By David L. Bristow, Editor
Bess Streeter Aldrich became a bestselling author with novels such as A Lantern in Her Hand (1928), Spring Came on Forever (1935), and The Lieutenant’s Lady (1942). From her home in Elmwood, she built a loyal following of readers not with tales of far-off, exotic places, but with stories rooted in the everyday realities of small-town life in Nebraska and Iowa.
Her own life was so rooted, as the mother of four revealed in a 1921 article titled, “How I Mixed Stories with Doughnuts”:
“People seem to think that if you write, you do it all the time. Somebody probably brings you a bun and a piece of cake and a cup of coffee, and then tiptoes away, lest the Muse, or the Spirit, or whatever it is be disturbed.
“As a matter of fact, I make that bun and that cake and that coffee myself. As for being disturbed! … I once fondly thought I would have a secluded, private writing-room. So I turned a bedroom into it, had bookshelves built in, and bought a typewriter desk and a filing case. When, lo! friend husband began keeping his daily papers and his law magazines and slippers there; my little daughter established a family of dolls under the desk, and my two little sons secreted kite strings and tin soldiers in the sacred pigeonholes. Thereupon I decided that my writing, at least, could never be separated from the family life.”
Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1881, the youngest of eight children, Aldrich grew up hearing her relatives’ stories of the pioneer days of the 1850s. Aldrich said that her mother “had the faculty of describing scenes so merrily and with such fascination for me that I used to wish I had been born in an earlier and what seemed a far more enchanting time of the world.”
Young Bess was also a gifted storyteller. At age 14, she won a camera from the Chicago Record for one of her short stories. “It was then when I first tasted blood,” she recalled, “for the intoxication of seeing my name in print was overwhelming.”
After high school, Aldrich enrolled in the Iowa State Normal School (the future University of Northern Iowa), where she joined college societies, acted in plays, and played basketball. Then she became a teacher and began writing short stories for publication, and met a former Army captain named Charles Aldrich. “Cap” Aldrich was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a promising lawyer. They married in 1907, when Cap was 35 and Bess 26. Two years later they moved to Elmwood, Nebraska, where the Aldriches and some partners bought a local bank.
Cap valued Bess’s intelligence and encouraged her writing. At first Bess used the pen-name “Margaret Dean Stevens,” but began using her own name as she gained confidence. She submitted story after story to magazine editors, selling some, but receiving “enough rejection slips to fill an old-fashioned bedtick.” She revised, resubmitted, and learned her craft.
By May 1925, Aldrich was enjoying a growing reputation as a writer of short fiction. Major magazines were buying her work. Her first book of short stories had been published a year earlier. And for the first time, she had written a novel, The Rim of the Prairie, which was due to come out later that year.
That was when Cap died, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage at age 53.
For Bess, in addition to the personal loss, it meant having to provide financially for four children ages four to 16. “I’m mighty glad I have my little talent for writing,” she wrote to a friend, “because it’s going to be bread and butter for us.”
By the time The Rim of the Prairie was released in late 1925, Bess Aldrich had still written nothing new since Cap’s death. It took a full year after that tragic day before she completed a single short story. In the meantime, all hope was centered on Rim. Cap had not left them badly off, but Bess wanted to send their children to college, wanted to do for them what Cap would have done had he lived.
The book became a bestseller.
“Here is a great book,” an Illinois newspaper headline announced, and other reviewers said much the same thing. And so Aldrich was on her way—as were her children, all four of whom graduated from college.
Rim is the story of Nancy Moore, who grew up on a farm but left for Chicago when she turned 18. Nancy is engaged to marry a wealthy Chicagoan, but when she returns home for a visit, she falls in love with writer Warner Field, an educated man who has chosen (in defiance of literary stereotypes) to live in a small Midwestern town.
Interwoven with Nancy and Warner’s story is that of Uncle Jud and Aunt Biny, an old pioneer couple who are thinking of selling their farm due to declining health. The land had been virgin prairie when Jud and Biny first saw it, and eventually they find they can’t bear to leave.
