Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gertrude Atherton

Born this day in 1857: Gertrude Franklin Atherton (1857–1948), popular writer known for her social histories, fictional biographies, and novels featuring the New Woman.

Once she got out from under the thumb of her domineering husband (following his death in 1887), Gertrude Atherton became a prolific writer. Many critics say she was too prolific, given that the quality of her work was uneven. Still, she was a popular and successful writer. Many of her heroines embodied the New Woman, the strong, independent woman that was the feminist ideal of the 19th century, and her novels featured feminist themes. Some were very frank in their depiction of women’s sexuality (1897’s Patience Sparhawk and Her Times in particular), and scholars view her work a precursor to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Her one bestseller was Black Oxen (1923), a story about New York’s postwar obsession with youth and beauty. In it, a women experiences a resurgence of sexual vitality with medical rejuvenation treatments. The idea of medical rejuvenation caught the attention of many readers. So did the story’s ending, when the heroine broke the mold of popular women’s fiction by choosing power over love.

Her perhaps most lauded work is her biography of Alexander Hamilton. She researched her subject thoroughly, reading some 200 books on Hamilton and visiting his birthplace of the British West Indies. She wrote the biography in the style of a novel, inventing the biographical novel.

In all she wrote 56 books, including historical novels, fictionalized biographies, collections of short stories, several histories of her home state of California, an autobiography, and memoirs.

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