Prouty, Olive Higgins (1882–1974)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Prouty, Olive Higgins (1882–1974)

American novelist. Born Olive Higgins in Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 10, 1882; died in Brookline, Massachusetts, on March 24, 1974; daughter of Milton Higgins (the head of the Mechanical Department of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and Katharine Elizabeth (Chapin) Higgins; graduated from Worcester Classical High School, 1900; Smith College, B.L. (Bachelor of Literature), 1904; married Lewis Isaac Prouty, in 1907; children: three daughters and a son.

Selected works:

Bobbie, General Manager (1913); The Fifth Wheel (1916); The Star in the Window (1918); Good Sports (1919); Stella Dallas (1923); Conflict (1927); White Fawn (1931); Lisa Vale (1938); Now, Voyager (1941) Home Port (1937); Fabia (1951); Pencil Shavings (1961).

Born in 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father headed the Mechanical Department of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Olive Higgins Prouty had a troubled childhood. At age 12, she suffered a nervous breakdown, the result of losing a beloved nurse, and spent two years in recovery. Prouty attended public school, excelling in composition to make up for her lack of athletic ability. By high school, she had mapped out a career as a writer, and four subsequent years at Smith College brought her closer to fulfilling her dream. In 1909, Albert Boyden, an editor at the American Magazine, published her first story "When Elsie Came," a family chronicle narrated by a young girl named Bobbie. Prouty wrote a series of additional stories focusing on the same family, and later turned them into her first novel, Bobbie, General Manager (1913). A further continuation of the story comprised her third novel, The Fifth Wheel, published in 1916. Meanwhile, Prouty had married and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she combined her writing with raising a family. She once told an interviewer that she considered her home her career and her work her hobby, but in truth the conflict between family and writing was extremely stressful on her, resulting in a second nervous collapse in 1925.

Prouty's best-known novel, Stella Dallas (1923), revolves around a mother who sacrifices her own life to assure her daughter's social position. Although heavily sentimental, the melodrama is tempered somewhat by Prouty's deft narrative style and her compelling characters. The book not only sold well, but also spawned a successful play, starring Mrs. Leslie Carter (1924), and three eponymous films, featuring Belle Bennett (1925), Barbara Stanwyck (1937), and Bette Midler (1990). Midler's was simply titled Stella. With Ann Elstner in the lead, "Stella Dallas" also became one of the longest-running soap operas in radio history.

Prouty's later works included a series of novels about a wealthy Boston family by the name of Vale. Heddy Richter , in American Women Writers, notes that although the series explores Prouty's typical themes, "the propriety of marriage partners and the obligations of social position," two of them also deal sympathetically with psychological problems. In Now, Voyager (1941), the central character, Charlotte Vale (played by Bette Davis in the highly popular 1942 film), breaks away from her domineering mother through treatment in a psychiatric sanitarium, and in Home Port (1947), a young boy develops an inferiority complex while growing up in the shadow of his more popular older brother. Prouty's sensitivity to the mental distress of others also extended to her private life. In 1953, when her protégé, poet Sylvia Plath , attempted suicide, Prouty arranged to have her moved from Massachusetts General Hospital and cared for at a private sanitarium near Boston, for which she also footed the bill.

Even though her books sold well and were translated into many languages, Prouty remained dubious about her talent. In her last book, Pencil Shavings (1961), a memoir, she referred to herself as "a writer of light fiction" and mused that she was not as good a writer as she had longed to be. Prouty died in 1974.

sources:

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts