Daughter of Anthony and Augusta Singer Slesinger; married Herbert Solow, 1928 (divorced); Frank Davis, 1936; children: two
Tess Slesinger could be said to have had everything but time: well-to-do parents who sacrificed in order to give her the best education at the Ethical Culture Society School in New York, Swarthmore College, and Columbia University; immediate and continued success when she started to write; a happy marriage and children. But her works show this success was not achieved without pain. Through her first husband she became part of a leftwing circle important in publishing, and she was able to publish her first short story at age twenty-three; but Slesinger found radical theorizing and intellectualizing insufficient to give meaning to life and divorced Herbert Solow. In 1935 Slesinger went to Hollywood to begin a new career as a scriptwriter.
After working on the screenplay for Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (produced in 1937), Slesinger began a collaboration with Frank Davis which led to many successful scripts. She was able to combine a happy marriage to Davis and having two children with full professional activity until her untimely death from cancer at thirty-nine. Just a week after her death, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for which she and her husband had written the script, opened in New York. Slesinger was politically active in helping to make the Screen Writers Guild a viable union and in many other human rights causes.
Received by contemporaries as a realistic portrayal of the "lost generation," The Unpossessed (1934, reprinted 1966) reveals Slesinger's profound understanding of her own time. The central character Margaret Flinders attempts to please her egotistical husband, even undergoing an abortion in order to "free" him; Slesinger lets us see her act as a violation of her own being in exchange for his pretentious and selfish ambition. Slesinger reveals his attempts to find meaning through endless discussions with other intellectuals, without any commitment to action, as typical of the futilities of the 1930s. Her skillful use of stream-of-consciousness establishes a light tone while revealing her persona's despair; the reader identifies with her because her problems are questions, her attempts to solve them are processes, not authoritative answers. The final chapter, "Missis Flinders," also published as a short story, is a masterpiece of ironic understatement affirming both the pain and the power to endure of her character.
The tide of Slesinger's 1935 collecton of short stories Time: The Present (reprinted 1971 as On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover, and Other Stories) is ironic in that its very contemporary concerns are timeless. Slesinger touches on the emptiness of middle class life, disillusionment with the American dream, the ruthlessness of the struggle to survive brought on by the Depression, the hypocrisy of whites toward blacks, the ambiguities for women of their relationships to their adulterous husbands and to their mothers, the problems of the artist attempting to reduce the felt hugeness of experience into effective form. Her story on this last theme, "A Day in the Life of a Writer," shows Slesinger's mastery of form and her typical ironic tone. Following the mental ramblings of a male writer trying to overcome a writing block, she shows his "life in the day"—his self-loathing for not being able to repeat the success of his first book, his childish projection of his failure onto his "deaf-mute" typewriter and his wife. The reader understands both his ambivalence toward writing as a prison and the anger of his wife, who supports him.
Slesinger's stories about women show particular acuity. "On Being Told that Her Second Husband has Taken his First Lover" focuses on the continuance of the double-bind for women even with the sexual revolution. A wife who did not originate adultery feels she must accept her husband's announced infidelity as his right to freedom but cannot perceive her right to respond in kind as viable. Her only recourse is to accept his decision, with wit and anguish; rejecting him will only be a repetition of the end of her first marriage. "Mother to Dinner" explores the dilemma of a young wife caught between her husband's demands for her entire devotion and her mother's need for emotional support. The character sees no way out. (Slesinger, in divorcing her first husband, refused such a commitment and devoted herself to her writing.)
Slesinger's works show not truly promise but accomplishment; her short stories and her film scripts will long outlive her. Although her works have been republished, many of her stories remain uncollected. Excerpts from newly discovered notes for another novel, focusing on the real workers of Hollywood, confirm her importance as one who saw through the pretensions and complexities of her own time to basic human issues.
Screenplays: The Bride Wore Red (1937). Dance, Girl, Dance (with F. Davis, 1940). Remember the Day (with F. Davis, 1941). Are Husbands Necessary? (with F. Davis, 1942).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.
Antioch Review (Spring/Summer 1977). Jewish Social Studies (Summer 1976). Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer 1979). NYT (20 May 1934). Prospects (1981). WLB (Dec. 1934).
—MARY ANNE FERGUSON