Born 6 August 1892, Hawarden, Iowa; died 23 January 1960, Claremont, California
Daughter of William J. and Anna Kluckhohn Suckow; married Ferner Nuhn, 1929
The second daughter of a Congregational minister, Ruth Suckow grew up in Iowa. A moving and useful account of her childhood, which examines many of the materials used in novels and stories, is "A Memoir," published in Some Others and Myself (1952). She was educated in Iowa schools, Grinnell College, the Curry School of Expression in Boston, and the University of Denver (B.A. 1917, M.A. 1918—her thesis dealt with woman novelists). Learning the apiary business, she later supplemented her earnings by bee-keeping. In 1929 she married Ferner Nuhn, another Iowa writer. Arthritis eventually necessitating a dry climate, she spent her last years in Southern California.
A regional realist, Suckow created fiction that is remarkably even in quality and consistent in theme and tone, although her stories treat a wider variety of character types than are fully portrayed in the novels; they also tend to end less hopefully. Her almost invariable setting is rural Iowa. Early reviewers praised her knowledge of her characters and her skill in description; often they also accused her of stressing the unpleasant side of Iowa life and of the indiscriminate piling up of detail. In mid-career, she was praised for her realism and for the warmth now seen in her work. Critics found the late novels nostalgic and less pessimistic than the early works. But today they seem very much of a piece: all show disappointed lives but end on a positive note. What changed was not Suckow's view of her world but the critical expectations of her.
Country People (1924) tells the story of August Kaetterhenry, dour son of German immigrants. Years of toil, leading finally to prosperity, leave him unable to enjoy the results of his labor. After his death, however, his wife discovers an unsuspected independence in herself and lives more happily than ever before. This novel seems static, for it is presented almost entirely through narration; dialogue and dramatized action are lacking.
The next four novels, The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925), The Bonney Family (1928), Cora (1929), and The Kramer Girls (1930), make effective use of dramatized scenes and of accurately rendered and functional dialogue. All are concerned with family relationships, but most particularly with women. Their fully and sympathetically drawn characters are ordinary people about whom Suckow makes us care.
The Odyssey of a Nice Girl and Cora follow the lives of two Iowa girls from childhood into adulthood. In the first, Marjorie is a middle-class girl; while "nice," she is also shallow. Her marriage strikes many readers as an unsatisfactory, conventional ending to a pointless "odyssey." Cora is from working-class backgrounds; her success in a career and her failed marriage leave her facing the future with courage; although not happy, she is strong and would not change her life. The experiences of both women are so presented as to be typical for their time and place.
The Bonney Family and The Kramer Girls deal with families. The Bonney family consists of parents, two sons, and two daughters; in the novel, the initially happy family is followed to its eventual breakup. The final focus is on Sarah, the oldest daughter, as she sets out on a new career. In The Kramer Girls, the central family group is three sisters, the two eldest sacrificing themselves to give the youngest a chance. All three lead narrow lives, but the youngest, after years of struggle, eventually reaches a balance, content in her marriage and in her job. The depictions of the mannish Georgie and feminine Annie, the two older sisters, breathe new life into the stereotype of the "old maid."
The Folks (1934), Suckow's most ambitious novel, shows a natural progression from earlier themes and techniques. Fred Ferguson, his wife Annie, and their children are all developed fully and believably. Each of the children is given a section of the novel, while the opening and closing sections focus on their parents. All four children ultimately disappoint the parents: Carl, the most apparently successful, is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and Bunny marries a young woman whom his parents can neither approve nor understand. Dorothy, conventionally pretty and popular, makes an apparently ideal marriage; her section, set near the center of the novel, describes her wedding as a perfect moment against which everything else is measured. Margaret's section, the longest, follows her from college, through a Bohemian period in New York City, into an obsessive affair with a married man. The novel's structure is thematic rather than chronological, presenting some key events from several viewpoints. Margaret is the most complex of the characters; the depiction of her rebellion against middle class Midwestern standards is well handled.
Only two more novels followed. They continue Suckow's earlier themes but are more heavily symbolic, abstract, and moralistic. New Hope (1942) is a parable of the American experience. The town of New Hope is presented in the first optimism of its early years. But the settlers bring their old sins with them, and Suckow makes it clear New Hope will never become more than a village. The novel centers around two families, those of a businessman and a minister. The minister's arrival and departure several years later give the novel its form; events are seen through the perspective of the little son of the businessman. A central theme is the loss of innocence. Like The Folks, New Hope is organized thematically, though without any complication of chronology or point of view.
The John Wood Case (1959) studies the effects on family, church, and community of the revelation that a trusted smalltown business and church leader is an embezzler. The town's hypocrisy is revealed, but some characters behave well under the pressure. The novel ends hopefully, as the culprit's son is shown courageously facing the future.
While never considered a major writer, Suckow has always been deservedly respected for her contributions to regional realism, her sensitive characterizations of Iowa women and men, and her honest, unflinching studies of decent people meeting the disappointments of their lives with dignity. Her fiction is always carefully crafted; to read her work is to be carried to rural Iowa as it was not long ago.
Iowa Interiors (1926). Children and Older People (1931). Carry-Over (1936).
Kissane, L. M., Ruth Suckow (1969). McAlpin, S., "Enlightening the Commonplace: The Work of Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Ruth Suckow" (dissertation, 1971). Omreanin, M. S., Ruth Suckow: A Critical Study of Her Fiction (1972). Stewart, M. O., "A Critical Study of Ruth Suckow's Fiction" (dissertation, 1960).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
BI (Nov. 1970). Palimpsest 35 (Feb. 1954).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR