Born 19 March 1850, Massachusetts; died 9 January 1934
Wrote under: Octave Thanet
Alice French, writing under the pseudonym Octave Thanet, was widely read at the turn of the 20th century. She was one of the highest paid writers of her time. Considered to be a Midwestern regional writer, she wrote some of the most significant novels and short stories in the regional and local color genres. French wrote during the post-Reconstruction era in America, a time of expansion, economic prosperity, and industrial growth that included America's Gilded Age. Populists and suffragists were the newsmakers of the day, replacing the hawks and doves of the Civil War and Reconstruction years. The huge increase in immigrants, coupled with black enfranchisement debates, led to new kinds of racism. All of these issues factor into French's novels and short stories. The relationship between labor and capital also figures often in her works. French was a modernist in terms of her writing as well as her contemporaries, and was well respected as an author.
French was born in Massachusetts and later moved to Arkansas and Iowa, splitting her time between her homes in both states. Many of her stories take place in either Arkansas or Iowa. Her life partner, with whom she lived for 50 years, was Jane Crawford.
During World War I, French was politically active as the chairman of the Committee on Patriotic Meetings for the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense of Iowa. She was also the Regent of the Colonial Dames of Iowa. She was instrumental in organizing meetings of German Americans in Iowa, helping them to identify the duties of German American citizens during World War I.
A collection of 684 of French's papers, dating from 1871 to her death in 1934, can be found at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. Among these papers are correspondence (including some with Edith Roosevelt, the widow of Theodore Roosevelt), diaries, manuscripts of her novels, plays and short stories, copies of her speeches, and miscellaneous souvenirs of her life.
The majority of French's work is short story collections such as Knitters in the Sun (1887). Some of the stories in this collection are "The Bishop's Vagabond," "Schopenhauer on Lake Pepin," "Half a Curse," "A Communist's Wife," and "Mrs. Finlay's Elizabethan Chair." Stories of a Western Town (1893) includes "The Face of Failure," "An Assisted Providence," "The Besetment of Kurt Lieders," and "Mother Emeritus." A Captured Dream, and Other Stories (1897), like Stories of a Western Town, is a collection of stories dealing with frontier and pioneer life in Iowa and Arkansas. The Missionary Sheriff (1897) was illustrated by A. B. Frost and Clifford Carleton and includes "The Cabinet Organ," "The Hypnotist," and "The Defeat of Amos Wickliff." These are stories of an ordinary man simply trying to do his duty. A Book of True Lovers (1897) is another collection of French's earlier stories with locations in Arkansas and Iowa. Short stories included in this book are "The Judgment on Mrs. Swift" and "The Dilemma of Sir Guy the Neuter." The Heart of Toil (1898) is a book of short stories dealing with social life and customs of the 19th century, including "The Way of an Election," "Johnney's Job," and "The Conscience of a Business Man." Business themes are found in some of her writing. For example, The Man of the Hour (1905) is historical fiction about the strikes and lockouts of railroads and the ensuing Chicago Strike of 1894. Later works include Stories That End Well (1911) and A Step on the Stair (1913).
French's stories appeared in several popular magazines of the time: "The Canada Thistle" in Midland Monthly (1894); "The Defeat of Amos Wickliff" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Christmas 1896); and "The Next Room" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1896).
Today French's stories are in reprint editions. Her short story "My Lorelei: A Heidelberg Romance" can be found in Two Friends and Other Nineteenth Century Lesbian Stories by American Women Writers, edited by Susan Koppelman. Other books in reprint are Heart of Toil (1969), The Missionary Sheriff (1969), A Book of True Lovers (1969), Stories of a Western Town (1972), The Man of the Hour (1977), My Name is Masak (1992), and The Restless Nomad (1992).
Dougan, M. B. and C. W. Dougan, By the Cypress Swamps: The Arkansas Stories of Octave Thanet (1980). Rushton, L. E.,"The Arkansas Fiction of Alice French" (thesis, 1988). Tigges, S. A. H., "Alice French, A Noble Anachronism" (thesis, 1988).
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—HEIDI HARTWIG DENLER