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.
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.
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.
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.