Prouty, Olive Higgins

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PROUTY, Olive Higgins

Born 10 January 1882, Worcester, Massachusetts; died 24 March 1974, Brookline, Massachusetts

Daughter of Milton P. and Katharine Chapin Higgins; married Lewis I. Prouty, 1907

Olive Higgins Prouty was born into a loving New England family of comfortable means but had a troubled childhood saddened by the death of a beloved nurse. About the age of twelve, Prouty suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted nearly two years. Excelling only in composition, Prouty graduated from Worcester Classical High School in 1900; she was graduated from Smith College in 1904, with a Bachelor of Literature degree.

Prouty's professional writing career began with the encouragement of Albert Boyden, an editor at the American Magazine who published her first story, "When Elsie Came" (1909). This story, narrated by a young girl named Bobbie, was followed by some half dozen others about the same family. At Witter Bynner's urging, Prouty transformed the Bobbie stories into her first novel, Bobbie, General Manager (1913).

The Fifth Wheel (1916) takes up the story of Bobbie's younger sister Ruth, who first achieves and then abandons a successful career to take temporary responsibility for several nieces and nephews. The experience of being needed by young children convinces Ruth that fulfillment lies in home and family, and she permanently renounces her vocation for reunion with an early suitor. While the resolution to The Fifth Wheel is sentimental and conventional, the conflict between the desire for self-determination through a career and commitment to family life is still relevant. This conflict between career and home, so neatly resolved in the novel, caused much stress in Prouty's personal life and was in part responsible for her second nervous collapse in 1925.

Prouty's best-known novel, Stella Dallas (1923 dramatized, 1924; three film versions), received generally favorable reviews, although some critics complained of its sentimentality. It concerns a mother who sacrifices herself to assure her daughter's social position. The plot is moved along by a jarring series of coincidences leading to a melodramatic climax, but the narrative style is smooth and Prouty's characters draw us into their world.

In 1931 Prouty began a series of novels about a wealthy Boston family, the Vales. These novels deal with themes typical of Prouty: the propriety of possible marriage partners and the obligations of social position. Two of the novels, however, include sympathetic treatments of psychological problems. Now, Voyager (1941, film version 1942), tells the story of Charlotte Vale, a woman unable to break away from the domination of her mother until early middle age. Charlotte's growth toward independence begins with several months of treatment in a psychiatric sanatorium and a liberating love affair with a married man. Home Port (1947) describes the inferiority complex of a quiet, younger son growing up in the shadow of his athletic and popular older brother. The other novels of the Vale series are White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), and Fabia (1951).

Prouty's psychological problems perhaps made her particularly sensitive to the demons of others. When the holder of the 1950 Olive H. Prouty Scholarship at Smith College, Sylvia Plath, attempted suicide in the summer of 1953, Prouty arranged to have her removed from the psychiatric ward of Massachusetts General Hospital and cared for at a private sanatorium near Boston. Plath's five-month stay there was paid for by Prouty, who was rewarded for her generosity by the scathing caricature of herself as Philomena Guinea in Plath's The Bell Jar.

Prouty's novels have been translated into many languages and have given pleasure to millions of readers. Prouty's last book was a memoir, Pencil Shavings (1961). In it Prouty admits she "was not as good a writer as [she] once thought [she] might be," and candidly describes herself as a writer of light fiction.

Other Works:

The Star in the Window (1918). Good Sports (1919). Conflict (1927).

Olive Higgins Prouty's manuscripts are housed in the Robert Hutchins Goddard Library of Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts.


Reference works:

American Novelists of Today (1951). NCAB. TCA, TCAS

Other references:

NYT (26 March 1974). NYTBR (22 April 1923). WP (28 March 1974).