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Rice, Alice (Caldwell) Hegan

RICE, Alice (Caldwell) Hegan

Born 11 January 1870, Shelbyville, Kentucky; died 10 February 1942, Louisville, Kentucky

Also wrote under: Alice Caldwell Hegan

Daughter of Samuel W. and Sallie Caldwell Hegan; married Cale Y. Rice, 1902

Alice Hegan Rice was born and raised in Kentucky, the setting for most of her fiction. She married Rice shortly after the publication of her first book. They traveled widely in Asia and Europe, associating with many of the most prominent literary figures of the 20th century. Their permanent home was Louisville. Though he was primarily a poet and she a writer of fiction, they worked closely together, publishing short stories by each of them in three collections (Turn About Tales, 1920; Winners and Losers, 1925; and Passionate Follies, 1936). Rice also published an autobiography (The Inky Way, 1940) and two collections of religious meditations (My Pillow Book, 1937, and Happiness Road, completed by her husband in 1942).

Rice's best works are set among Kentucky's poor, particularly the urban poor whom she came to know as a volunteer settlement worker. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901), inspired by a real person and a slum area in Louisville, is noteworthy both for its fidelity to the facts of the lives of poor urban whites and for the gentle humor with which it depicts their characters. These are the "deserving poor," honest and willing to work. Mrs. Wiggs, a widow with five children, is poor and illiterate but wise and proud; she straightens out the personal lives of the wealthy young woman and man who, in turn, give her surviving children a chance to make something of themselves. The novel's humor comes from its use of dialect, from Mrs. Wiggs' malapropisms, and from the children's pranks and mishaps. Lovey Mary (1903) is a sequel about an orphan girl who flees the orphanage and is taken in by Mrs. Wiggs and her friends. Both novels are trite and sentimental in plot, but their restraint and gently comic tone keep them from becoming mawkish.

Four other novels center on poor but meritorious characters trying to make their way in a hostile world. Sandy (1905), loosely based on the experiences of the magazine editor S. S. McClure, tells of a Scottish waif finally lucky enough to be taken in by a wealthy Kentuckian. Also dealing with an adolescent boy is Our Ernie (1939), whose title character quits school at fourteen to support his loving but feckless family. He rises in the business world, becoming entangled with the daughter of his employer, but in a reversal of the Horatio Alger motif, frees himself from her while retaining his position. A rather melodramatic subplot concerns German spies. Rice's dedication describes it as "a happy book about funny people," a valid description for most of her novels.

Mr. Pete & Co. (1933) tells of a middle-aged derelict who returns home to Louisville when he inherits a riverfront tenement. The unaccustomed responsibility for the building and its inhabitants regenerates him, and by novel's end he has instigated an urban renewal project and transformed the lives of his tenants.

Rice's most ambitious attempt to depict urban poverty and inspire reform is Calvary Alley (1917), which recounts the life of Nance Molloy, at eleven a mistress of gang-fighting techniques, later a reform school inmate, and then a factory worker. Through much of the novel her prime goal is to escape the slum, but she matures and through hard work and good luck becomes a nurse in a clinic serving her people. Rice was disappointed that this book was generally received as another comic novel rather than as the serious indictment of slum conditions she intended.

Most of Rice's other novels concern family situations, the central characters bearing responsibility for unworldly and eccentric relatives. Particularly interesting is The Buffer: A Novel (1929), which centers on Cynthia Freer, an aspiring writer who is strong and self-sacrificing but has a sense of humor. At the novel's conventional happy ending, she seems to be ready to subordinate her literary ambitions to marriage—but she takes the manuscript of her novel with her.

Though readable and amusing, Rice's novels are lacking in roundness of characterization or thematic depth. Compared to the works of her naturalistic contemporaries, who used many similar materials, her treatments seem shallowly optimistic. She had few pretensions, however, always considering her husband's serious poetry more important than her own light fiction. But his work is largely forgotten today, while at least one of her characters, Mrs. Wiggs, still lives.

Other Works:

Captain June (1907). Mr. Opp (1909). A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill (1912). The Honorable Percival (1914). Miss Mink's Soldier, and Other Stories (1918). Quinn (1921). The Lark Legacy (1935). Passionate Follies: Alternate Tales (with C. Y. Rice, 1936).

Bibliography:

Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1919).

Other references:

Book News Monthly (Oct. 1909). Boston Transcript (31 Oct. 1917, 14 Sept. 1921, 23 Sept. 1933). NYHTB (10 Nov. 1940).

—MARY JEAN DEMARR

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