Gale, Zona (1874–1938)

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Gale, Zona (1874–1938)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, regional writer, and political activist. Born Zona Gale on August 26, 1874, in Portage, Wisconsin; died of pneumonia on December 27, 1938, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Charles S. Gale (a railroad engineer) and Eliza (Beers) Gale (a teacher); graduated from the University of Wisconsin, 1895; married William L. Breese, in 1928; children: Leslyn Breese (adopted 1928).

Published Friendship Village stories (1908, 1909); involved in Progressive Party activities, woman suffrage, and pacifism (1912–24); won Pulitzer Prize for the drama Miss Lulu Bett (1921); appointed to Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin (1923); named Wisconsin's representative to International Congress of Women (1933); elected to the University of Wisconsin Board of Visitors (1935). Honorary degrees from Ripon College (1922), University of Wisconsin (1929), Mount Mary College (1930), and Rollins College (1931).

Portage, Wisconsin, was the center of Zona Gale's world, both literary and actual. The majority of her stories, novels, and plays are set in some version of the small town where she spent most of her life. More than just a regional writer chronicling a village, Gale brought an acerbic realism to her best work, similar to that of Sinclair Lewis' in Main Street. In her lesser writings, Gale sometimes tended to indulge in saccharine sentimentality, other times in a floating mysticism. Although she was among the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize in literature, her work is seldom included in current anthologies.

The Gale family formed a tight and private circle. As she was an only child and defined as "not strong," Zona's parents were exceptionally protective and discouraged her from active play with other children. She did little running, skating, or dancing. Instead, her early life seems to have involved quiet imaginative games, often played with her mother, and an unusual attentiveness to her parents. Until their deaths when Zona was in middle age, their beliefs and a quest for their approval defined their daughter's life.

Charles Gale was a mostly self-educated man who read widely in the great works of literature and philosophy. Considering himself a philosophical idealist, Charles imparted to his daughter a conviction that the supernatural coexists as a higher form of human life, a view that would recur in her later, more mystical writings. Eliza Beers Gale and Zona were almost inseparable. In addition to infusing her daughter's religious and moral beliefs with her own Presbyterian faith, Eliza seemed to embody for Zona a "mother principle" that represented the essential harmony of all creation.

At an early age, Zona developed an interest in reading and writing. She read Pilgrim's Progress and Paradise Lost as well as the Bible and Shakespeare. As she completed each book, Zona recorded its plot in a notebook. Her summaries incorporate the canon of appropriate

novels for a young person of her era—works by Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott , William Thackeray, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Meanwhile, Gale produced her own literary creations, including poems and a book written on brown wrapping paper. Her mother's support stimulated Zona's early efforts at writing. Not only did Eliza Gale copy and keep all of her daughter's childhood literary creations, she also encouraged her at age 13 to submit a "novel" to Youth's Companion.

In 1891, Gale enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a time when opportunities for women in higher education were still relatively uncommon. She seems to have had a mixed experience at the university. Her reticence, and possibly her naivete, kept her from being rushed by a sorority. For the remainder of her days, she argued against the Greek system that determined one's popularity and emphasized inequalities among students. Academically and artistically, Gale enjoyed greater success. She had above-average grades (especially in her English major), won several literary prizes, and published her first story in a Milwaukee newspaper for which she received a three-dollar check. On that fateful day, she boarded a train in Madison, traveled 40 miles to her home to show the check to her parents, and returned to school by another train that evening.

After graduation, Gale moved to Milwaukee, determined to find a job in journalism. She appeared at the office of the Evening Wisconsonian every day for two weeks asking for work, and her persistence ultimately paid off. She covered the subjects typically assigned to female reporters—weddings, social events, and theater. Occasionally, she had the opportunity to do interviews with visiting dignitaries, such as Jane Addams . Gale rose in the newspaper profession, moving to the Milwaukee Journal and in 1901 to the New York Evening World.

In New York City, Gale had the opportunity to meet the up-and-coming stars of literature and the arts. In 1902, she left her regular position with the Evening World and became personal secretary to Edmund Clarence Stedman, who had gathered around him a group of young writers in a sort of salon called the "Sunday Club." Through Stedman and his contacts, she was able to place several of her short stories with fashionable magazines and to begin in earnest her career as a fiction writer.

