Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

Nancy Hale’s novels and short stories center on the lives of well-bred women. She commented in 1942, “I specialize in women because they are so mysterious to me. I feel that I know men quite thoroughly. . . . But women puzzle me.” Hale was born in 1908, the daughter of two painters, Lilian Wescott and Philip L. Hale. She graduated from the Winsor School in Boston in 1928 and, planning to be a painter, never attended college. At the age of twenty, she married Taylor Hardin and moved to New York City to work on the editorial staffs at Vogue and Vanity Fair; occasionally, she also modeled while at Vogue. She published her first novel, The Young Die Good, in 1932. The next year, she won an O. Henry Award for “To the Invader,” a short story in which she explores the conflicts of a woman from the northern states who marries a Virginian.

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Maxwell Perkins, the renowned editor at Scribner’s, offered Hale strong encouragement for her writing. Despite the birth of her second son, divorce from Hardin, marriage to and divorce from Charles Wertenbaker, and a nervous breakdown, Hale was able to complete and publish her most famous novel, The Prodigal Women, in 1942. That same year, she married Fredson T. Bowers, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He served in Washington, D.C., as a cryptographer during World War II, after which they lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and spent summers in New England on Cape Ann.

For the next forty-six years, Hale adapted to the life of the university community in Charlottesville, and she continued to write in a variety of genres. She was given a Benjamin Franklin Magazine Award in 1958, the Henry H. Bellamann Foundation Award in 1969, and the Sarah Joseph Hale Award in 1974. From 1959 to 1965, she lectured on the short story at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in 1962 she collected a number of these essays in The Realities of Fiction. Because of her background in painting, the publisher Doubleday commissioned Hale to write a biography of the nineteenth century American painter Mary Cassatt, which she completed in 1975.

Hale’s greatest critical success was in the novel and short story, because of the skillful way in which she developed women as characters. The dialogue is aptly drawn, as are the speech patterns, manners, and actions of the characters. Regional differences often create the tension in her works. The Young Die Good takes as its heroine a carefree young woman from New York society who is determined to seize all that life has to offer, despite the Depression at home and the threat of fascism abroad. Hale’s second novel, Never Any More, describes the lives of three very different sixteen-year-olds as they spend several weeks together in Maine. The Prodigal Women also develops three characters, women who are trying to balance the conflicting claims of a personal, powerful identity with those of motherhood.

One of the best collections of Hale’s short stories is Between the Dark and the Daylight. Eudora Welty claimed that the best of these twenty-one stories deal with childhood as a kind of ideal in which innocence and bliss have not yet been weighed down by the cruel knowledge and disillusionment of adulthood. Two of the best stories are “Sunday Lunch” and “The Most Elegant Drawing Room in Europe.” In the first, Hale examines a small group of Marylanders, one of whom has secretly built and stocked a fallout shelter. In the second, she focuses on a sharply drawn Italian contessa who invites three Americans to a cocktail party in her most elegant drawing room. Although regional differences furnish the backdrop for Hale’s novels, she was essentially concerned with the individual and how that individual reacts to outside pressure. Throughout her work, she was a keen observer of the human spirit.

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Critical Essays