the...

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Lewis Nichols (review date 13 July 1947)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nichols, Lewis. “Brahmins, Sea Captains, Town Fairs.” New York Times Book Review (13 July 1947): 6.

[In the following review of Look at America: New England, a picture book with commentary by Chase, Nichols notes that Chase treats New England in poetic terms.]

Knowing a good thing when their camera sees it, the editors of Look have been turning a contemplative eye on New England. For this, the second of their regional guide books, they have tracked down the cod and the Brahmin, the sea captain and the Connecticut Valley farmer, and have packaged them under a familiar corporate label. Look at America: New England is both the title and...

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Alice M. Baldwin (review date 1949)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baldwin, Alice M. Review of Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson. South Atlantic Quarterly 48 (1949): 308-09.

[In the following review of Jonathan Fisher: Maine Parson, Baldwin notes her approval of Chase's biography of a distinguished pastor from her hometown of Blue Hill, Maine.]

Jonathan Fisher was a pastor of the Congregational Church in the little seacoast village of Bluehill, Maine, from 1796 to 1837 and resident there until his death in 1847. Fortunately his diaries, notebooks, letters, sermons, and church documents, most of which he wrote or copied in a secret code devised by himself while a student at Harvard College, have been preserved, as...

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Samuel T. Williamson (review date 7 November 1954)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Williamson, Samuel T. Review of The White Gate. New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954): 5.

[In the following review of The White Gate, Williamson praises Chase's memoir of her Maine childhood.]

The doctor next door charged Edward Everett Chase $5 for bringing his second daughter into the world, and $1.50 for each of two post-natal visits to mother and child. Whatever way you look at it, lawyer Chase got a bargain for his $8. For his daughter, Mary Ellen, grew to be a Professor of English Literature at Smith College and author of Windswept and Mary Peters. On a flyleaf of this, her latest book, Miss Chase's publishers list eight...

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John J. Iorio (essay date March 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Iorio, John J. “Mary Ellen Chase and the Novel of Regional Crisis.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 21-34.

[In the following essay, Iorio asserts that several of Chase's novels effectively delineate the decline of old New England life as well as the indomitable spirit of the characters.]

When Mary Ellen Chase was born in 1887, many of the forces of cultural change that were to shape and sustain her fiction a half-century later were already engaging the energies of a continent. The old agrarianism, allied with maritime power in New England, and centered on handicrafts, individualism, and the town, retreated before the new capitalism with its...

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Helen K. Milbank (essay date March 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Milbank, Helen K. “Mary Ellen Chase: Teacher, Writer, Lecturer.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 5-13.

[In the following essay, Milbank presents an overview of Chase's long career.]

It is fashionable these days for institutions of higher learning to invite successful novelists and poets to spend a semester or longer on the campus, hopefully to teach a course in “creative writing,” or perhaps just to be there as an object of interest to visitors and an example to students. Sometimes the Great Man or Great Woman turns out to be a good teacher, sometimes not.

“Creative-ness,” some Geniuses have explained, “is stifled by the...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Cary, Richard. “A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Mary Ellen Chase.” Colby Library Quarterly 6 (March 1962): 34-45.

As complete a list of Chase's published works to 1962 as Cary could assemble, given Chase's disinterest in keeping accurate records of when and where she published.

Squire, Elienne. “Bibliography.” In A Lantern in the Wind: The Life of Mary Ellen Chase, pp. 205-08. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Fithian Press, 1995.

Bibliography of mostly primary works.

Westbrook, Perry D. “Selected Bibliography.” In Mary Ellen Chase, pp. 166-71. New York: Twayne...

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