At Stedman's gatherings, Gale also met poet Ridgely Torrence. Over a period of several years, Torrence and Gale carried on a romance marked by uncertainty—avowals of love followed by separations. Finally, in 1904, after announcing plans to marry, Torrence ended the relationship. A distressed Gale returned to Portage, Wisconsin, feeling that no one would ever replace Torrence in her affections. Twenty years later, she wrote to him, "I do hope that in our next incarnation we can be lovers again and [by] that time, [I'll] have enough more star-dust in me, to bring it off." Gale's parents were delighted with her return to Portage. During Zona's New York sojourn, Eliza Gale wrote to her daughter incessantly, warning her of the temptations and loneliness of the city as contrasted with the warmth of home. It seems clear that Zona's relationship with Torrence was not helped by her mother's disapproval.

Although Gale published her first novel, Romance Island, in 1906, and a collection of stories, The Loves of Pelleas and Etarre, in 1907, it was the "Friendship Village" stories written in Portage that brought Gale her first literary success. The first collection entitled Friendship Village was published in 1908. The same characters appeared in a total of 83 stories over the next 11 years, ending with Peace in Friendship Village in 1919. The popular tales reflected Gale's basic belief that people were the same regardless of education, class, urban or rural environment. Her characters represented the small-town population as good hearted, if unsophisticated. She sentimentalized domestic life, including household chores, though the women in her stories were also involved in civic improvement. The last collection in the series even introduced some fairly controversial topics, including racial prejudice, pacifism, and anti-Semitism.

In between writing the village stories, however, Gale pursued other interests. Each autumn, she spent several months in New York, where she placed her work in such magazines as Harper's, Everybody's, Women's Home Companion, and The Outlook. She also wrote a pamphlet in 1913 for the American Civic Association, "Civic Improvement in the Little Towns," which advocated the establishment of clubs and committees to enrich the quality of small-town life. Most important, she was developing her own political philosophy and a commitment to activism in support of liberal causes. Gale became a lifelong supporter of Wisconsin's "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and the type of Progressivism he embodied. Like other Progressives, Gale believed that economic competition must be replaced with cooperation, that the poverty and degradation that accompanied industrialization must be addressed by positive governmental programs. She supported animal rights, a vegetarian diet, and prohibition of alcohol and tobacco. As early as the 1920s, Gale came to believe in racial integration and the abolition of the death penalty. Her commitment to the latter issue is consistent with her involvement in the efforts to save the lives of Nicolo Sacco and Bartelomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants sentenced to death after a notorious trial that rested more heavily on prejudice against their ethnicity and radical views than on evidence of guilt. Gale, along with a vast number of other writers and intellectuals, publicized the injustice of the case and attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the executions.

Of all her interests in reform, Zona Gale devoted her greatest efforts to promoting pacifism and women's rights. Like many Progressives and feminists, Gale believed that war should be obsolete, that human beings should develop peaceful ways to resolve their differences. As the United States approached involvement in World War I, Gale published an antiwar novel, Heart's Kindred (1915). Although the book was not a success, she continued to pursue pacifist activities through the Women's Peace Party (later the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom), through support of efforts in the 1920s to outlaw war, by advocating an end to the production of violent toys such as soldiers and guns, and by opposing the teaching of military science in colleges and universities.

Likewise, Gale wrote and involved herself in efforts to enhance the position of American women. She greatly admired the work of Jane Addams and other female reformers dedicated to settlement work and industrial reform. She believed that women needed full political and economic rights in order to make a positive contribution to humanizing society. Gale's feminism was manifested in her fiction, which featured female characters attempting to escape from the narrow conventional definitions of womanhood in A Daughter of the Morning (1917), Birth (1918), Miss Lulu Bett (1920), and Faint Perfume (1923). In addition to her written depiction of women's issues, Gale worked for women's suffrage, and, after the vote was won in 1920, she helped draft the Wisconsin Equal Rights Law in 1923.

Critics consider the publication of Birth in 1918 the beginning of Gale's realistic period, the time in which she produced her best novels. These works continue to focus on small-town life but emphasize the vulnerability of average people who find themselves battered by forces beyond their control. In many ways, they are the opposite view from that portrayed in the Friendship Village stories.

Miss Lulu Bett, a short novel of only 45,000 words, was a bestseller and a critical success in 1920, competing with Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, another pessimistic tale of small-town existence. The book portrays a dull, narrow bourgeois society that entraps the unmarried woman of the title. The following year, Gale adapted the story for the stage, and in 1921 the play won the Pulitzer Prize.

Her third realistic novel, Faint Perfume, appeared in 1923. The heroine of this work also finds herself confined in a bleak, small-minded town, prevented by conscience from marrying the man with whom she might find happiness. Here, too, Gale portrays the insensitivity and hypocrisy of the materialist culture. Although critics praised Faint Perfume, it was to be Gale's last truly realistic novel. Much of her remaining work would reflect her long-standing fascination with mysticism and the occult.

