(Short Story Criticism)

Suckow, Ruth 1892-1960

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

Suckow is best known for her fiction focusing on rural and small-town life in the American midwest in the early twentieth century. Critics note that her fiction often explores the tension between small-town tradition and need for individual expression and self-development. While Suckow was compared to other women writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Willa Cather, and was regarded by commentators as a regionalist or local colorist, later evaluations of her work have noted that her stories incorporate themes that transcend the narrow scope of her work.

Biographical Information

Suckow was born in Hawarden, Iowa, daughter of a Congregationalist minister and his wife. Although her family moved often, the majority of Suckow's formative years were spent in rural Iowa, and her experiences were reflected later in her short fiction and novels. following her graduation from high school, she matriculated at Grinnell College. In 1913, Suckow attended the Curry School of Expression in Boston, and subsequently enrolled at the University of Denver, from which she received an MA in English. Suckow worked as a beekeeper, and when her father relocated to Earlville, Iowa, she established her own apiary there. Meanwhile she pursued a writing career, and in 1918, she published her first poems. She began to submit short fiction to the periodical Midland, which subsequently published a number of Suckow's early stories. Iowa Interiors, her first collection, was published in 1926 and brought her to the attention of H. L. Mencken, who himself accepted many of Suckow's work for his magazines. Subsequently, her short fiction appeared frequently in periodicals such as Smart Set, American Mercury, Century Magazine, and Midland. Failing health eventually required Suckow to spend more and more time in the warmer climates of Arizona and California. She died in Claremont, California in 1960.

Major Works of Short Fiction

While Suckow originally gained fame for her work as a novelist, some critics assert that short fiction is her most effective genre. Her first collection, Iowa Interiors, demonstrates the defining characteristics of her stories, in particular the provincial setting, usually in Iowa; a dearth of action and a wealth of realistic detail; and themes that include generational conflict, alienation from small-town tradition and values, and the inability to express feelings within a family or community setting. In "Uprooted," her first published short story, the children of an older couple living in Iowa meet to discuss the fate of their parents as they age. The most prosperous son, Sam, manipulates his most passive and least affluent sibling into taking responsibility for them. Suckow characteristically invests the story with symbolic detail of the meeting which functions to build a sense of familiarity and intensify the tension between the homey, old-fashioned world of the older couple and the brash, fast-moving world of their son.

Critical Reception

Despite Suckow's critical and commercial popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, some contemporary commentators have indicted her short fiction as narrow and monotonous. In her time, her work was labelled "feminist," as it often focuses on female characters as they struggle to find self-fulfillment under patriarchal, provincial circumstances. Yet most critics recognize Suckow's role as observer and recorder of small-town life, and they praise her deft characterizations and use of realistic detail in her stories. It is noted that while Suckow presents the drawbacks to provincial life, she also depicts much of its beauty and tranquility as well. As Leedice McAnelly Rissane asserts: "Her awareness of life with its complexities and its sadness, no less than her artist's touch in creating the illusion of reality, distinguishes the whole of her work."