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Susan Glaspell (July 1, 1876 – July 28, 1948) was an American playwright and fiction writer. Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook founded the Provincetown Players, considered the first modern American theater company.
Susan Glaspell grew up on a farm near Davenport, Iowa. Her father was a hay farmer, her mother was a schoolteacher, and she had two brothers. As a child she had a natural affinity for animals, often rescuing strays. Her grandmother regaled her with real-life pioneer adventure stories that sparked her imagination.
A talented and determined student
The family was compelled to sell the farm during the panic of 1893 and moved into Davenport. There, young Susan excelled in school, taking advanced courses. By the time she graduated at age eighteen, she landed a full-time job writing for the local newspaper.
Always eager to flex her intellectual muscles, at age twenty-one, Glaspell entered Drake University. It was the 1890s and this was both unusual and controversial, as societal belief held that college education made a woman unfit for marriage. She was apparently proud of her competitive spirit, excelling in debate. She went on to represent the college in a statewide debate competition.
A brief foray into journalism
Upon Glaspell’s graduation from college, The Des Moines Daily News lauded her as “a leader in the social and intellectual life of the university.” Soon after, the newspaper hired her as a full-time journalist, where once again she became a trailblazer in a male-dominated field. She covered hard news topics including murder cases and politics.
After covering the murder trial of a local woman, Margaret Hossack, Glaspell rather suddenly left the field of journalism. Only twenty-four, she decided to focus on writing fiction. But the Hossack story, one she covered extensively, was apparently hard to shake, and would resurface later in her career. Read Glaspell’s reporting on the case here.
Success with short stories and novels
Glaspell lucked into some good timing in launching her fiction writing phase, though talent had much to do with it as well. In an era considered the “golden age of short stories,” hers were readily accepted by some of the most popular publications of the day, including Harpers’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Woman’s Home Companion.
Many of the female characters in Glaspell’s stories of this period are determined to upend society’s rules and restrictions in their quest for independence and fulfillment.
Glaspell used a substantial cash prize from one of the magazines to move to Chicago, where she began work on her first novel. In 1909, her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, was published and became a New York Times best-seller.
Her second novel, The Visioning, was published in 1911, and her third, Fidelity, came along in 1915. Considering the positive reviews and hefty sales, it’s curious that these novels are rarely discussed as part of the American literary canon.
Stepping into the wider world
While living in Davenport, Glaspell became one of the founding members of the Davenport group of writers. There she met George Cram Cook, who became her husband. A university professor who taught literature and writing, he divorced his second wife to be with her.
Seeking a less provincial setting, and an escape from gossip, the couple moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, then a hotbed of progressive creativity. They associated with Emma Goldman, John Reed, Upton Sinclair, and others who worked toward radical social reform. Glaspell also took up feminist and suffrage causes.
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Read the full text of “Trifles”
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The Provincetown Players and “Trifles”
Suffering from several miscarriages and fibroids, Glaspell and George Cook traveled in 1915 to Provincetown, at the tip of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, as a place to convalesce. Apparently not one to rest despite weakness in pain, together with George and some friends, she founded a new kind of theater collective. the group became known as the Provincetown Players.
Joining forces with other creatives inspired Glaspell to produce plays steeped in realism and satire. Her affiliation with the group not only cemented her role as a respected playwright, but launched the career of Eugene O’Neill, one of the giants of American theater.
In 1916, Glaspell produced what would remain her most famous one-act play, “Trifles.” This early feminist work knits together a commentary on gender roles and a murder mystery to create a compelling drama. Inspiration for Trifles was sparked when Glaspell was writing for the Des Moines Daily News, and the Margaret Hossack trial mentioned earlier in this post. Glaspell herself acted in this production.
As the Hossack trial had been some years earlier, Glaspell’s play was also ripe for controversy and debate. Many saw Mrs. Hossack as a victim of domestic abuse; she was eventually acquitted of the crime. “Trifles” appears to be based on the events surrounding the Hossack incident.
