Born 18 November 1911, Mishawaka, Indiana; died 25 July 1972, New York, New York
Daughter of John S. and Marguerite Flynn McKenney; married Richard Bransten, 1937; children: three
Ruth McKenney was raised in Indiana and Ohio, where she began working in a print shop at age fourteen. After attending Ohio State University, she wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal and the New York Post. She married and raised three children (she adopted the son of her sister Eileen and the novelist Nathanael West after their deaths in an automobile accident). McKenney wrote short semiautobiographical stories for the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, and other popular magazines, and worked as an editor of New Masses. She and her husband, Richard Bransten, were ousted from the Communist Party in 1946 for deviating from party doctrine.
Exaggerated and amusing, McKenney's best-known work, My Sister Eileen (1938), was compiled from short stories originally appearing in the New Yorker; it was followed by stage, movie, and musical versions. McKenney published other accounts of her unusual family in All about Eileen (1937), The McKenneys Carry On (1937), The Loud Red Patrick (1947), Love Story (1950), and Far, Far from Home (1954), sometimes overlapping stories from one volume to the next. These accounts of her youth have lost much of the charm that was their primary attraction; the sisters' adventures (far more concerned with Ruth than with Eileen) are described from childhood to adulthood in humorous but extravagant, unconnected anecdotes.
The nonfictional Industrial Valley (1939) is the cornerstone of McKenney's socialist writings, which also include Browder and Ford: For Peace, Jobs, Socialism (1940), the unsuccessful novel Jake Home (1943), and her articles and column, "Strictly Personal," for New Masses. Written in journal form, Industrial Valley details the struggle between 1932 and 1936 of the Akron rubber workers to unionize. The details of the Depression, both personal and industrial, are related as though by an omniscient observer, revealing the manipulations and deceptions of the powerful. The stark facts recorded in Industrial Valley are more arresting than the fictional portrait of a developing union leader in Jake Home. Neither his personality nor his motivations are sufficiently engaging to make the novel convincing.
McKenney's final two works move away from previously developed patterns. Here's England: A Highly Informal Guide (1950), coauthored with Bransten, is a pleasant, well-informed guide to Britain's historical and tourist attractions. Mirage (1956) chronicles the adventures of Remi Sainte-Victor, a Lyon chemist, through his imprisonment in the French Revolution, his release through the intercession of Josephine Bonaparte, and the campaign in Egypt with Napoleon. The novel fails to draw the social, personal, and military elements together to focus on either the bourgeois hero or his Corsican emperor.
Although My Sister Eileen is still remembered (chiefly for its filmed version), Industrial Valley, McKenney 's most significant work, better displays her ability to humanize a great drama by the presentations of precise and realistic details. The perspective she achieves in the nonautobiographical view of the Midwest is valuable for its clarity and compassion.
CA (1973). TCA, TCAS.
—KATHLEEN G. KLEIN