Born 19 October 1893, Cleveland, Ohio; died 26 September 1975
Daughter of Samuel A. and Julia Bindley Freedman; married Mr. Breuer; Carl Kahler; Henry Varnum Poor, 1925
After graduating from the Missouri State University School of Journalism, Bessie Breuer worked for several years as a newspaper reporter, first for the St. Louis Times and subsequently for the New York Tribune, where she was editor of the women's department and briefly, Sunday editor. After staff work for the American Red Cross publicity department, Ladies' Home Journal, and Harper's, she went to France where her friendships with Kay Boyle and Laurence Vail encouraged her to turn her attention toward fiction writing. She wrote for such periodicals as World's Work, Pictorial Review (often in collaboration with Henry Ford), House Beautiful, Mademoiselle, and the New Yorker until the 1960s. She received second prize in the O. Henry Memorial Award for short fiction in 1944. In 1948, her only play, Sundown Beach, was produced by Elia Kazan at the Actor's Studio in New York City. The play ran for seven performances after having been dismissed by the critics as an "emotional vaudeville."
Breuer's early publications often centered on the significance and implications of postsuffrage feminism. One of these articles, "Feminism's Awkward Age" (Harper's, April 1925), a discussion of the difficulty the modern woman faces in attempting to integrate personal and sexual needs with vocational and political goals, provides an excellent introduction to concerns which were crucial in Breuer's later fiction. She often concentrates on the fate of women who flounder in endless introspection, unsatisfying jobs, and painful relationships; women who lack either the consolations of a conventional identity or a mass movement in which to submerge themselves.
In her autobiographical sketch for Twentieth Century Authors, Breuer describes her fictional priorities: "Somewhere Freud has said that psychologists have frank records of the male, but the female is shrouded and secreted and known to no man. That has been to me our great sin as writers, those of us who are women: that nowhere in our history as artists have we been the earth shakers because we dared not. So I try, oh, just a tiny bit, to write of what I truly see and have known; and not being a member of some powerful literary clan, am scolded for my lack of morality, or ignored." Following these priorities, Breuer's fiction is sexually explicit and unsparing in its delineation of her heroine's confusion. These tendencies, as well as her experimental style, caused the critical reception to her novel to be frequently negative.
Breuer's first novel, Memory of Love (1934), is written in the voice of a married man as he remembers an affair he had years before with a woman separated from her husband. For the narrator, a man who prides himself on his sexual exploits, this woman is unexpectedly captivating. Alternating between equally intense moments of attraction and repulsion, the narrative recounts their passionate, tempestuous affair. Finally, the protagonist is forced to abandon this woman when his wealthy parents threaten to cut off his income unless he returns to his more socially prestigious wife. The novel seems to stand as Breuer's commentary on the extreme vulnerability of the sexually active "new" woman.
Breuer's most successful novel, The Daughter (1938), is the story of a young woman, Katy, and her divorced mother. Living on an income provided by Katy's prominent father (with the stipulation that no acknowledgment of the connection be made public), the two women drift from one second-rate resort to another. The mother enjoys a series of casual affairs while the daughter retreats more deeply into a carefully constructed aesthetic artifice of classical music and contemporary poetry. Most of the action takes place in a west coast Florida hotel where the daughter has her first affair. Lacking her mother's resiliency, this purely physical involvement almost destroys her and she attempts suicide.
In addition to its remarkable characterization of Katy, The Daughter is memorable because of Breuer's repeated juxtaposition of the aimless resort world of her characters and the wider panorama of world events. If her characters do not care, Breuer seems to, and insistently reminds her readers of the sociopolitical background against which her novel is set. Only Katy has any sense of the significance of this wider world. The best she can do, however, is to fantasize that in a different place, with a different personality, she too could have been a Jane Addams or a La Pasionaria.
Joanna Trask, the heroine of Breuer's The Actress (1955), seems at first to be a continuation of the passive, introspective, and excessively vulnerable heroines typical of Breuer's early fiction. But the novel traces Joanna's gradual development, a process characterized by Breuer as a movement toward assuming responsibility for her own actions and control over her own fate. She becomes more active than acted upon and, for the first time in Breuer's fiction, sexual experience is viewed as necessary and healthy. The novel ends with the optimistic assertion that Joanna will not only combine a career and a family, but do it well.
Breuer's fiction will strike the modern reader as unexpectedly contemporary, in part because of Breuer's innovative narrative techniques and her interest in the relationship between woman's sexual and social identities. Breuer is an often fascinating writer who deserves more serious attention than she has yet received.
The Bracelet of Wavia Lea and Other Stories (1947). Take Care of My Roses (1961).
Blake, F., The Strike in the American Novel (1972). Cormany, S., The Common Orchestra: The Role of the Artist in the Fiction of Bessie Breuer and Tess Slesinger (dissertation, 1993). Hill, V., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979).
American Women, D. Howes, ed. (1939). TCA (1942).
CW (24 Sept. 1948). NR (20 Sept. 1948). NY (18 Sept. 1948). Newsweek (20 Sept. 1948). SR (16 April 1938, 28 Dec. 1946, 17 Jan. 1949). Theatre Arts (Jan. 1949). WLB (Oct. 1938).
—VICKI LYNN HILL