A look at the author’s life…

Almost 900 pages into “…And Ladies of the Club”, I needed to find out more about the woman who wrote it.  I was growing the image, for some un-based reason, that Santmyer was a one-work author, a little old lady who cranked out her one book long after retirement.  I suspected she had spent her life in small Ohio towns, and only blossomed in her ‘golden years.’

I think…I thought she was one of her own characters.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Santmyer was a highly intelligent adventurer whose first literary successes came early. Clearly, she wove lots of her own life into the work, but the book is not a thinly veiled autobiography.  I bet a Santmyer biography, however, would be a fascinating read!

*******

I visited Ohio Reading Road Trip (www.orrt.org/santmyer) and the Ohioana website (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer) to see what I could find out about Helen Hooven Santmyer. Here’s what I discovered.

Santmyer was born in November, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio; she grew up in a small town, Xenia, not too far from that city. Her mother, an educated woman, encouraged Helen’s love of reading; Helen was nine when she read Little Women, and she knew, then and there, that she would grow up to be a writer.

Helen’s father, a former medical student, worked as a salesman, served as deputy county auditor, and managed a rope company–professions that reappear in “…And Ladies of the Club.”

So Helen knew what it was like for a child to grow up in a small Ohio city-town; she’d played the games, and gone to the schools; had friends, watched the adults and their dynamics; heard the Civil war stories; went to the parties and attended the funerals. She must have been a sharp observer of life and its foibles.

Helen graduated from high school in 1917, and had to defer college for a year: she had contracted typhoid fever. In 1918, she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English Literature and Composition.

She spent three years in New York City, but big city life just never took for her. Santmyer’s first job was working with female suffragists, a job which proved, at the least, to be disappointing. According to Ohioana, Santmyer said of her colleagues, “They considered a day lost when they hadn’t succeeded in going into jail.” A staunch Republican, Santmyer herself might have advocated the vote for women, but she wasn’t interested in serving jail time.

Mrs. Ballard, that radical activist, is one of my favorite Ladies of the Club in the first half of Santmyer’s book.  I wonder how much of her loving but wry characterization comes from Helen’s interaction with the NYC suffragists.

Santmyer finished out her time in the Big Apple as a clerk at Scribner’s. In 1921, her mother ill, Santmyer returned to Xenia to help the family. She taught high school English in her home town briefly, and then took a position at Wellesley. And then, finally, she went to Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar. Her first novel, Herbs and Apples, was published in 1925; Santmyer received her degree from Oxford in 1927.

The Ohioana website suggests that Oxford was a long-deferred dream; this is a life that teaches me much about deferred dreams and perseverance! 

Santmyer published her second novel, The Fierce Dispute, in 1928, and began a book of essays about life in Ohio, tentatively entitled Our Town. And then she went to Cedarville, Ohio, College, where she taught English and served as Dean of Women. She didn’t publish again for many years.

I understand this—and I bet other educators will, too.  The immediacy and urgency of higher ed work sweep in and erase time to concentrate on hefty projects outside academe. I wonder if the illnesses Santmyer began to experience were signs of the writer trying to bust out of the academic.

In the 1950’s she began to experience what Ohio Reading Road Trip termed ‘debilitating illnesses.’ She left Cedarville, and went to Dayton, where she ended her professional career as a reference librarian. During this time, she met Mildred Sandoe; they became a couple and were together for 30 years.

Ah!  No wonder Santmyer writes so matter-of factly and kindly about Kate—and shares that poignant episode between Binny and Julia—in “…And Ladies.”  I don’t remember any scandalized responses back in the early ‘80’s; what a lovely handling of topics only whispered about in the time frame she addresses.

Retired from all outside work, Santmyer could devote herself to writing. She finished her book of essays; it was quickly picked up for publication in 1963, and earned an Ohioana award for excellence. Then Santmyer turned to a project she’d been waiting to take on: the writing of “…And Ladies of the Club.”

The Ohioana essay suggests that Santmyer wrote the book in angry reaction to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a cynical look at small town life in the United States. Santmyer’s book is far from an idealized picture; her characters are flawed, some of them deeply. But there is strength among the people in “…And Ladies of the Club”; there is creativity and growth, acceptance, forgiveness, and true change.

When Santmyer finally finished the book, a magnum opus at 1176 pages, she packed the manuscript up in several boxes and carted it to the Ohio State University press, which quickly agreed to publish it. They printed a small batch of copies in 1982, most of which were bought by libraries. A librarian in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Grace Sindell, thought it was the best thing she’d ever read.

Sindell called her son, a Los Angeles producer, to tell him about the book. He looked into it and phone lines began buzzing. A miniseries was in the works (as far as I can tell, it never materialized), and GP Putnam scooped up the novel for widespread publication. It became a Book of the Month Club selection and an immediate sensation.

Unimpressed, Santmyer said, “Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I’m an old lady.” When asked what she’d do with the money the book was bringing in, she said, “I have no plans for the money…but it’ll be awfully nice to have it.” (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer)

I love her comments!  I get the mental image of a sharp and savvy lady, so seasoned by her adventures that she was comfortable with, but unimpressed by, her own achievements.

By the time the book was redistributed, Santmyer had about two years to enjoy the proceeds; she died in 1987. Her final book, a novel called The Farewell Summer, was published posthumously in 1988.

I’m putting Santmyer’s other books on my ‘List for Later.’  AFTER I finish the books on my shelves, I’d like to see if I can track down some of her other work.  I wonder what The Farewell Summer is about, for instance—her last book, is it, as the title suggests it might be, a story framed by the perspective of great age and imminent farewells?

I look forward to reading her Ohio essays, too.

But meanwhile, I have almost 300 pages left of “…And Ladies of the Club”. The young ones are moving into adulthood; the original members of the club are becoming grandparents, leaving long careers, learning hard lessons, suffering heart-breaking losses.  They’ve turned the corner into the twentieth century, and I am anxious to see what happens next to the ladies of the club.

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