Still Small Voice: The Biography of Zona Gale by August Derleth (1940)
Zona Gale (1874-1938) was a well-known author and supporter of populist causes in the first part of the Twentieth century. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Gale concentrated most of her work on novels, short stories, and plays about small town life in her native Wisconsin -- more specifically, her hometown of Portage, best known in her works as "Friendship City." Portage itself was a mere thirty miles upriver from August Derleth's beloved Sauk City, which he transformed to "Sac Prairie."
Derleth himself was a major regional writer and strong supporter of Wisconsin writers and his work was greatly influenced by Gale. No wonder, then, that his first major work of non-fiction was this biography of this writer whom he had known and admired. Still Small Voice is a laudatory portrait from its very beginning:
"Once having known her, you could not forget her, could not put from memory the gentle spirit that was hers, the grave tolerance she manifested always, her presence: her large dark eyes, her small, beautifully-featured face, her quiet voice that could be firm without seeming so, her lovely hands, the infinite grace with which she moved."
Gale was the only child of progressive parents: her mother, a tolerant and deeply-religious person; her father, intellectual and wise, and while not religious per se, held a strong belief in something greater. Zona herself was a weak child who had friends and playmates, but was always somewhat apart from most of them and given to introspective fantasies. In Derleth's portrait, Zona was sensitive to extremes about others, always forgiving. and with an abhorrence of violence of any kind. She created stories from a very young age, setting some down to paper from the time she learned to write. Her early work was romantic, portraying only the good side of side of people, and proved to be unsellable by the time she was old enough to submit them for publication. Still she continued to write in this romantic vein, selling only one piece over a period of ten years.
Zona Gale's epiphany came when she took a good look at her hometown and realized that its people, with their small struggles and quiet lives, were also the stuff of story. Her stories of Friendship Village, beginning with a series about lovers Pelleas and Etarre, struck a chord with readers and soon these stories were in great demand in a number of major magazines. These early stories were also highly romaticized and one-dimensional. It was not until World War I, when some of her neighbors turned against her for her ardent pacificism, that her second major epiphany came: she had been writing only about "one side of the street" and people were deeper than that; their personalities covered both sides of the street. Deeply hurt by her rejection, she bore no rancor, but from this came a determination to portray her characters as three-dimensional people and to more deeply explore the small tragedies of ordinary life.
Already a darling of the reading public and of critics, the newly-found maturity in her writing cemented her position as a major writer of the time. Her 1920 novel Miss Lulu Bett (along with Sinclair Lewis' Main Street) was the best-selling novel of the year and "was compared to Ethan Frome, The Nigger of the Narcissus, Main Street, Nocturne, Java Head, The Red Badge of Courage, Mary Oliver, et al." Every book an play from Zona's pen heralded a major literary event.
At the same time, Zona's progressive views found their way into a slew of articles on all subjects, from pacifism to women's rights, from education to the dream of a universal church, from reform of the criminal system to temperance. (Her strong support of Prohibition was tempered by her acknowledgment that the experiment was highly flawed.) She wrote many letters and gave speeched in support of her various causes. Her kind nature led her to a host of charitable donations and made her an easy target for anyone with a sad story; her father acted as a sort of gatekeeper, turning away many of those who would use his daughter.
Her activism and progressive views led her to support Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, a leader of the progressive wing of the Republican party and to actively campaign for him. (Derleth himself was reatly enamoured of La Follette, as can be seen by his often referring to the man as "the late, great Senator La Follette" in this book, and -- if memory serves -- in a number of other books that Derleth wrote.)
Derleth also alludes to Zona and her parents as a trinity, a closely-knit trio throughout her mother's life, and as closely-knit a duo until her father's deather at age eighty-eight. It was only until a few years before her father's death that Zona allowed anyone else to be as close; she was in her fifties when she married William Llywelyn Breese, a widower whom she had known in childhood. The marriage made her last ten years the happiest she had known. Derleth glosses over Zona's strong and life-long attachment to her parents and makes no real attempt to dissect the reasons for this.
Derleth does, however, discuss her attraction of mysticism in her later works. Even in this, Zona Gale, followed her own path. Zona's mysticism was a gentle one, an extension of her father's awareness of there being something greater. Her mysticism was one of renewal, of soft hints of colors and nature that provided warmth and comfort. Resting in her lawn chair, with her eyes closed, Zona could feel the nearness of a friend who had died, or -- as she would have put it -- someone who had gone to the More. Zona Gale herself went gently into the More in her sixty-fifth year, two days after Christmas.
Still Small Voice is an interesting and positive look at a writer who, despite her great popularity during her lifetime, is all but forgotten today. Its tone and arrangement also tells us much about its author, Derleth. The book concludes with a poem by Derleth that had been published several years before as a broadside, and with a thirty-four page unfinished autobiography by Gale as an appendix.
For more of today's Forgotten Books, visit Patti Abbott at pattinase.