Born 6 May 1908, Boston, Massachusetts; died 24 September 1988
Daughter of Philip L. and Lilian Wescott Hale; married Fredson Bowers, 1942
The only child of two painters, Nancy Hale attended the Winsor School in Boston and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She placed her first short story at the age of eleven with the Boston Herald and at twenty went to New York, the setting for her first novel. For five years Hale worked in New York as a journalist, first as assistant editor of Vogue (1928-32) and then as assistant editor of Vanity Fair (1932-33). In 1935 she became the first woman reporter for the New York Times. In 1937 Hale moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and this piedmont area, with its historic traditions and aura of southern gentility, provides both the ambience and the central motif for several of Hale's short stories and novels.
The three locales that figure prominently in Hale's life—New England, New York, and Virginia—also furnish the backdrop and often create the tensions in her fiction. Her first novel, The Good Die Young (1932), depicts the sophisticated "Manhattan types" of the 1930s with the attention to detail also given to the "Southern types" of Hale's later novels. Her most popular novel, The Prodigal Women (1942, reissued 1988), follows the lives of three women—two of them Southern and one a New Englander—from childhood through the course of their love affairs and marriages. Categorized at the time of its publication as a "woman's book" because of its concern with "the viciousness in men," the novel portrays the warfare between men and women waged in the name of love. The scenes are laid in Boston, Virginia, and New York, and Hale deftly captures the sense of place and the inflections of speech that point to the geographical origins of her characters.
In the novel Dear Beast (1959), and in the title story of her collection of short stories The Pattern of Perfection (1960), Hale exhibits especially well her considerable talent for evoking regional differences and for portraying the antagonism between northern and southern manners. In "The Pattern of Perfection," Hale creates the climate of opposition between a Virginia matriarch and her New Jersey daughter-in-law; and with a restraint that avoids moral judgement, she highlights in Dear Beast the foibles of both southern provincialism and Yankee sophistication.
For all the social implications of these regional tensions, however, Hale is essentially concerned with the individual in these settings. She shows the personal pretensions that render real communication between a New England wife and her Virginia husband almost impossible, and the private insecurities which cause a woman from Rochester to feel displaced in her new suburban home in Virginia. In her fiction of manners, Hale creates conflicts essentially personal but are accentuated by the differences in the outward trappings of everyday life from one region to another.
In her most recent novel, Secrets (1971), Hale moves from her use of regional tensions as a correlative for personal conflict to portray a woman's conflict in integrating her own world within. The middle-aged narrator tells how she grew from a lonely, sensitive child into a mature adult, capable of coping with both the past and the present.
Hale has written that she has purposely attempted to conceal the seriousness of her work with "the light touch." Yet in more than 50 years of publishing novels and short stories, she revealed herself to be a penetrating observer of the human scene.
Never Any More (1934). The Earliest Dreams (1936). Between the Dark and the Daylight (1943). The Sign of Jonah (1950). The Empress's Ring (1955). Heaven and Hardpan Farm (1957). A New England Girlhood (1958). The Realities of Fiction: A Book about Writing (1962). Black Summer (1963). New England Discovery: A Personal View (edited by Hale, 1963). The Life in the Studio (1969, 1980). Secrets (1971). Mary Cassatt (1975, 1987). Birds in the House (1985). Wags (1985).
Peden, W., The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975 (1975).
NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCAS.
—GUIN A. NANCE