Hobart, Alice (Nourse) Tisdale
HOBART, Alice (Nourse) Tisdale
Born 28 January 1882, Lockport, New York; died 14 March 1967, Oakland, California
Also wrote under: Alice Tisdale
Daughter of Edwin H. and Harriett Beaman Nourse; married Earle Tisdale Hobart, 1914
Alice Tisdale Hobart grew up near Chicago, Illinois, and attended the University of Chicago. She then worked as a YWCA secretary, later joining her elder sister, a teacher, in China. She and her husband, an oil company executive, lived in China until 1927. The Hobarts later made their home in California. Despite frequent ill health, the result of childhood meningitis aggravated by a fall, Hobart loved travel and adventure. Her autobiography, Gusty's Child (1959), gives a full account of her travels and literary career.
Hobart reported on her experiences in China in her first three books. Although she returned to China only for brief visits after 1927, it was the setting for much of her fiction. She was fascinated by the effects on both Chinese and Westerners of their contacts with each other, as well as by the great difference between their cultures. Pidgin Cargo (1929; reissued in 1934 as River Supreme, Hobart's preferred title) tells the story of a steamboat builder so determined to conquer the Yangtse River that he sacrifices his family to his obsession. Western affinity for machinery is contrasted with Chinese indifference to it, but both the Chinese and the Westerners are changed by their meeting.
In Oil for the Lamps of China (1933), Hobart's great bestseller (filmed twice, in 1935 and again in 1941 as Law of the Tropics), the subject is business, the experiences of Stephen and Hester Chase being loosely based on those of Hobart and her husband. Important themes are the relationship between the two alien cultures and the company's exploitation of its employees. Yang and Yin (1936) studies the effect of cultural contact in the area of ideas; central characters are an American doctor and his protegé, a young Chinese aristocrat. The chasm between the two cultures is also dramatized by other characters, particularly the women.
When, much later, Hobart returned to her Chinese materials, she examined recent Chinese history and the new communist society. Venture into Darkness (1955), a study in guilt, responsibility, and expiation, describes the experiences of an American banker who makes an ill-fated, illegal journey into communist China. The Innocent Dreamers (1963) centers on an interracial marriage, tracing the history of 20th-century China and the divergent forces at work in it through the establishment and dissolution of the family.
With one exception—The Peacock Sheds His Tail (1945), which is set in Mexico—Hobart's remaining novels deal with American themes and problems. Their Own Country (1940), a sequel to Oil for the Lamps of China, brings Stephen and Hester back to the U.S. and describes their attempts to build a new life during the Depression. An important subplot shows the struggle of several women musicians to achieve success while maintaining integrity. The Serpent-Wreathed Staff (1951) centers on a family of doctors; it implicitly attacks the American Medical Association and argues for prepaid group preventive health care. Two other novels are specifically Californian: The Cup and the Sword (1942; filmed as This Earth Is Mine) centers on the wine country during and after Prohibition. In The Cleft Rock (1948), set in the Central Valley, much of the action deals with the vexed question of water rights and the conflicts between small and large farmers.
The central theme in Hobart's work is social change. She also consistently dramatized a need to break with tradition, though she often sympathetically depicted old values. She saw hope for social amelioration through united action (in cooperatives and the like). Her central characters often include both those who bring change and those who resist it most strongly; their interactions create the dramatic tension in her work. Hobart perceived change as painful and the results seldom totally desirable, but she always stressed as most important the need for improvement in the lot of ordinary people, be they Chinese, Mexican, or American.
Pioneering Where the World Is Old: Leaves from a Manchurian Note-Book (1917). By the City of the Long Sand: A Tale of New China (1926). Within the Walls of Nanking (1928).
NR (20 Sept. 1948). NYHTB (22 Aug. 1948, 4 Nov. 1951). NYT (15 Mar. 1967). NYTBR (8 Oct. 1933, 8 Nov. 1936, 31 Mar. 1940, 6 Sept. 1942). Saturday Review (20 Oct. 1945).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR