Rice, Alice Hegan (1870–1942)

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Rice, Alice Hegan (1870–1942)

American novelist known for her popular Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Name variations: Alice Caldwell Rice. Born Alice Caldwell Hegan in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on January 11, 1870; died in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 10, 1942; only daughter and eldest of two children of Samuel Watson Hegan and Sallie P. (Caldwell) Hegan; attended Miss Hampton's private school in Louisville, Kentucky; honorary Litt.D. degrees from Rollins College, 1928, and the University of Louisville, 1937; married Cale Young Rice (a poet), on December 18, 1902 (died January 24, 1943); no children.

Selected writing:

(fiction) Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901), Lovey Mary (1903), Sandy (1905), Captain June (1907), Mr. Opp (1909), A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill (1912), The Honorable Percival (1914), Calvary Alley (1917), Miss Mink's Soldier and Other Stories (1918), Turn About Tales (co-written with C.Y. Rice, 1920), Quin (1921), Winners and Losers (co-written with C.Y. Rice, 1925), The Buffer (1929), Mr. Pete and Company (1933), The Lark Legacy (1935), Passionate Follies (co-written with C.Y. Rice, 1936), Our Ernie (1939); (nonfiction) On Being "Clinnicked": A Bit of a Talk over the Alley Fence (1931), My Pillow Book (1937), Happiness Road (1942); (autobiography) The Inky Way (1940).

Born in 1870, Alice Hegan Rice had a privileged childhood in Kentucky. When her father Samuel Watson Hegan went on frequent business trips, he placed his wife Sallie P. Hegan and two young children in the largest hotel in Louisville, the Galt House. Summers and holidays were spent at the country estate of her maternal grandfather, Judge James Caldwell, roaming through the cow pasture, climbing trees, and paddling in the creek. As the imaginative first grandchild, she entertained a host of young aunts and uncles and adoring younger cousins with her stories and finagled them into performing in her plays.

Until the age of ten, Rice was schooled at home, principally by a favorite aunt who had a keen mind and a love of literature. When she was finally sent for formal education, it was to a private girls' school whose teachers were concerned more with imparting social graces than with solid academics. Writing was Rice's strongest subject, and she often wrote other students' compositions for them. When she was 15, she submitted to a newspaper, unsigned, a parody of Ik Marvel's Reveries of a Bachelor which she titled Reveries of an Old Maid. She was highly pleased when it was published, and even more so when the piece received responses branding her an "acrimonious spinster."

At the age of 16, Rice discovered her social conscience while attending Sunday school at a mission in a poor neighborhood with a friend. When they arrived, the lesson was being disrupted by a gang of boys outside who were dangling a dead cat in the window. Rice offered to address the matter and enticed them with a story on the church steps. She recounted a tale that she had just read titled Picayune Pete or Nicodemus the Dog Detective and was such a hit that she was asked to continue through the summer. It was an unusual Sunday school class, filled as it was with the doings of pirates and murderers and gangsters, but it introduced her to the world of the underprivileged and to the poor neighborhood, known as the Cabbage Patch, where the boys lived. Rice combined this newfound awareness of poverty with a character based on a destitute woman who came periodically to her mother's house, asking for food and talking to whomever would listen, and began writing her first novel. With the encouragement of the aspiring young women writers (including Ellen Churchill Semple and Annie Fellows Johnston ) of the Authors Club of Louisville, of which Rice was a member, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch was born.

The story of an indomitably cheery though poverty-stricken widow with five children, Mrs. Wiggs was published in 1901 by the first publisher to which Rice sent it, the Century Company in New York City. The most popular of her many works, it was a wildly successful bestseller that was made into a stage play in 1904 and into a film starring ZaSu Pitts and W.C. Fields in 1934. The book has been translated into French, German, Swedish, Danish, Chinese, Japanese, and Braille, and is still in print. (Of the woman who had inspired Mrs. Wiggs, Rice noted: "Visitors descended upon her in droves…. They took palings from her fence and leaves from her trees as souvenirs, and made snapshots of her whenever she showed herself. In vain I offered to move her to a better house in a cleaner neighborhood. She preferred to stay where she was and enjoy the drama of fighting the intruders, sometimes with words, and sometimes, alas, with pails of slop.")

On December 18, 1902, Alice married Cale Young Rice, a poet and playwright. Inseparable for the rest of their lives, the Rices spent much of their time traveling around the world, spending summers in Maine or Florida, and becoming part of the literary scene in London and New York.

Rice's subsequent works drew upon her wish to make people aware of the conditions in which the poor lived, as well as upon her personal experiences during World War I as a hospital volunteer. In the early 20th century, there was an active social reform movement in the United States and Great Britain aimed at improving the working and living conditions of the poor. Through her writings, Rice became a participant in this movement and supported Louise Marshall 's efforts to found the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Louisville in 1910, becoming a member of the board. Her book Calvary Alley (1910) was written with the express aim of creating a public outcry over conditions in the urban slums, and she was also a close friend of muckraker extraordinaire Ida Tarbell . Nonetheless, like her husband, she had no affection for the grimly realistic fiction (exemplified by Sinclair and Steinbeck) of the early decades of the 20th century, and a number of her stories, while not uncommon for their time, now would be considered racially insensitive.

Rice wrote more than 20 books, and, while none of her subsequent works achieved the success of Mrs. Wiggs, five others were turned into silent films: Lovey Mary (1903), the sequel to Mrs. Wiggs, starring Marguerite Clark (1926); Sandy (1905), starring Jack Pickford (1918); Mr. Opp (1909), starring Arthur Hough; A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill (1912); and Calvary Alley (1917), starring Ann Pennington .

The onset of the Great Depression badly affected the Rices' finances, and although she suffered from poor health Rice continued writing in those years because she needed the money. She died at her home in Louisville in 1942, age 72, and was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. Her husband, despondent over losing her, committed suicide less than a year later.


Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 63. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

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

Malinda Mayer , freelance writer, Falmouth, Massachusetts