The one-act play tells the story of Minnie Wright. When her husband is found dead with a rope around his neck, Mrs. Wright becomes a prime suspect in his murder. The sheriff and the Wright’s neighbors, the Hales, enter the home. While the men are upstairs searching for evidence, a key discovery is made downstairs in the kitchen that sheds light on Minnie’s secret turmoil. While the evidence found by the women convicts Minnie of the crime, the women choose to hide it, seeing Minnie’s actions as the product of an abusive relationship.
“Trifles” was adapted into Glaspell’s short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” in 1917, a year after it premiered as a play. Much anthologized to this very day, “A Jury of Her Peers” is considered an important work of early feminist fiction.
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Read the full text of “A Jury of Her Peers”
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Widowhood and the continuation of a stellar career
After Provincetown Players disbanded in 1923 due to a variety of conflicts (not the least of which that it had in some sense become a victim of its own success), Glaspell and her husband traveled to Greece. It’s possible that they intended to settle there, at least for a time. However, George Cook died unexpectedly and rather bizarrely from an infection he had contracted from his dog. Glaspell returned to the U.S. in 1924, a widow.
Already a respected literary figure, some of Susan Glaspell’s best works were written in the years just following after her husband’s death. Her most popular work of this era was Alison’s House, a play in three acts, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931.
During her lifetime, she produced fifteen plays, nine novels, and a biography of George Cook. She also wrote countless short stories as a means of supporting herself and the theater company while she was still involved with it.
A declining reputation
Susan Glaspell was a renowned writer during her time, and she left behind an incredible legacy. In the 1940s, the brilliant playwright began to face challenges in her career when Broadway critics began to harshly examine her body of work.
After World War II, her independent female protagonists were less relatable, as media and culture favored a return to domesticity for women. Her novels began falling out of print, leading to a decline in her reputation.
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Susan Glaspell page on Amazon
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A feminist revival of Susan Glaspell’s work
In 1970, the second-wave feminist movement helped shed new light on Glaspell’s literary masterpieces, and a revival of her works began. Many of her works have been republished. “Trifles” and “A Jury of Her Peers” are widely anthologized and read in many English and Women’s Studies courses. The International Susan Glaspell Society was founded in 2003; the organization’s mission is to recognize her as a greatest American author. Glaspell’s plays are once again been performed by theater groups around the world.
In 2015, a twelve-hour marathon of Glaspell’s plays was performed by the American Bard Theater Company. This all-day event took place to celebrate the centenary of the Providence Players. In 2018, San Diego State University put on The Glaspell Project in an effort to promote gender equality by featuring female playwrights in their production season.
Susan Glaspell is widely recognized as a critical figure who made important strides in feminism, women’s rights, and writing. She died of pneumonia on July 28, 1948, in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
More about Susan Glaspell
On this site
- The Glory of the Conquered (1909)
- The Visioning (1911)
- Fidelity (1915)
- Brook Evans (1928)
- Fugitive’s Return (1929)
- Ambrose Holt and Family (1931)
- The Morning Is Near Us (1939)
- Norma Ashe (1942)
- Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945)
Short story collections
Susan Glaspell wrote dozens of short stories. Here are a handful of anthologies, two of them posthumous, speaking to the revival of her literary reputation.
- Lifted Masks (1912)
- A Jury of Her Peers (1917)
- Her America: “A Jury of Her Peers” and Other Stories by Susan Glaspell (2010)
- The Rules of the Institution and Other Stories (2018)
- Bernice (1919)
- Inheritors (1921)
- The Verge (1921)
- Chains of Dew (1922)
- The Comic Artist (1927; co-written with Norman Matson)
- Alison’s House (1930; winner of 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Drama)
- Springs Eternal (1943)
- Suppressed Desires (1914), co-written with George Cram Cook
- Trifles (1916; adapted into the short story “A Jury of Her Peers“1917)
- Close the Book (1917)
- The Outside (1917)
- The People (1917)
- Woman’s Honor (1918)
- Tickless Time (1918; co-written with George Cram Cook)
- Free Laughter (1919)
Read and listen online
More information and sources
- The International Susan Glaspell Society
- Reader discussion of Glaspell’s works on Goodreads
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