Wholesome characters, wholesome story. Aldrich didn’t believe in what she called “Pollyanna type… mushy and sentimental” stories, but she felt drawn toward “cleaner stories that were true to life.”
The Chicago Post, contrasting Aldrich’s work with that of Sinclair Lewis, called the book “the other side of Main Street.” Main Street, Lewis’s best-known novel, is a story of the corruption and narrow-mindedness of small-town America. Aldrich told a different story—and though over the years critics sometimes derided her work as sentimental or prudish, Aldrich remained defiantly wholesome.
“I grow weary of hearing the sordid spoken of as real life, the wholesome as Pollyanna stuff,” she wrote. “I contend that a writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him and reserve the privilege to call that real life, too. And if this be literary treason, make the most of it.”
That, incidentally, is from a lively essay titled, “Why I Live in a Small Town,” in which Aldrich tells of when “a story of mine, syndicated in a newspaper, carried in brackets an indulgent explanation from an editor that the writer ‘goes right down into small towns and mingles among the people for her material.’ Could anything sound more smug? As if I had gone slumming with drawn skirts. I have not gone small-townish for material. I am small-townish.”
Some years later, at least one critic recognized the value of Aldrich’s unglamorous lifestyle. As a writer, he said, “her strength has been in the fact that she has not lost contact at any time with the real people in this land!”
Sometimes Aldrich maintained that contact through creative means. In 1925, she delivered a talk on “The Pioneer in Literature” via the new medium of radio. At the close of her talk, she asked listeners for anecdotes of Nebraska’s early days, reminiscences that she might be able to incorporate into a novel.
“Expecting perhaps a half dozen or so responses, I was amazed to see the letters, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and diaries which almost swamped me.”
The novel was A Lantern in Her Hand, the story of a Nebraska pioneer woman who was partly based on Aldrich’s own mother. Between her mother’s stories, the stacks of information that came in the mail, and Aldrich’s interviews with old pioneers, the novel was thoroughly grounded in first-person detail. Because of its accuracy, history teachers soon began using Lantern in their classrooms.
But for most readers, the story was everything — and Aldrich’s painstaking research served to make the story and its characters more vivid:
“When Will took the long drive to Nebraska City for supplies, her desolation seemed complete. She would catch up little Mack, who was a year and a half now and toddling everywhere, and hold him to her with a prayer for safety from all the unknown terrors, — Indians, winds, prairie fires, storms, her own hour of travail.
“Will brought back corn meal and one precious sack of white flour for which he had paid ten dollars. So sparing was Abbie in its use, that it was nearly spring when the last bit was baked and the sack made into an apron for herself.”
Lantern begins and ends with Abbie Deal’s death as an old woman, found dead by a neighbor in the old house she has refused to sell. Though Abbie’s grown children want to take her to Omaha or Lincoln, she refuses to leave her home or her community of “Cedartown.” Through the years, her roots to the place have grown deep.
Though Aldrich left Elmwood in her later years, moving to Lincoln to be closer to her daughter Mary, she had nonetheless put down deep roots in her community — just like Abbie Deal. Aldrich was respected in Elmwood as an active and unpretentious citizen. In 1934 the University of Nebraska awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in literature. One of her novels was adapted as the 1941 movie Cheers for Miss Bishop, which had its world premiere in Lincoln.
Aldrich’s 1942 book, The Lieutenant’s Lady, was the last of her thirteen novels. Financially secure, no longer possessing the energy for the exhausting process of writing her research-intensive stories, and wanting to spend more time just being a grandmother, Aldrich began slowing down, writing only occasional short stories. She died at age 73 in 1954. She was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1973.
History Nebraska has Bess Streeter Aldrich’s papers.
Read Carol Miles Peterson’s 1995 biography, Bess Streeter Aldrich: The Dreams Are All Real, the main source (other than Aldrich’s own writings) for this article.