Just as Gale was beginning her next novel, Preface to a Life (1926), her personal world was drastically altered by the death of her mother in 1923. It may be that the daughter was seeking a way to continue her intimate devotion to her mother beyond the grave, but in any case Gale became more preoccupied with spiritualism. She claimed that she received hundreds of "spirit messages" from her mother, and she became even more convinced that the basic element of life was a universal "mother principle." These beliefs provide the underpinning for a number of Gale's works written during the late 1920s and the 1930s. In Preface to a Life, Gale attempted to portray a hero whose mundane life was relieved by glimpses of a higher consciousness, a spiritual awakening that allowed him to see that there was more than the everyday existence. Although rejecting all conventional religions as meaningless, Gale's work is permeated with the notion of a divine essence alive beyond mere human reality. Ironically, in works such as Preface to a Life, she is much more successful in her realistic descriptions of the ordinary world from which her hero longs to escape, than in explaining the supernatural plane which she believes is the alternative. In fact, in 1927 Gale produced a collection of short stories, Yellow Gentians and Blue, which is much more skillful in portraying commonplace life than in evoking the spiritual.

The following year, Zona Gale published Portage, Wisconsin and Other Essays, an anthology that includes several pieces describing the world in which she had lived, and a number of essays that define her theories about literature. Gale asserted that great literature was possible in the United States and could even concern itself with the everyday life of undistinguished people, as long as the literature attempted to "interpret the human spirit." She believed that fiction served a metaphysical purpose, but her own writing excelled when she left the meta-physical implicit and focused on describing the familiar and tangible.

While working out her literary theories and writing several other works—novels Borgia (1929), Papa LaFleur (1933), and Light Woman (1937) and collections of stories Bridal Pond (1930) and Old Fashioned Tales (1933)—Gale's real life included a number of significant events. Her father died in 1929. In 1928, at age 54, Gale had married widower, banker, and hosiery manufacturer William L. Breese, an old Portage acquaintance. They had met unexpectedly in California in 1927, and, upon their return to Wisconsin, Breese launched a quiet courtship. After the wedding, Gale moved into Breese's stately home, which he had enlarged by adding a study for his new wife. The household also included Breese's teenaged daughter, Juliette Breese , and a three-year-old girl, Leslyn, adopted by Gale and Breese. Gale was given to experimental methods of child rearing, which included a vegetarian diet and recording the youngster's every activity. Eventually the observation of Leslyn was delegated to governesses, while Gale carried on her political activities, her annual trips to New York, and her writing. She also became increasingly involved with the University of Wisconsin. In 1923, she had been named a member of the Board of Regents in recognition of her efforts to provide equal educational opportunities for women. In 1935, she was selected to serve on the university's Board of Visitors. In that capacity, she became embroiled in controversy surrounding the removal of the school's president, a dispute that led to an open quarrel with her longtime political ally, LaFollette. In 1937, seeking a change from her exhausting activities, Gale accepted an invitation to visit and lecture in Japan.

Eastern spirituality appealed to Gale, as did the beauty of the Japanese countryside. Although she planned to write of her trip when she returned to the United States and also to begin work on an autobiography, she delayed both projects to write a biographical work entitled Frank Miller of Mission Inn (1938) which paid tribute to Miller's creation of a hotel that combined a sense of peace with homage to California's history. That same year, she reworked a short novel, Magda, which would be published posthumously in 1939.

During the last years of her life, as World War II loomed, Gale continued her dedication to working for peace. She hosted an annual commemoration of the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In October 1938, she appeared with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a National Peace Program in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In December, troubled by a prolonged cough, Gale went from Portage to Chicago for a medical consultation. There she entered the hospital, pneumonia developed, and on December 27, 1938, Zona Gale died. She was buried in Portage.


Barlow, Judith E., ed. Plays by American Women, 1900–1930. NY: Applause Theater Book Publishers, 1990.

Derleth, August. Still Small Voice: The Biography of Zona Gale. NY: Appleton-Century, 1940.

Maxwell, William. "Zona Gale," in Yale Review. Vol. 76. Winter 1987, pp. 221–225.

Simonson, Harold P. Zona Gale. NY: Twayne, 1962.

Sochen, June. Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900–1970. NY: Quadrangle, 1974.


Zona Gale's papers are located at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison. Some of Gale's correspondence and papers are also found in the Ridgely Torrence Collection at the Princeton University Library.

Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia