The career of Susan Glaspell, whatever the limitations of her achievement, presents an admirable instance of someone who continued to grow, both intellectually and emotionally, as an artist and as a human being, well into her adult life. She moved from acceptance of the social and artistic status quo to dissatisfied scrutiny of wealth and privilege, from husband-hunting heroines to strong women of endurance and accomplishment. And in the one-act play "Trifles" (as well as "Jury of Her Peers," the short story she developed from it), she created a small masterpiece of careful observation and profound human sympathy.
Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa, the daughter of Elmer S. Glaspell and Alice (Keating) Glaspell, into what she later described as "a middle-class, not very well-to-do family." The date of her birth is traditionally given as July 1, 1882, but some sources have placed it in 1876, which seems more likely, since the later date would make her a college graduate before the age of seventeen. She was educated in the Davenport public schools and at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, at which she earned a bachelor's degree in 1899. She later did graduate work in English at the University of Chicago. One day after her college graduation, she joined the staff of the Des Moines Daily News as a political reporter, in which capacity she also wrote for the Des Moines Capital. She was eventually given a regular column, which appeared under the heading "The News Girl." Among her colleagues was Lucy Huffaker, later to be a well-known journalist in Chicago, who would remain a lifelong friend. While still in college, Glaspell had begun submitting short stories to magazines. "Most of them came back," as she later said, "but a few of them stayed." After less than two years, she left newspaper work and returned to Davenport to pursue a full-time career as a writer, which had been her ambition since her grammar-school days.
Glaspell began to enjoy considerable success in getting her stories to "stay" with the editors to whom she sent them. Most of her work at this time was aimed at a popular market with a largely female readership. Her stories tended to focus on the efforts of young women to find attractive and wealthy husbands. Even when she drew upon her observations of politics and politicians, the situations and characterizations were conventional, and the endings of the tales were usually happy, no matter what plot twists might be necessary to achieve such an outcome. In 1909 she published The Glory of the Conquered: The Story of a Great Love, a novel written in much the same vein as her shorter fiction of the period. On the proceeds from this book, she was able to spend the following year touring Europe with Lucy Huffaker.
Upon her return, she began a romantic relationship with George Cram Cook, whom she had met several years earlier in Davenport. Cook, a former professor of English literature at the University of Iowa, was, in conformity to his socialist ideals, supporting his second wife and two children by truck-farming and raising chickens. The influence of his ideas upon Glaspell's thinking was shown in The Visioning (1911), a novel in which a sheltered young woman from a privileged environment becomes more understanding of the behavior of people close to her when she realizes how the circumstances of their earlier lives have influenced their feelings and behavior. Glaspell's relationship with Cook is also reflected in Fidelity (1915), a novel concerning a woman's affair with a married man. The protagonist of the novel ultimately renounces her lover out of fidelity to her ideals. Glaspell, on the other hand, was married to Cook on April 14, 1913, after he had obtained his divorce.
After their marriage, Glaspell and Cook moved to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts (they would spend winters in New York). There, in a small wooden building on the end of a pier, they established the Provincetown Players, a little theater group whose influence upon the development of American drama would prove incalculable, since it offered the first productions of the work of Eugene O'Neill, universally acknowledged as the greatest dramatist America has ever produced. The Players would also have a great impact upon Glaspell's own literary career, in that she now began to write for the stage, the medium in which she would achieve her greatest popular and artistic success. Over the next five years, both in Provincetown and in New York's Greenwich Village, the Provincetown Players produced a number of Glaspell's plays, including both one-acters (among them "Trifles," which was remarkably, the first play that she wrote entirely on her own) and full-length works. In 1922, she accompanied her husband to Greece so that he might fulfill an ambition to become a classical scholar. There they lived at Delphi on Mount Parnassus, where Cook immersed himself in the life of the region until his death from septicemia, at the age of sixty, in January 1924. Glaspell commemorated his life and work in her memoir The Road to the Temple (1926).
While still in Europe, she met a writer named Norman Matson, whom she married in 1925. Together they wrote a play called The Comic Artist (1927). Several years later, in the midst of a period that also saw the publication of more novels, came Alison's House (1930), a drama in which the brother of a recently deceased poet (the Alison of the title) achieves, through the medium of his sister's unpublished works, a reconciliation with his grown daughter. This play, inspired in part by the life of Emily Dickinson, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931. In the same year as this professional triumph, Glaspell's personal life was proceeding less successfully, as she and Matson were divorced. Despite the quality of some of her work for the stage and its highly positive reception, she wrote no more plays after Alison's House. Instead, she concentrated her literary energies on her first love, fiction.
In contrast to the level of productivity she had always maintained, Glaspell published no new work between 1931 and 1939, but issued four more novels thereafter, in the last decade of her life. She died of pneumonia in Provincetown on July 27, 1948.
Glaspell's legacy, in terms of her influence and her continuing presence in American literature, is at best a slender one. She is usually cited in connection with the story of the Provincetown Players, but more as a facilitator of the emergence of Eugene O'Neill than as an artist in her own right. Her survival as an author is confined to a handful of plays. Her novels have never been reprinted and are forgotten. It is unlikely that anyone but a specialist in her workof which there are fewcould name one of them. Even the author of the only full-length study of her work concedes that she was a minor writer, one who possessed talent but not genius, and whose achievement was limited by her grounding in the sentimental standards of the time in which she came to maturity. But "Trifles," despite the present unfashionability of its realistic technique, continues to find its way into anthologies, and thus to keep the name of Susan Glaspell alive as more than a historical footnote.