Ruth Suckow Essay - Critical Essays

Suckow, Ruth


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."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Best of the Lot 1922; published in journal Smart Set Other People's Ambitions 1923; published in Smart Set A Part of the Institution 1923; published in Smart Set Iowa Interiors 1927

Children and Older People 1931

Carry-Over (short stories and novels) 1936

Some Others and Myself 1952

A Ruth Suckow Omnibus (short stories and novels) 1988

Other Major Works

Country People (novel) 1924

The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (novel) 1925

The Bonney Family (novel) 1928

Cora (novel) 1929

The Kramer Girls (novel) 1930

The Folks (novel) 1934

New Hope (novel) 1942

A Memoir (essay) 1952

The John Wood Case (novel) 1959


Herbert Asbury (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: "The American Interior," in New York Herald Tribune Booh, October 3, 1926, pp. 6-7.

[An American journalist and author, Asbury published works about the operations of the underworld in Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco. In the following essay, he examines the characters and the major themes of Iowa Interiors.]

[The stories in Iowa Interiors] are the first of Miss Suckow's shorter works to appear in book form, and reading them is, to me, like meeting a host of old and not very desirable acquaintances, for I was born and reared among just the sort of people with whom she has concerned herself. I know of no other writer who can portray so clearly the hideous drabness of existence on the farms and in the hamlets of the American interior, or who can so faithfully set down the petty selfishness or the vicious current of hatred which dominate human intercourse in the corn country. Her characters are terribly authentic, and in recounting their trivial doings she paints a brilliantly cruel picture of the utter futility of life which is bounded on one side by a row of corn and on all others by intolerance and stupidity. The people of whom she writes are born, they spend their lives in dreary, soulshattering toil and in a fuming, fretful worry, and then they die, without having caught more than a fleeting glimpse of a beauty of living which they can neither capture nor understand. And not understanding, they inveigh against it, and damn with gossip those who strive to find it.

It is generally the custom of those who would write about humanity beyond the Alleghenies to proclaim that the small town or country woman is obsessed by sex, and that her whole life is a constant torment because of Freudian inhibitions. But Miss Suckow, knowing whereof she writes, puts sex in its proper place, which is one of relatively small importance. There is sex in her stories, to be sure, just as there is sex in the corn country, but in these tales it is secondary to and almost submerged by a fearful dreariness which not even passion can overcome. The truth is that the farm woman of the Middle West has no time to worry over sex; even in its romantic aspects it is a negligible quantity in the life of a woman who must clamber out of bed at daybreak to cook breakfast for a horde of hungry farm hands, and who must...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

H. L. Mencken (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of Iowa Interiors, in American Mercury, Vol. IX, No. 35, November, 1926, pp. 382-83.

[Mencken was one of the most influential figures in American literature from the First World War until the early years of the Great Depression. His strongly individualistic, irreverent outlook on life and his vigorous, invective-charged writing style helped establish the iconoclastic spiritc of the Jazz Age and significantly shaped the direction of American literature. Mencken was an early and emphatic supporter of Suckow's writing, and in the following laudatory review, he praises her ability to create credible characters.]

In Miss Suckow's stories situation is usually of small significance: the salient thing is the anatomizing of character. Who among us can manage that business with greater penetration and understanding, with a finer feeling for the tragedy of everyday, with a more moving evocation of simple poetry? Who, indeed, at home or abroad, has ever published a better first book of short stories than [Iowa Interiors]? Of its sixteen stories, not one is bad—and among the best there are at least five masterpieces. I mean by a masterpiece a story that could not imaginably be improved—one in which the people are overwhelmingly real, and not a word can be spared. All of these people are simple Iowa peasants. In other hands they would slide inevitably into stock types, ludicrous and artificial. But Miss Suckow differentiates them sharply, and into every one she breathes something of the eternal tragedy of man. Her talent is not unlike that of Sherwood Anderson, but her mind is more orderly than his: she gropes and guesses less, and is hence more convincing. There are moments when he far surpasses her, but her average, it seems to me, is at least as high as his. She is unquestionably the most remarkable woman now writing short stories in the Republic; all the rest, put beside her, seem hollow and transparent.

The Outlook (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of Iowa Interiors, in The Outlook, Vol. 144, No. 11, November 10, 1926, pp. 342-43.

[In the following review, the critic provides a positive assessment of Iowa Interiors.]

"Local color fiction" is snubbed and scorned by the present-day critics who accept the work of Ruth Suckow as of distinguished merit. Local color fiction belongs, Carl Van Doren has told us, to "a now moribund cult" which was freighted with sentimentality and tinctured with respectability. Miss Suckow, on the contrary, is approved as a realist and an ironist who conveys without illusion the barrenness, the grossness, and the commonplaceness of rural life. She is, and she does;...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Florence Haxton Britten (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Sparrows of Iowa," in New York Herald Tribune Books, August 16, 1931, p. 6.

[In the following review, Britten commends the variety of characters and themes that Suckow depicts in her fiction.]

Within her field—the lives of the meagre-minded in the small towns of "Ioway"—Miss Ruth Suckow's work carries the final authority of utter perfection. She is like a brilliant laboratory worker who sets off a certain field of research for her own and works unceasingly—with a devotion that amounts almost to tenderness, and a commitment to accuracy which leaves no place conceivable for humor—to discover and record the precise (and consequently beautiful)...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Fred T. Marsh (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Ruth Suckow, Historian of the Prairie Town," in The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1931, p. 4.

