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Van Vorst, Marie

VAN VORST, Marie

Born 23 November 1867, New York, New York; died 16 December 1936, Florence, Italy

Daughter of Hooper C. and Josephine Treat Van Vorst; married Count Gaetano Gaiati, 1916

Marie Van Vorst was the daughter of a financially prosperous and socially prominent family, and she was educated by private tutors; but most of her best-known writings are animated by a conscious dedication to social reform. She most likely inherited this commitment to reform from her father who, during his tenure on the New York City Superior Court, was involved in an investigation of urban corruption which contributed to the demise of the Tweed Ring.

Van Vorst began writing short stories, poems, and nonfiction essays for periodical publication during the late 1890s. Shortly after the death of her brother, John, she and her sister-in-law, Bessie, moved to France where they both served as correspondents for American journals. With only occasional visits to the U.S., primarily to gather research material for her writing, Van Vorst lived in various European cities until her death in 1936. Although she wrote for many American, French, and British periodicals, her association with Harper's was the most sustained and significant. One of her most important assignments for Harper's was a cultural series, "Rivers of the World" (1906-09), which included information gathered at the Seine, Tiber, and Nile rivers.

Van Vorst began writing before her sister-in-law, but it was their collaboration on a novel and, particularly, on an exposé of women factory workers that initially brought the work of both women public attention. After the two ceased actively writing together, Bessie remained Van Vorst's most constant friend, critic, and consultant. Van Vorst and Bessie returned to the U.S., assumed aliases, and worked in factories to gather information for The Woman Who Toils (1903). As "Bell Ballard," Van Vorst worked in a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, and in cotton mills in South Carolina. Describing herself as a "mirror, expositor and mouthpiece" for working women, she was more sympathetic to her coworkers than Bessie. Although she never identified herself with these women, she was more understanding in her estimation of their values. Where Bessie criticized the women for their frivolity, Van Vorst saw in it an incipient rebellion against the deadening limitations of their lives. Similarly, she was more hopeful of reforms coming within the industrial workplace rather than by removing the women from the mills. Although sharply critical of "the abnormality, the abortion known as Anarchy, Socialism," she championed the cause of labor unions: "Organize labor, therefore, so well that the work-woman who obtains her task may be able to continue it and keep her health and self-respect."

Van Vorst's experiences in the cotton mills provided her with enough information to write a fictionalized account of the situation in one of her better novels, Amanda of the Mill (1905). She presents both the history of how the hill people came to work in the mills and the world they found there, primarily through two characters—the somewhat idealized, but none the less interesting heroine, Amanda Henchley, and the man she loves, Henry Euston, a drunkard whose reformation is effected through the dual inspirations of Amanda and reform-oriented labor organizing. The novel is memorable for its accurate and concerned reporting of industrial issues.

In Amanda of the Mill, Van Vorst leads her characters through a series of crises that could seemingly be resolved only through economic revolution. She avoids this conclusion through a propitious natural disaster, which clears the way for a new era without requiring confrontation with the problems the narrative so carefully raises. Although a tendency to equivocate also occurs in the later novels—in which dilemmas posed by marital incompatibility and illicit sexual passion predominate, and spouses conveniently die before virtue is endangered—these books are entertaining and occasionally of more lasting interest.

The most significant of the later novels is Mary Moreland (1915), the story of a stenographer in love with and loved by her employer, a married Wall Street financier. In Mary Moreland, Van Vorst writes her most sophisticated discussion of the moral issues surrounding marital dissatisfaction and infidelity and creates her most complex and admirable heroine. Mary, a self-supporting suffragist dedicated to her career while searching for a passionate love that is neither compromising nor limiting, is a memorable fictional portrait of a young American woman seeking her identity in a world of shifting social and sexual values.

First excerpted in Colliers, War Letters of an American Woman (1916) is a record of Van Vorst's experiences as a volunteer field hospital worker with the American Ambulance corps during the early months of World War I. Although primarily written to encourage American involvement in the war, it also provides interesting insight into Van Vorst's life and associations.

Although Van Vorst's fiction fails to fulfill the promise engendered by her vivid moral and economic observations, the novels, especially Amanda of the Mills and Mary Moreland, deserve some renewal of critical interest. Perhaps because of her continued inability to solve the problems she raises without resorting to catastrophe and coincidence, Van Vorst's writings provide a remarkable record of the turmoil of a society in transition. Although she never abandoned the traditional codes of behavior, she raised penetrating questions about their viability.

Other Works:

Bagsby's Daughter (with B. Van Vorst, 1901). Philip Longstreth (1902). Poems (1903). Miss Desmond (1905). The Sin of George Warrener (1906). The Sentimental Adventures of Jimmy Bulstrode (1908). In Ambush (1909). First Love (1910). The Girl from His Town (1910). The Broken Bell (1912). His Love Story (1913). Big Tremaine (1914). War Poems (1916). Fairfax and His Bride (1920). Tradition (1921). The Queen of Karmania (1922). Sunrise (1924). Goodnight Ladies! (1931). The Gardenia (1933).

Bibliography:

Blake, F., The Strike in the American Novel (1972). Filler, L., The Muckrakers (1976). Hill, V. L., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979). Maglin, N., Rebel Women Writers, 1894-1925 (dissertation, 1975). Rose, L., "A Descriptive Catalogue of Economic and Politico-Economic Fiction in the United States, 1902-1909" (dissertation, 1936). Taylor, W., The Economic Novel in America (1942).

Reference works:

NAW (1971).

Other references:

Athenaeum (18 April 1908). Bookman (May 1902, April 1903, June 1905, Jan. 1910). Critic (Jan. 1902, Oct. 1903). Dial (1 Sept. 1906). Overland (May 1903). SR (18 August 1906).

—VICKI LYNN HILL

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