Born 1 July 1913, Brooklyn, New York; died 3 April 1995
Wrote under: Jo Sinclair
Daughter of Nathan and Ida Kravesky Seid
The third daughter and fifth child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ruth Seid was born in Brooklyn and the family moved to Cleveland when she was three. Growing up as a Jewish working-class lesbian in a society that was anti-Semitic, homophobic, and hostile to values not perceived as middle class, Seid devoted her output as a writer to the battle against prejudice and to the reclamation of those whose lives have been crippled by the role of outsider. After graduation from a vocational high school in 1930, she worked in factories and offices, as a ghostwriter and a trade magazine editor, and with the WPA (1936-41) and the American Red Cross (1942-46).
In the mid to late 1930s, she submitted stories to a wide range of political and general interest magazines. Esquire, in 1938, was the first to pay for a short story by "Jo Sinclair." Other stories, articles, and poems appeared soon after, and a number have been anthologized. One of her best short works, "Red Necktie" (Common Ground, Spring 1941), describes the meeting of an elderly, fearful Jewish immigrant with an equally old but cheerful black man, revealing the essential humanity that transcends cultural barriers. Seid also aired a number of radio plays throughout the 1940s; a stage play The Long Moment (1951), about a black musician contemplating passing for white to get work, had an eight-week run in Cleveland. Her earlier experiences with the WPA and the American Red Cross were significant influences on her writing. Many of her Red Cross stories are about donating blood, a practical contribution to the war effort that also symbolized for the breaking down of ghetto walls. Donating blood is a central image near the end of the Harper Prize novel Wasteland (1946) in which "John Brown" learns to accept himself as Jake Braunowitz, an assimilated American Jew, through the help of his strong, caring sister who has learned to accept herself as a lesbian. Seid concentrates on the psychological manifestations of identity, the corroding effects of guilt and shame, and the bitter, twisted family relationships that result. Wasteland, which pioneered the use of psychotherapy as a narrative device, is also remarkable both for its focus on a Jewish family at a time when anti-Semitism was peaking in America, and in its presentation, possibly for the first time in 20th century American fiction, of a lesbian as a positive role model.
Sing at My Wake (1951) also details the psychological causes of alienation and loneliness. Catherine Ganly, deeply wounded by her insecure childhood, escapes as a teenager into a romantic infatuation, only to find herself trapped in a shotgun marriage with a man as immature as herself. Divorce frees Cathy to develop a successful career as a journalist, but only when she realizes the threat she poses to the development of her son does she recognize that she remains imprisoned emotionally by her refusal to admit the imperfections of human love.
The Changelings (1955) portrays the destructive effects of racial prejudice on the lives of the immigrant residents of a single street in a large Ohio city. Their fear at the prospect of integration triggers waves of anger and violence that overwhelm the community. The title refers to the children of these immigrants and of the black families, who want to end bigotry and "leave behind the narrow corner of our frightened elders." Of these the best realized is Judith Vincent, the thirteen-year-old gang leader who comes to understand the common humanity of all groups and who takes the first steps toward friendship and justice.
The heroine of Anna Teller (1961) is a strong, proud, competent woman who survived the Nazi invasion of Hungary and fought in the uprising against the Russians. At 74, she is relegated to the status of ineffectual dependence in her son's American home. Anna's insistence on her right to prove her usefulness inspires her grandson and two young friends to overcome their own fears, but it creates intolerable friction with her son. Viewed from a number of perspectives that reveal both her strengths and her imperfections, Anna Teller emerges as a compelling and complex personality.
In 1969 Seid completed the still-unpublished Approach to the Meaning, dedicated to her sister Fannie, the author's constant emotional and financial supporter. The novel depicts a fragmented woman who must discover herself in order to save her adopted daughter from imitating her own wasted life. Seid herself was saved from the emotional wastelands of her youth when she met Helen Buchman in 1938. Although Buchman was married with two children, Seid lived in her household for almost 30 years, including seven years with Helen's widower. The Feminist Press launched a series of women's autobiographies with a reprinting of Seid's The Seasons: Death and Transfiguration (1972, 1993), which describes the author's attempt to keep her own creative death at bay when Helen, her muse and best editor died. In 1973, Joan Soffer, who began their correspondence with a fan letter after Wasteland, asked Seid to move in with her in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. There Seid continued gardening and writing in her lifelong attempt to save walking wastelands with her changeling language. She died in April 1995.
Whether dealing with psychoanalysis or sexual maladjustment, racial tension or the treatment of the elderly, Seid was been far ahead of her contemporaries. Many of her novels deal with Jews, but Seid makes them emblematic of all who feel themselves excluded from the mainstream of American life. Of special value is the attention she gives to women in situations in which the man's problem has usually been emphasized. Seid's narrative skill and rich characterization, her sensitivity, and the objective clarity of her vision more than compensate for the wordiness of her fiction.
Liptzin, S., The Jew in American Literature (1966). Sandberg, E., "Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography" (unpublished dissertation, 1985).
American Novelists of Today (1951). CA (1969). Contemporary Novelists (1986). DLB (1984). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA (1951).
NR (10 June 1946). NYT (25 Sept. 1955). SR (20 Aug. 1960).