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Hurst, Fannie

HURST, Fannie

Born 18 October 1889, Hamilton, Ohio; died 23 February 1968, New York, New York

Daughter of Samuel and Rose Koppel Hurst; married Jacques S.Danielson, 1915

Fannie Hurst, daughter of American-born Jews of German descent, was raised and educated in St. Louis, Missouri (B.A. 1909, Washington University). In 1910, eager to observe the working people of whom and for whom she wrote, Hurst moved to New York City. There she took assorted jobs as saleswoman, actress, and waitress, and started bombarding publications with her fiction. Her marriage to a Russian-born pianist, in which they both pursued separate careers, endured successfully until her husband's death in 1952. Hurst became an established writer while still in her twenties. She began as a short story writer, but she is best remembered for her bestselling novels, especially Back Street (1931) and Imitation of Life (1933). Her works have been widely translated, and many became successful films.

Back Street is about the beautiful Ray Schmidt, who is mistress to a married man and for over 20 years is confined to the "back streets" of his life. After her lover's death, Ray spends her last few years penniless at a European spa, surviving on the few francs that winners at the casino throw to her; she dies alone in her room. The novel's enormous popularity was due largely to two factors: It appeared during the Depression, when escapist entertainment was assured a large following, and it deals with the especially titillating subject of sex, which Hurst handles most cleverly. She avoids graphic description, knowing that the lack of it would afford greater excitement for her audience and, therefore, greater readership for her. Although we remain uncertain why the selfish and immature lover is even attractive to the lovely Ray, this is calculated; we are not meant to focus on the relationship, but on Ray, her feelings and responses. She is dominated, used, and ultimately destroyed, yet throughout, the reader, perhaps recalling similar trials, identifies and empathizes profoundly.

In Imitation of Life, Beatrice Fay Chipley, widowed mother of a young daughter, sells maple syrup door-to-door with the help of Delilah, a black woman who also has an infant daughter. Beatrice becomes one of the most prominent businesswomen in America, but the novel ends with her realization that she must continue to live an "imitation of life" without a man to love. Imitation of Life, in rough outline, is a woman's version of the timeless rags-to-riches American success story. But the specific type of irony evident at the conclusion, as well as its stereotyped characterization of the black "mammy" figure, places it solidly in its time. Feminists would be outraged at its underlying philosophy—that, regardless of professional achievements, life must be worthless without what Delilah terms "manlovin"'. Hurst's audience, however, was attracted by the novel's sympathetic—today we would call it sentimental—depiction of the heroine; by its handling of the touchy matter of race relations; and by its "bittersweetness," still one of the recognizable marks of the popular novelist.

Hurst wrote for women and, accordingly, her books focus on women. These characters tend to be inarticulate and enigmatic, types whom she termed "artists without an art." They are concerned most significantly with the need for a man. Professional success, when women achieve it, is regarded as compensation for the lack of male companionship and, thus, in emotional terms, a poor replacement for true happiness. The novels are replete with women who sacrifice themselves for men and with women who long to do so. They are ministers of mercy to the weak, egocentric, even cruel male figures. Because the female characters, in contrast, are always presented positively, when they are hurt—which is often the case—they retain the sympathy of the audience. The women, we are made to feel, are too good for the objects of their desire. In her time, Hurst was very popular with readers and was scarcely taken seriously by critics. Today she retains our interest primarily because her works are accurate gauges of her contemporary audience's beliefs.

Other Works:

Just Around the Corner (1914). Every Soul Hath Its Song (1916). Land of the Free (1917). Gaslight Sonatas (1918). Humoresque (1919). Back Pay (1921). Star Dust (1921). The Vertical City (1922). Lummox (1923). Appassionata (1926). Mannequin (1926). Song of Life (1927). A President Is Born (1928). Five and Ten (1929). Procession (1929). Anitra's Dance (1934). No Food with My Meals (1935). Great Laughter (1936). Hands of Veronica (1937). We Are Ten (1937). Lonely Parade (1942). Hallelujah (1944). Any Woman (1950). The Man with One Head (1953). Anatomy of Me: A Wonderer in Search of Herself (1958). Family! (1959). God Must Be Sad (1961). Fool—Be Still (1964).

The papers of Fannie Hurst are primarily housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin; other manuscripts and letters can also be found at both Brandeis University and Washington University.

Bibliography:

Brandimarte, C., Fannie Hurst and Her Fiction: Prescriptions for America's Working Women (1980). Koppelman, S., ed., Fannie Hurst—The Woman, the Writer:A Collection of Essays (1994). Koppelman, S., A Fannie Hurst Anthology: Stories Selected and Introduced by Susan Koppelman (1994).

Reference works:

CA (1971). NCAB. Ohio Authors and Their Books (1962). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

Arts and Decoration (Nov. 1935). Bookman (May 1929, Aug. 1931). Mentor (Apr. 1928). NYTBR (25 Jan. 1942). Saturday Review (Oct. 1937).

—ELLEN SERLEN UFFEN

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