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.


From the Archives: City

My editor has come through with revision notes for Sigrid Schultz and I am deep in the eternally fascinating process of seeing my book through someone else's eyes.  (And since I've had a couple of months away from the book, I'm also seeing things I want to revise that she hasn't called out.) I'm making structural changes, taking stuff out, and  adding stuff back in.  I'm stepping back to get the big picture and focusing in at the sentence level.  (In one case I have two succeeding sentences with the same, very specific format.  My editor didn't point it out, but it jumped out at me as I read. Frustrating because there is nothing inherently wrong with the sentences qua sentences and my brain is not letting them go without a struggle. I keep chanting "Kill your darlings," but it isn't helping.)

As a result, I am having trouble writing a new blog post. So, here's one more from the archives:a book review that originally ran in 2012.  As you can no doubt tell, I really liked the book.  In fact, I just pulled it off my shelf for a little re-reading.

Cultural historian P.D. Smith argues that the city is humanity's greatest creation. After reading City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, it's easy to believe it's true.

City is not a simple chronological history of urban areas from their first appearance in ancient Mesopotamia to modern megacities. Instead, Smith organizes his work around elements of city life that "have become part of our urban genetic code": cemeteries, street protests, slums, suburbs, markets, street food, graffiti. He draws illuminating parallels and unexpected connections. The chapter titled "Where to Stay", for example, begins with the growth, death and rebirth of downtown, looks at immigrant neighborhoods in nineteenth century America in the context of Jewish ghettos in Europe, makes a sharp turn to slum cities in the developing world, considers the allure of garden suburbs beginning in ancient Babylon, and ends with a brief history of the hotel.

The book is punctuated by sidebars that go off at right angles to the main text. A brief history of the parking meter accompanies the section on commuting. The hanging gardens of Babylon are discussed in the context of urban parks.

Smith's range of material is breathtaking, but he wears his erudition lightly. The prose of City is smart and fast-paced, with a nice balance between big picture history and close-up details. The book is full of "aha" moments and occasional humor.  I can't imagine a history fan who won't find at least one section fascinating.

Women’s Magazines and Political Reporting

In 2016, Teen Vogue made media news with its shift from a glossy high fashion magazine aimed at teenage girls to a glossy high fashion magazine that covered feminism, social activism, identity, and politics. The change generated stories, and academic articles, with titles like “A Politics of Snap,” “Ok, Seriously,”and "How Teen Vogue Got Political” I followed the coverage, which ranged from condescending to celebratory, with a certain amount of envy. Teen Vogue would have appealed to past me in a way that Seventeen, Tiger Beat, and the like did not.

Analysts discussed the long-standing division between “ladymags” (a category that stretches from Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan, some of which are less ladylike than others) and the much smaller category of women’s magazines with a political bent, most notably Ms. But none of them, or at least none that I saw, noted that it wasn’t the first time that women’s magazines covered the news of the day in addition to their usual subjects.

In the years between the two world wars, American women’s magazines printed articles dealing with international issues. The Delineator, the magazine published by Butterick Patterns, published a report on Russia’s battalions of women soldiers in March, 1918. McCalls* in particular had a history of commissioning well-known women reporters to write pieces on international politics. The magazine’s editor, Otis L. Weise, sent muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell to interview Mussolini in 1927 and to report on conditions in Germany in the early 1930s. At much the same time, he sent journalist, novelist and labor activist Mary Heaton Vorse* to report on the Soviet Union.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, American women’s magazines quickly looked for ways to make their content relevant for their readers in a time of national emergency. They went beyond their core subjects of fashion, homemaking, and romantic fiction to produce stories about topics such as dealing with war-time scarcity and rationing and the importance of women taking war-time jobs outside the home. McCall’s once again led the pack, hiring Sigrid Schultz to work as a war correspondent, with a view to reporting on the war from a woman's perspective.

When the war ended, women were pushed out of their wartime jobs to make room for returning soldiers. (It is only fair to remember that many of them were willing to go.) Women’s magazines responded by returning to covering their readers’ traditional interests, minus the international news. I wonder if readers missed it.

*Also published by a pattern company.

**Coming soon to a blog post near you.