[In the following excerpt, Marsh praises the perceptiveness and depth of the stories in Children and Older People.]

[In Children and Older People] Ruth Suckow continues to write of the same people, the same environment, and with the same acute perceptiveness as always. Like all her stories these are studies of her own people executed with the economy of the born artist. She remains the historian in fiction of the American folk of the Western prairie towns and farms; and she remains, fundamentally, as completely the determinisi as Dreiser. Like an Iowa...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)

Anzja Yezierska (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Seven Tales and a Fact," in The New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1952, p. 4.

[Yezierska was a Russian-born novelist and short story writer whose works chronicle the early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant experience in the United States. Her protagonists search for the "American Dream " while contending with a new and sometimes hostile environment. In the following review, Yezierska commends the themes and realistic characters of Some Others and Myself.]

[The seven stories of Some Others and Myself] have the quiet realism that distinguishes all Ruth Suckow's work. As always, she is more interested in capturing the essence of character than in...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

John T. Flanagan (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: A review of Some Others and Myself, in American Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, January, 1953, pp. 568-69.

[Flanagan is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he offers a negative review of the short stories in Some Others and Myself.]

It is almost thirty years ago now that Ruth Suckow first attracted attention by the blunt, terse short stories of Iowa farm life that she contributed to the Midland, the American Mercury, and other magazines. Eventually collected in Iowa Interiors and subsequent volumes, these tales revealed their author as an observant realist who lacked both the satirical attitude and the acidity of...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

John T. Frederick (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Nineteen Twenties," in The Palimpsest, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, February, 1954, pp. 61-74.

[An American educator, critic, and author, Frederick wrote two novels about Midwestern farm life. In the following excerpt, he compliments Suckow's creation of authentic milieus in her writing but stresses that people are her real interest"people in their relation to other people and to their communities. "]

The Second World War and the mid-century have given us a new perspective in relation to the literary output of the 1920's. Perhaps we have not yet attained the historical distance requisite for decisive critical evaluation, but we can be much more sure of our...

(The entire section is 1426 words.)

Leedice McAnelly Rissane (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Beauty" and "Quests," in Ruth Suckow, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, pp. 26-41, 42-65.

[Kissane was an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she provides a thematic analysis of Suckow's early short stories and short novels.]

All [Suckow's] early stories are low-keyed, with a note of sadness. They deal with somber themes—death and illness, poverty, deprivation, old age, and loneliness. Of the sixteen that were later gathered and published in Iowa Interiors, all but three or four are about old people. Because of these subjects, critics often commented that Miss Suckow chose her subjects from the unlovely aspects of life. Yet,...

(The entire section is 8746 words.)

Margaret Stewart Omrcanin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Short Story Writer," in Ruth Suckow: A Critical Study of Her Fiction, Dorrance & Company, 1972, pp. 154-80.

[In the following excerpt, Omrcanin outlines Suckow's philosophy of short fiction writing, asserting that her stories "remain the best expression of her narrative purpose and method. "]

Ruth Suckow expressed herself more often and more explicitly on the subject of the short story than on any other aspect of her writing. In two magazine articles, the preface to Carry-Over, and in an unpublished essay written from lecture notes presented to college and university groups, she has made a number of observations about her own concept of short story...

(The entire section is 9917 words.)

Abigail Ann Hamblen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ruth Suckow, Boise State University, 1978, 48 p.

[In the following excerpt, Hamblen explores the role of suffering in Suckow's short fiction, especially feelings of loneliness, rejection, and helplessness in her characters. ]

Among [the] fundamental problems of human existence, Ruth Suckow's fiction examines the important problem of individual isolation. Every serious writer has been forced to recognize this problem and to make it part of his picture of human life. Ruth Suckow's work is full of lonely people. . . .

Loneliness is, of course, only one problem that besets mankind. It is probably no more distressing, in the long run, than old age....

(The entire section is 3785 words.)

Fritz Oehlschlaeger (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Art of Ruth Suckow's 'A Start in Life'," in Western American Literature, Vol. XV, No. 3, November, 1980, pp. 177-86.

[In the following essay, Oehlschlaeger examines the first story in Iowa Interiors, "A Start in Life, " which, he says, demonstrates "the meanness, repression, and degradation that occur when economic relations between people supplant human ones. "]

When Ruth Suckow's first volume of short stories, Iowa Interiors, appeared in 1926, no less a critic than H. L. Mencken hailed the book with unqualified enthusiasm:

Who ... has ever published a better first book of short stories than this...

(The entire section is 3679 words.)

Fritz Oehlschlaeger (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "A Book of Resolutions: Ruth Suckow's Some Others and Myself," in Western American Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 2, August, 1986, pp. 111-21.

[In the following essay, Oehlschlaeger speculates that the stories in Some Others and Myself received less critical attention than Suckow's previous efforts because of their informal, reflective style, but maintains that this style is suited to the overall purpose of the author, which is to allow the significance of the stories to be perceived collectively rather than individually.]

Despite the praise of so distinguished a critic as H. L. Mencken, who compared her favorably to Sherwood Anderson, Ruth Suckow has...

(The entire section is 4652 words.)