Kelley, Edith Summers

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KELLEY, Edith Summers

Born 1884, Ontario, Canada; died 1956, Los Gatos, California

Also wrote under: Edith Summers

Also wrote under: Edith SummersMarried Allan Updegraff, 1908 (divorced); Claude F. Kelley,1915; children: two

Like the protagonists of her two novels, Edith Summers Kelley struggled much of her adult life for financial security and for realization of her dream to be a writer. After taking an honors degree in languages from the University of Toronto, the nineteen-year-old Edith moved to New York and began working on Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary project.

In 1906 Kelley became secretary to Upton Sinclair and part of the staff at Helicon Hall, Sinclair's socialist commune (inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's plans for municipal housing, advanced in 1904). At the Hall, she met two other aspiring writers-cum-janitors, Sinclair Lewis and Alan Updegraff. Both Sinclair and Updegraff (to whom she was engaged) remained lifelong correspondents. The marriage to Updegraff produced two children; Kelley apparently was primary breadwinner as a teacher in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City. After her divorce, she became the common-law wife of Claude Fred Kelley. The Kelleys pursued a series of mostly unprofitable jobs from 1914 to 1945: tenant tobacco farming in Kentucky; boardinghouse management in New Jersey; alfalfa and chicken ranching, and bootlegging in California. Thus unlike Sinclair's journalistic fiction, Kelley's novels reflect her own experiences and observations as an economically depressed rancher.

In Weeds (1923, reissued 1972 and 1996), Judith Pipinger is different from other members of her tenant tobacco farming community in Kentucky because she is a throwback to purer pioneer stock, an exception to the usual results of inbreeding and poor nutrition. Her early repugnance to traditional female chores and her preference for "man's" (outdoors) work isolate her from the closely knit female subculture. This isolation is underlined by imagery linking Judith with natural (as opposed to societal) objects, and by a character "double," Jabez Moorhouse, an iconoclastic fiddler who shares Judith's intuitive grasp of beauty and meaning in life. With her marriage and subsequent motherhood, Judith is trapped in the very role she has despised; when Moorhouse dies, her death in spirit concludes the novel.

Encouraged by a monetary award from a civil liberties group, Kelley began work in 1925 on a second novel, a study of the Imperial Valley in Southern California and "the life it harbors." From 1925 through 1929, Kelley wrote and revised as her knowledge of California development and the International Workers of the World increased, but The Devil's Hand was not published until 1974, 18 years after her death (and reissued in 1982).

Marriage proves to be a spiritual death for Rhoda Malone, an acknowledgment of defeat closing The Devil's Hand. Tempted by her friend Kate Baxter to leave her passive and orderly life as an office clerk in Philadelphia, Rhoda takes on a partnership with Kate in a California alfalfa farm. Because Rhoda's is the central consciousness through which the story is told, focus is equally on what she sees and who she becomes. Her awareness of the exploitation of people like herself, and the Hindu, Mexican, and Oriental laborers, by rapacious realtors and big landowners gradually intensifies; two male friends serve (as did Moorhouse in Weeds) as examples of the individual freedom that Rhoda, as a woman, cannot achieve. Disheartened by the loss of these friends, the drudgery of profitless farming, and her realization that to challenge the economic system is to suffer social and material martyrdom, Rhoda marries the very realtor who initially took advantage of her ignorance.

In both novels the central character is sensitively drawn, but equally effective are the local-color sketches of California and Kentucky farmers, customs, and community life in general. The function of these characterizations is not, however, strictly for background interest. In Weeds, such material serves to heighten Judith's alienation. Especially in the depiction of the other passive (and vicious) women, Judith's behavior and emotions are seen as different and unnatural. It is an ironic contrast since Kelley's point is that Judith is the sole "natural" person.

Kelley is among several American women writers of the 1920s, such as Josephine Herbst, Frances Newman, Evelyn Scott, and Ruth Suckow, who have been "rediscovered" after being long forgotten or ignored. Kelley is also emerging as a master of fiction in the Dreiser, Garland, Howells vein. She does not limit her work to tedious cataloguing of realistic detail, but her work is firmly rooted in everyday experience. Although the imagery of her novels underlines the forgotten connection of men and women to nature, her fiction is oriented more toward sociological (even socialist) study; time and again she emphasizes the effect of social environment on individual fate. Thus, the feminist concerns grow naturally out of her realistic approach to life and fiction.

Other Works:

Selected papers of Edith Summers Kelley are in the Special Collections of the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Her letters to Sinclair Lewis and to Upton Sinclair are in collections of the Lilly Library at Indiana University.


Ammons, E., Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (1991). Irvin, H., Women in Kentucky (1979). Miller, D., Wingless Flights: Appalachian Women in Fiction (1996). Powderly, C., "Learning the Land: Survival of the Self in a Hostile World" (thesis, 1996). Samuelson, J. W., "Patterns of Survival: Four American Women Writers and the Proletarian Novel" (thesis, 1982). Schorer, M., Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961). Toth, E., ed., Regionalism and the Female Imagination (1985). Wanless, T. C., "Soil and Soul: The Experience of Southern Rural Womanhood in Selected Novels by Edith Summers Kelley, Ellen Glasgow and Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (thesis, 1984).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Frontiers (1980). Michigan Papers in Women's Studies (June 1975). Regionalism and the Female Imagination (Spring 1977).


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