Feminize Your Canon: Mary Heaton Vorse


Feminize Your Canon

Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors. Originally begun by Emma Garman, it will now be written by Joanna Scutts. 

Mary Heaton Vorse.

Mary Heaton Vorse, prolific novelist, journalist, and labor activist, spent most of her long life trying to escape her upper-middle-class origins. The heroine of her 1918 novel Ive Come To Stay calls the inescapability of a bourgeois upbringing life’s “blue serge lining”—a reference to the practical fabric that protected the inside of coats and suits, forming a barrier between the self and the world. The lining stands for the inevitable conformity of class, getting, if not quite under the wearer’s skin, then next to it, holding her upright, constraining her imagination and her freedom. Camilla is constantly on the run from it. She embraces the pretensions of bohemian Greenwich Village—anarchist friends, artistic aspirations, a Polish violinist lover, and nights spent in smoky bars. She repeatedly rejects her neighbor and suitor, the equally middle-class Ambrose Ingraham, out of fear that he will wrap her up in blue serge once again, and strangle her with it. Subtitled A Love Comedy of Bohemia, the novel is more of an archaeological find than a timeless classic. Yet its ironic depiction of young people caught between ambition and gender-based expectation dramatizes the central conflict of its author’s life, and that of her generation of American “New Women.”

Mary Heaton was born rich and rebellious in 1874, and spent most of her childhood in Amherst, Massachusetts, a place that was, by contrast, rural and religious. She was close to her bookish father and idolized her distant mother, Ellen, who paid more attention to her five older children from her first marriage. Mary watched her intelligent, energetic mother struggle to fill her days with meaningful activity. Other women of her era and class threw themselves into social reform and the fight for women’s suffrage, but Ellen believed too many people already had the vote, and that a woman’s place was in the home. This did not preclude plenty of European travel and culture to burnish her daughters’ marriage prospects, and Mary had a rich, if haphazard education, bolstered by voracious private reading. Although she belonged to a generation of women who were breaking down the doors to academia and the professions, she had no interest in submitting to the rules of a women’s college. She longed for a greater freedom, and begged to go to Paris to study art.

Her mother insisted on coming with her, somewhat curtailing the nineteen-year-old’s freedom to indulge in the temptations of the Left Bank, but Mary managed her first serious romance there with a domineering fellow art student. Although she didn’t consider herself especially beautiful—photographs show a thin woman with a strong straight nose, wide mouth, and pouched, intelligent eyes—Mary nevertheless exuded confidence, and rarely had trouble attracting men. Her lover praised her intelligence and independence, yet undermined it by constantly pointing out her social and physical limitations as a woman. It was a dynamic that would mark Mary’s subsequent relationships, and come to life over and over again in her fiction: the young heroine enthralled by male strength, but chafing against male dominance.

Back in America, Mary convinced her parents to let her go to New York to continue her art studies, adopting the persona of the “Bachelor Girl.” This mid-1890’s phenomenon, a more rebellious version of the already mythologized “New Woman,” was discussed with an eager censoriousness, while the girls themselves enjoyed a brief respite from family obligations. “I am part of the avant-garde. I have overstepped the bounds!” Mary wrote exultantly. Having realized rather late that she could not paint, she attached herself to the male-dominated literary scene that was drinking and pontificating in downtown cafes in the late 1890’s. In 1898, she met and secretly married Albert White Vorse, the Harvard-educated son of a Massachusetts minister trying as earnestly as she was to reinvent himself as a bohemian. Mary’s biographer quotes Bert’s delight at discovering that, despite her Paris sojourn, he had been the one to take her virginity (after noting how she “hesitated” and he “pushed” her). Their letters make clear Mary’s deeply conflicted desires for marriage and independence.

Although she published her first short story in a local newspaper at the age of sixteen, and was now regularly publishing book reviews, Mary (and Bert) insisted that her writing was merely something to fill her time. But before long it became obvious that she was the talent and the breadwinner in the house. Perhaps they might have navigated this uneven division of labor, but then there was a baby, and then there was Bert’s cheating. In the first of many attempts at a fresh start, the couple decamped for France in 1903, where Mary started writing fiction. “I reel off stuff like a regular phonograph,” she wrote—painfully aware that Bert, at the same time, was a stuck record. In her midthirties, Mary’s literary star rose as her marriage crumbled. In 1924, she wrote an essay, “Why I Have Failed As A Mother,” that articulated the impossible struggle between motherhood and work. She admits that the fault lies not just in the obligation to earn money, though she certainly felt that. No, her real failure, as she saw it, was the very thing that was supposed to undergird male success: “I grew ambitious.” She writes that she dreaded leaving her desk to face her children and their needs: “They seem to me like a nestful of birds, their yellow beaks forever agape for me to fill.” Yet her intense love for them, detailed in story after story, was as much of a drive as the work.

