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Posted By: County Coordinator
Date: 5/9/2006 at 06:47:22

Aldrich, Bess Genevra Streeter (Feb. 17, 1881 - Aug. 3, 1954), novelist and short story writer, was born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the last of eight children of James Wareham and Mary Wilson Anderson Streeter, middle-aged at the time of her birth, who had pioneered the eastern part of Iowa.

She attended public schools in Cedar Falls and was graduated from Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) at Cedar Falls in 1901. She then taught school for four years in Iowa and one year in Salt Lake City. She also served as an assistant supervisor in the primary training school at Iowa State Teachers College.

As a young girl Bess had started writing stories and poetry. She was only fourteen when her first story was purchased by the Chicago Record, which awarded her a $5 camera as a prize. When she was seventeen, she purchased a black, chiffon-ruffled parasol with $5 received from the Baltimore News for a love story.

On Sept. 24, 1907, Bess married Charles Sweetzer Aldrich, who had been the youngest captain in the Spanish-American War and had served in Alaska as United States Commissioner. After their marriage they lived in Tipton, Iowa, and then Elmwood, Neb., where he was a banker and lawyer. They had four children.

In 1911 Bess Aldrich received $175 from the Ladies Home Journal for a prize story written while the baby was taking a nap on her knee. She used the pseudonym Margaret Dean Stevens until 1918, when, with her husband's encouragement, she began writing under her married name. In 1924 she published Mother Mason, a book of short stories, and in 1925 The Rim of the Prairie, her first novel, which was dedicated to her husband.

Aldrich died in 1925, when the youngest child was four, and Mrs. Aldrich used her literary earnings to help support her family. From the time of her husband's death she averaged a book every two years, and also published a total of 168 short stories in Woman's Home Companion, McCall's, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Century, and Harper's Weekly. (Many of the stories were syndicated and resold to British magazines.) Among the best-known of her thirteen novels were A Lantern In Her Hand (1928), A White Bird Flying (1931), Spring Came On Forever (1935), Song of Years (1939), and The Lieutenant's Lady (1942).

Mrs. Aldrich's themes were based on the settling of the Midwest in the 1800's. Much of her information came from the first-hand accounts of pioneer life related to her by her parents, grandparents, other relatives, and neighbors. (Grandpa and Grandma Deal in A Lantern in Her Hand were memorable descriptions of her own grandparents.) Although her writing seldom received critical acclaim, she enjoyed a wide readership from two generations who sought wholesome, artless novels about the aspirations and struggles of frontier families. While she may have taken some small liberties, her novels did not misrepresent the life of the early days. Her stories frequently glorified the pioneer mother; her heroines made personal sacrifices to bear children and to nurture them so that they might have more abundant opportunities than their parents. Other themes included the whole pattern of life--work, love, and marriage. Nor did she overlook the contributions of spinsterhood.

For the most part her plots were simple and sentimental. Her characters exhibited sense and good humor, innocence and contentment. Through them the author revealed what she herself believed--that in addition to love, marriage, and children, family ties and friendships combined with strong moral fiber (gained from diligence and hard work, duty, and self-sacrifice) to produce a secure and satisfying life.

Although Mrs. Aldrich's writing reveals a deep sincerity and sympathy for her characters, she avoided any naturalistic descriptions of passion or sex. Her novels express a deep feeling for nature: the changing of the seasons on the prairie, blizzards, droughts, grasshopper plagues, floods, and prairie fires. Her characteristic style is economical and marked by few subtleties. Themes and characters often originated, according to Mrs. Aldrich, when she was "emotionally disturbed" (The Writer, Dec. 1941, pp. 355-57). Writing in longhand, she "set down life as I found it knowing that many people have experienced it as I have--a thing of mingled happiness and sorrow, little pleasures and disappointments, deep courage and faith, grief, laughter and love" (Cedar Falls Chamber of Commerce). From her successful writing career she learned that "a story rings most true when it is drawn from material within the limitations of our geographical, mental, or emotional boundaries" (Prairie Schooner, Jan. 1927, pp. 80-81).

Bess Aldrich's publication record was enviable--she is said to have sold every novel and short story she ever wrote. While this meant much revision, she always found a market; the title story from her collection The Man Who Caught the Weather had been rejected by twenty-eight magazines before it was purchased by the Century Magazine, yet in 1931 it was chosen for the O. Henry Award volume. Mrs. Aldrich was also a writer for Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Her best-selling novel about a dedicated schoolteacher, entitled Miss Bishop (1933), was adapted for the screen by Stephen Vincent Benét and made into a movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941).

Many of Mrs. Aldrich's books were translated into a number of languages, including French, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Dutch, and Chinese, and titles were also published in Braille editions. Her best-known novels were also used as supplemental reading in English and history classes, and A Lantern In Her Hand, her fourth book, became a worldwide best-seller. Its sequel, A White Bird Flying, was third in sales for the entire nation in 1931, the year of its publication. The Lieutenant's Lady, a novel based on a diary of a wife of an army officer on the Missouri River, was also on the best-seller list.

Mrs. Aldrich served as a national judge of manuscripts for the Christian Herald Family Bookshelf, a monthly book club; in December 1949, she was excused from the committee, which then selected her Journey Into Christmas, with illustrations by her son James (he also designed the book jackets for five of her books and wrote an introduction for A Bess Streeter Aldrich Treasury [1959], published after her death).

For many years Mrs. Aldrich lived in a spacious house called The Elms, in Elmwood, Neb., where her children grew up. In one of her many interviews she stated that "a small town is a good place for a writer to live" (The P.E.O. Record, Dec. 1973, p. 14). A Methodist and a Republican, she was active in many civic and professional associations.

She died in her seventy-fourth year from cancer, after six weeks of hospitalization, and was buried in Elmwood. Nineteen years later, in 1973, Bess Streeter Aldrich was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame, the seventh person to be so honored. After her death the name of the street where she lived in Lincoln was changed to Aldrich Road.

Source: Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5; 1951-1955; American Council of Learned Societies, 1977


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