Vorse, Mary Heaton

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VORSE, Mary Heaton

Born 9 October 1874, New York, New York; died 14 June 1966, Provincetown, Massachusetts

Daughter of Hiram and Ellen Blackman Heaton; married Albert W. Vorse, 1898 (died); Joe O'Brien, 1912; Robert Minor, 1920; children: three

Mary Heaton Vorse was born to an old New England family. As a child, she spent her summers in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, and her winters in New York City and Europe. Although seemingly cosmopolitan, Vorse wrote, in later life, about how the sheltered academic atmosphere of her youth enabled her to acquire a dedication to intellectual speculation, but left her isolated from the industrial and economic changes characterizing late-19th-century America.

Vorse was married three times and had three children. After the death of her first husband, Vorse supported herself through her writing. Her earliest published writings were short sketches, which appeared in diverse periodicals including Criterion, Critic, Woman's Home Companion, and Atlantic Monthly. Both The Very Little Person (1911) and The Prestons (1918) include short fiction excerpted from these early publications. Vorse drew on the experiences of her first years of marriage to Albert Vorse in her first novel, The Breaking-in of a Yachtsman's Wife (1908). The Autobiography of an Elderly Woman (1911), an anecdotal and entertaining narrative, is told from the point of view of a woman her mother's age who resents the circumscriptions youth imposes on the aged.

In 1906 Vorse moved to Greenwich Village, where she and her husband founded the A Club, an experimental cooperative living arrangement frequented by Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Mother Jones, Maxim Gorky, and others. Primarily a collection of liberal reformers who flirted with varieties of socialism, the participants in the A Club were devoted to a thoughtful and stimulating analysis of American society. Vorse wrote favorably about her experiences in the club. Still, she affectionately satirizes the Greenwich Village lifestyle in the novel I've Come to Stay (1915). The heroine, Camilla Deerfield, justifies the excesses and absurdities of the village residents as a necessary and long overdue response to their Calvinist heritage: "We are the flaming shadows cast by unfulfilled joys which died unborn in our parents' souls. We come of people who lived in the ordinary hypocrisies so long that some of us cast away even the decencies in our endeavor not to be hypocritical."

From 1906 through the mid-1940s, Vorse spent a portion of each year in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as did other members of the Greenwich Village radical intelligentsia. It was here that Vorse, prompted by a series of articles on infant education she had researched in Italy for Woman's Home Companion, organized a Montessori school. More importantly, it was here that Vorse was among the founding members of the experimental theater group, the Provincetown Players, the group that staged Eugene O'Neill's earliest plays.

In A Footnote to Folly (1935), an autobiographical account of the years 1912 to 1922, Vorse identified the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike as the single most significant event in her political and literary development. She described how her experiences at Lawrence led both her and Joe O'Brien, the labor reporter who became her second husband, to active identification with the problems and struggles of the American working class. Henceforth, Vorse was to write the bulk of her work in explicitly politicized terms.

Vorse's dedication is reflected in the prolific writing of her major phase; for more than 30 years she was a tireless reporter of current events on labor and battle fronts throughout the U.S., Europe, and the Soviet Union. Most of this writing is ephemeral; it appeared in Hearst newspapers, Harper's the Nation, New Republic, Advance, World Tomorrow, Outlook, and the Masses (which she edited) and was never collected. As a war correspondent during World War I, Vorse covered the 1915 International Congress of Women in Amsterdam and the International Woman Suffrage Convention in Budapest. Her journalism was enhanced by personal involvement with the Red Cross, the American Relief Association, and the Committee for Public Information; her coverage of the war, like that of labor disputes, often focused on the ignored victims—women and children.

With the exception of The Ninth Man (1918), a novel set in 12th-century Italy, all of Vorse's book-length publications spring from her experiences as a radical journalist. They vary from compilations recording her coverage of actual events, such as Men and Steel (1920) and Labor's New Millions (1938), to fictionalized accounts of actual strikes, such as Passaic (1926) and Strike (1930), and novels springing from her impressions of a world in turmoil, such as Second Cabin (1928), based on an ocean voyage from inflation-ravaged postwar Germany to the U.S., after a visit to "optimistic" postrevolutionary Russia.

For the contemporary reader, unfamiliar with the events Vorse so passionately described throughout her lengthy career, the best introduction to her writing and sensibilities probably will be found in either A Footnote to Folly—in which she effectively describes the relationship between personal identity and political commitment and growth—and Of Time and the Town (1942). The latter deals with her years in Provincetown; the legends and traditions of the fishing village provide a background for her history of the Provincetown Players and cultural attitudes during the first half of the 20th century. Both books reflect the perspective Vorse acknowledges in A Footnote to Folly : "Indeed, my book is the record of a woman who in early life got angry because many children lived miserably and died needlessly."

Other Works:

The Whole Family (with others, 1908). The Heart's Company (1913). Growing Up (1920). Fraycar's Fist (1923). Wreckage (1924). Here Are the People (1943). The Mary Heaton Vorse Collection is in the Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.


Aaron, D., Writers on the Left (1961). Blake, F., The Strike in the American Novel (1972). Hill, V. L., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979). Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1918). Rideout, W., The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 (1956). Sochen, J., The New Woman in Greenwich Village, 1910-1920 (1972). Sochen, J., Movers and Shakers (1973). "The Reminiscences of Mary Heaton Vorse" (transcript of interviews conducted for the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University, 1957).

Reference works:

American Women (1939). TCA

Other references:

Nation (4 June 1908, 15 Jan. 1936). NR. (13 July 1942). Time (23 Dec. 1935).