Between 1906 and 1911 Vorse sold story after story about domestic relationships and family life—popular fiction that was lucrative enough to support her family. Her fiction was aimed at a middle-class female audience, but it resonated with men trying to figure out their roles in a changing society. The marital ideal was shifting away from the traditional dynamic of dominance and submission, toward a union of friendly equals. Yet gender roles, deeply ingrained, could not be shaken loose as easily as that. Her novels from this period—The Breaking-In of a Yachtsman’s Wife, Autobiography of an Elderly Woman, The Heart’s Country—often blame men for failing to understand women, but she also criticizes women for embracing their own subservience, whether to husbands or children. Mothers who sacrifice their own needs for their families—as dramatized in her 1907 story “The Quiet Woman”—end up breeding “beautiful soulless monstrosities,” as selfish and tyrannical as their mothers were selfless. Yet Vorse also paid a rare degree of attention to parental love. Her 1911 novel The Very Little Person brings to life a father’s bewildered affection for his infant daughter, emphasizing how absurdly little middle-class men were expected to know about children and about women’s maternal experiences. A subtle rivalry and distance lingers between the parents, John and Constance. When his wife reports on their daughter’s first smile, John feels “secretly hurt that the baby hadn’t smiled at him, and to hide this feeling, pretended a disbelief.” The book’s ending hovers in that gap between them, with John triumphant that his daughter has said her first word, and thus “she isn’t a baby any more, she is a grown-up little girl.” He is utterly oblivious to the heartbreak this causes his wife.

The Very Little Person is rooted in close and tender observation of Mary’s own daughter, conceived partly in an effort to save her marriage. Mary had tried to reconcile herself to Bert’s cheating by treating him with the patience of a mother nursing a sick child. (She would scrutinize that “maternal instinct” of women toward adult men in I’ve Come To Stay, six years later.) The marriage was all but over by the time Bert died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, alone in a hotel on Staten Island in 1910. The next day, Mary’s mother died of heart failure.

It is hardly surprising that the direction of Mary’s life and writing changed after this brutal break with the past. Yet it was the 1912 textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that she would name in her 1934 autobiography as the turning point. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1966 at the age of ninety-two, workers’ battles for fair treatment would be her primary focus. “We knew now where we belonged;” she wrote, “on the side of the workers, and not with the comfortable people among whom we were born.”

The conditions in the mills at Lawrence are still shocking. At the turn of the century, workers, many of them teenagers, scraped by on two or three dollars a week, most of which went to paying their rent in overcrowded districts. Women were subject to routine sexual exploitation by their bosses, and death from accidents or lung diseases were everyday occurrences. Thirty-six out of every hundred men and women who worked the mills died before the age of twenty-five. In early 1912, the state attempted to enforce a law cutting the hours of the women and those under eighteen in the mills to fifty-four hours a week. In response, the mill owners cut everyone’s hours and their salaries, and were accused of speeding up output.

Vorse’s report on the “The Trouble at Lawrence,” ran in Harper’s, where she was one of the few left-leaning writers the magazine would publish. (She also wrote for liberal publications like The Nation and The New Republic, and was a contributor and editor at the Greenwich Village socialist monthly The Masses.) Her piece opened with a focus on a group of workers’ children, who had been prevented by local authorities from leaving Lawrence to stay with relatives in other cities—a relief effort spearheaded by Margaret Sanger. The “forcible detention” of children was the rare event, Vorse wrote, that Americans all over the country would surely rise up to protest. She went on to describe the killing of a nineteen-year-old Syrian striker by a member of the militia formed by the Lawrence factory owners to put down the strike, and the reaction of his community, noting both the exotic beauty of the women in the Syrian quarter and the presence of posters that had lured immigrants from Damascus with the promise of good jobs. Although the strikers were “of warring nations and warring creeds” (Lawrence’s workforce included at least twenty-five nationalities), Vorse wrote that they had come together spontaneously in protest. The experience opened their eyes to a life, and a world, beyond home and the mill, she said hopefully. “A strike like this makes people think.”

Mary traveled to Lawrence with Joe O’Brien, a reporter she’d met the year before, and they married three months later. He was a gregarious, joyful partner who loved family life, and they soon had a son together to join Mary’s two older children. She continued to write “lollypops”—her lucrative women’s stories—and to spend summers at her home in Provincetown, an anchor for her throughout her life, and began to turn it into the summer “colony” of their Greenwich Village friends. In 1915, those friends staged the first performances of the avant-garde theater group they called the Provincetown Players, performing each other’s daring, satirical, self-consciously modern plays. Sinclair Lewis passed through, and later credited Mary with teaching him “the three Rs—Realism, Roughness, and Right-Thinking.” But through this social and energetic time, O’Brien was plagued with an illness that turned out to be stomach cancer. Mary was widowed again after just five years of marriage. During her subsequent relationship with the political cartoonist Robert Minor, she suffered a devastating second-trimester miscarriage, and spent several years afterward addicted to the morphine she was given for the pain.

Yet she continued to write and travel to protests and war zones, always with a focus on the human story. Through her friendships with labor activists and her reporting, she was especially aware of the intersecting challenges of being female and working class. She was also the rare journalist who actively participated in strikes and worked with unions, enabling her to bring an insider perspective to readers. During World War II, she was perhaps the oldest American foreign correspondent—seventy-one when the war ended—and politically active up until her death.

In addition to her novels and journalism, Vorse published two volumes of humorous, sharp-eyed memoir, A Footnote to Folly in 1935, and Time and the Town, in 1942, a “chronicle” of her beloved home in Provincetown, where she lived on and off for thirty-six years. Her fiction hints at the compromises and costs of rebellion for middle-class women of her era, but her autobiographical writing lays bare what it really meant to break out and blaze her own trail. Vorse wrote for the world in which she lived, with an immediacy that cares little for posterity. To read her now feels as disorienting as time travel, plunging us into a world that resembles ours but for which we’re lacking crucial maps and signposts. Nevertheless, some values hold strong. Throughout her long flight from that stifling Amherst mansion, Mary Heaton Vorse cherished freedom and the people who would fight for it, a value that to her was not an abstraction but a deeply human impulse.


Joanna Scutts is a cultural historian and critic, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.