Shin-Kickers from History: Mary Heaton Vorse

In a recent blog post, I introduced you in passing to activist and journalist Mary Heaton Vorse. As is so often the case, Vorse is worth a closer look.

Born to an upper-middle class family in Amherst, Massachussets in 1874, Vorse was a prolific and high-profile novelist, labor journalist, and activist.*

In 1896, after a period of studying art in France,* she continued her studies at the Art Student’s league in New York City, which had a reputation for progressive teaching methods and radical politics. She soon discovered that she had no real talent for art and took up progressive causes, including women’s suffrage, in place of painting.

Vorse was married twice—to journalist Albert Vorse in 1898 and radical journalist Joseph O’Brien in 1912—and widowed twice. Both Vorse and O’Brien supported her writing and shared her progressive values.

Her career as an activist and journialist blossomed after O’Brien’s death in 1915.

That year she joined with a group of left-wing writers, including John Reed, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser and Edna St Vincent Millay, to found the Provincetown Theater Group., which was dedicated to showcase new American talent outside the rules of the commercial Broadway theater.

In the early years of the First World War, she and other progressives formed the Women’s Peace Party, with the goal of bringing the war to an end. She was one of the party’s delegates to the 1915 International Conference of Women in the Hague.

More importantly, at least in terms of the impact she made, she also turned to serious journalism. She already supported herself as a writer of short stories for women’s and general interest magazines and of romantic fiction novels, which she later dubbed “lollypops.”** Beginning in 1916, she traveled across the United States and Europe reporting on social justice issues, with an emphasis on the impact of events on woman and children that was unusual in labor journalism at the time. Her work appeared in a wide range of mainstream publications including the New York Post, Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, McClure’s Magazine and even McCall’s.

Her biographer Dee Garrison summed up her journalism career: “Across the space of half a century, wherever men and women battled for a wider justice, she was apt to have been there.” She reported on striking miners in Michigan and striking textile workers in New Jersey and South Carolina.She covered the Scottsboro Boys’ trial in Alabama and the battle between coal bosses and miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, where she was run out of town by thugs working for the bosses. She reported on the United Auto Worker’s strike in Flint. Michigan, in 1937 and on the steel workers’ strike in Youngstown, Ohio, where she was grazed by a bullet fired by company guards. She reported on conditions in Stalin’s Russia and Hungary under Béla Kun—experiences that led her to write in her diary “I am a communist because I don’t see anything else to be, but I am a communist who hates Communists and Communism.” In 1952, she wrote an extensive and hard-hitting investigation of dirty politicians and organized crime on the New York and New Jersey water front.

Her career as a journalist ended in 1959, at the age of 85, when she suffered a stroke on her way home from reporting on a textile workers’ strike in North Carolina.


* I am fascinated by the number of privileged children of the Gilded Age who devoted themselves to social change.

**Much like novelist Graham Greene, who dubbed his thrillers “entertainments,” as opposed to what he believed were his more serious novels dealing with issues of faith and politics. Subjects that also play an important role in his thrillers.


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