Chase, Mary Ellen

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CHASE, Mary Ellen

Born 24 February 1887, Blue Hill, Maine; died 28 July 1973, Northampton, Massachusetts

Daughter of Edward E. and Edith Lord Chase

Mary Ellen Chase was the second of eight children in a family that preserved a 200-year heritage of New England maritime village life. Entering the University of Maine at seventeen and pausing at eighteen for a year of teaching in two one-room schools in Maine villages, Chase graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at twenty. At thirty she entered the graduate school of the University of Minnesota, where she received her doctorate in 1922, and became assistant professor of English at the university.

By 1926 Chase's fame as a provocative teacher at Minnesota won her a post at Smith College that would last for 30 years. Her short stories and essays were also appearing frequently in the top literary magazines, launching her as a writer on a larger scale. In 1927 she published Thomas Hardy from Serial to Novel, which was adapted from her doctoral dissertation.

Teaching and lecturing about the Bible as literature led Chase to write several enduring volumes of inspired, interpretive analysis: The Bible and the Common Reader (1944), Life and Language in the Old Testament (1955), The Psalms for the Common Reader (1962), and The Prophets for the Common Reader (1963).

Chase's regional novels of crisis and decline in maritime Maine began with Uplands (1927) and reached their full greatness in Mary Peters (1934), Silas Crockett (1935), Windswept (1941), and The Edge of Darkness (1957). Her novels show the destruction and regeneration of a region undergoing upheaval as a result of the cultural changes of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Inspired to become a writer by Sarah Orne Jewett, whom Chase met as a young girl, the younger woman followed her mentor in observing nature and in presenting it and the land as determinants of character. Discussing the influence of the Maine coast on her writings, Chase said in her polished, classical style, "…to have sprung from Maine seafaring people; to have spent my childhood and…later years on a coastline unsurpassed in loveliness; to have inherited a wealth of thrilling history and tradition—such an inheritance of imperishable values imposes a debt which cannot possibly either be underestimated or ever fully discharged."

But Chase did discharge this debt to her Maine heritage and surroundings through her novels and reminiscences. Through the use of lyrical imagery, affection for words, and flowing sentence structure, she presented her philosophy that reflection on experience brings more reality than the experience itself. Her autobiographical reminiscences, The Golden Asse, and Other Essays (1929), A Goodly Heritage (1932), A Goodly Fellowship (1939), and The White Gate (1954), proved to be her most lasting works.

Other Works:

His Birthday (1915). The Girl from the Big Horn Country (1916). Virginia of Elk Creek Valley (1917). The Art of Narration (with F. K. Del Plaine, 1926). Mary Christmas (1926). The Writing of Informal Essays (1929). Constructive Theme Writing for College Freshmen (1929, rev. ed. 1938). The Silver Shell (1930). This England (1936). Dawn in Lyonesse (1938, dramatization by T. Job 1946). Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson, 1768-1847 (1948). The Plum Tree (1949, dramatization by L. McMahon and R. Sengel 1953). Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1950). Readings from the Bible (1952). Recipe for a Magic Childhood (1952). Sailing the Seven Seas (1958). Donald McKay and the Clipper Ships (1959). The Lovely Ambition (1960). The Fishing Fleets of New England (1961).


Cary, R., "A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Mary Ellen Chase," in CLQ (March 1962). Dorio, J. J., "Mary Ellen Chase and the Novel of Regional Crisis," in CLQ (March 1962). Duckett, E. S., "A Portrait: 1962," in CLQ (March 1962). Milbank, H. K., "Mary Ellen Chase: Teacher, Writer, Lecturer," in CLQ (March 1962). Westbrook, P. D., Mary Ellen Chase (1965).

Reference Works:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1987).