McLean, Kathryn Anderson
McLEAN, Kathryn Anderson
Wrote under: Kathryn Forbes
Daughter of Leon Ellis and Della Jesser Anderson; married Robert Edward McLean, 1926 (divorced 1946)
Kathryn Anderson McLean was the scion of 19th-century California pioneers. Her voluntary publicity work for clubs grew into a professional writing career; she published her first story in 1938. McLean stopped publishing in the late 1940s, perhaps weakened by the chronic emphysema that caused her death. In 1946, she divorced her husband, on grounds of extreme mental cruelty.
The American public first met Mama, McLean's most famous character (based on her grandmother), in Readers' Digest in 1941. In "Mama and Her Bank Account," Mama supervises the careful division of Papa's paycheck, and she and the children work part-time to prevent any withdrawal from the mythical savings account Mama invented to give the children a sense of security.
Mama's Bank Account (1943) is a collection of sketches depicting Mama raising her family in early-20th-century San Francisco, told from the point of view of Katrin, the eldest daughter, who aspires to a writing career. The book centers on Mama's relationships with her carpenter husband and five children, her patriarchal Uncle Chris, maiden Aunt Elna, and four sisters. This is an extended family that works, chiefly because of Mama's talents for understanding and mediation. McLean etches the character of each family member clearly and well; they perform consistently in the stories, which are pervaded by an atmosphere of optimism and humor. In traumatic times of strikes and illness, Mama's common sense and ability to make things right prevail. Several stories highlight the difficulties of Americanization, but Mama's wisdom transcends cultural and class boundaries, as she helps overcome the anti-immigrant prejudice her daughters face at school. Her warmth and wisdom loom large, approximating closely the traditional American maternal ideal.
Critics and public alike applauded Mama's Bank Account, and it became a bestseller. Its emphasis on togetherness held special appeal during World War II, and it was reinterpreted in several media. Playwright John Van Druten noted the dramatic possibilities of Mama's Bank Account, and wrote and directed a two-act play based upon it. I Remember Mama opened on Broadway in 1944 and ran for 714 performances until 1946.
Despite its sentimentality, the play won both general critical approval and the hearts of audiences. Critical charges of sentimentality increased after the film version (produced and directed by George Stevens, with an all-star cast headed by Irene Dunne) opened in 1948, but audiences continued to appreciate I Remember Mama and its celebration of old-fashioned domesticity. Mama's proven popularity and the episodic, open-ended nature of her story seemed ideal material for television; the series was an instant success and ran from July 1949 through March 1957.
Unfortunately, Mama's creator did not share her character's long popularity. McLean largely left the work of developing Mama to other writers, publishing only two additional stories about her: "Mama and Dagmar" (1944) and "Mama and the Christmas Tradition" (1945). McLean continued to write short stories in a variety of settings but with a consistent emphasis on family values and concern for others.
McLean's second book, Transfer Point (1947), returns to Mama's San Francisco, but the family in focus is far from idyllic. Ten-year-old Allie Barton, the protagonist, is a daughter of divorce, her parents torn apart by guilt over the tragic deaths of two older sons. Allie, a bright, independent child, loves both her parents, and tries desperately to find continuity, friendship, and a sense of her own identity that will include the different self she is with each parent. The roomers in Allie's mother's boardinghouse provoke more serious problems than Mama ever faced: suspected child molesting, fraud, and murder. McLean presents Allie's situation and point of view with great understanding, but the episodic structure of the novel weakens its force. The novel received mixed reviews; hostile critics and readers perhaps expected only domestic bliss from McLean's pen. The serialized version in Good Housekeeping was the last of McLean's published fiction.
McLean will be remembered for Mama, which showed her apt characterization and her ability to tap the lode of a memory broader than her own. McLean's embodiment of the maternal ideal hovered on the edge of sentimentality, but she never totally lost her balance. Although the televised version of Mama may have provided historical background for the feminine mystique of the 1950s, McLean's novel Transfer Point presented a child growing to a well-adjusted maturity under far different domestic arrangements. McLean was rejected by the reading public when she removed the rose-colored lens she had earlier used in viewing the past, but she deserves to be remembered for capturing the drama and humor inherent in various forms of family life.
American Novelists of Today. CB.
Commonweal (16 April 1943). NYT (12 March 1948). NYTBR (28 March 1943, 9 Nov. 1947). NYTMag (14 Oct. 1945). SatR (16 Dec. 1944, 24 Jan. 1948, 13 Oct. 1951). Theatre Arts (Dec. 1944).
—HELEN M. BANNAN