Suckow, Ruth (1892–1960)

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Suckow, Ruth (1892–1960)

American writer. Pronunciation: SOO-koh. Born on August 6, 1892, in Hawarden, Iowa; died in Claremont, California, in January 1960; second daughter of William John Suckow (a Congregational minister) and Anna Mary (Kluckhohn) Suckow; educated at Grinnell College in Iowa and the Curry School of Expression in Boston; University of Denver, A.B., 1917, A.M., 1918; married Ferner Nuhn (a writer and critic), in March 1929.

Selected writings:

Country People (1924); The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925); Iowa Interiors (1926); The Bonney Family (1928); Cora (1929); The Kramer Girls (1930); Children and Older People (1931); The Folks (1934); New Hope (1942); The John Wood Case (1959).

Ruth Suckow was born in 1892 in the small town of Hawarden, Iowa, the granddaughter of German immigrants who gave her an appreciation for family history during her visits with them. Another important childhood influence upon her writing was her father, a Congregational minister who held pastorates in several Iowa towns. Ruth was so moved by what she termed the "purity and economy of style" of her father's sermons that she would baptize animals and hold funeral services for broken dolls. Her writing career essentially began in his study. She had a more troubled relationship with her mother, who put tremendous pressure on Ruth and her older sister Emma Suckow , perhaps hoping to realize her own unfulfilled dreams through them.

Ruth completed high school in the Iowa city of Grinnell, and pursued a degree at Grinnell College in 1910. Finding that the school's curriculum did not support her ambitions to become an actress, Suckow transferred at the end of her junior year to the Curry School of Expression in Boston where she studied for another two years. A brief attempt to run her own school of expression back in Iowa stalled, and she joined her ailing sister in Denver, Colorado. There she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Denver and redirected her artistic course to writing. While studying beekeeping, she published her first poems. She returned to Iowa to live with her father after her mother's death in 1919, and spent the next six years raising bees and making honey, writing poems, and creating a series of short stories set in rural and small-town Iowa. These stories were the genesis of the literary career on which her reputation as a regional writer is based.

Suckow first achieved notice after the 1921 publication of her short story "Uprooted" brought her to the attention of journalist H.L. Mencken. Mencken promoted her with enthusiasm in The Smart Set, which led to the serialization of her novella Country People in The Century Magazine in 1924. Publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf turned it into a book later that year, and also collected her first stories under the title Iowa Interiors in 1926. Suckow became known for her ability to capture the plight of her characters in a swift, dramatic fashion, as well as for her acute, unsentimental vision of rural life.

The same year Iowa Interiors appeared, Suckow moved to New York City, where she capitalized on her growing reputation with three more novels in the space of four years. These works—The Bonney Family (1928), Cora (1929), and The Kramer Girls (1930)—featured young Midwestern women attempting to create identities for themselves separate from the expectations of family and friends. While lacking in consistency, the stories confronted real-life problems with an honesty that demonstrated the absence of easy solutions.

Suckow married fellow Iowa writer and critic Ferner Nuhn in 1929, and the pair spent most of the first five years of their marriage living in California, New Mexico, and Iowa. Throughout this nomadic existence, Suckow was at work on what would be her summary work, The Folks, published in 1934. This longest of her novels covered the time between the beginning of the 20th century to the Depression in the life of the Ferguson family, and was equally as sweeping in its portrayal of the emotional relationships of its characters. The exploration of such family ties was the bedrock of Suckow's fiction, and all her works vividly convey the complicated emotions those relationships engender. She demonstrated her greatest versatility in her ability to portray both the old and the young in her work.

Although Suckow produced novels and stories after 1935, her output thereafter was comparatively slender. Her husband took a post in the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and Suckow served on the Farm Tenancy Committee as an appointee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. The next year found them again in Iowa, where they continued writing and promoting the arts. Suckow maintained contact with literary friends such as Robert Frost, Dorothy Canfield Fisher , and Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset . She also published a nostalgic novel about an Iowa community, New Hope, in 1942.

Suckow's suffering from arthritis in the 1940s necessitated a warmer climate, so she moved with her husband to Tucson, Arizona, in 1948. Their last home was in Claremont, California, to which they had relocated in 1952. She completed her last novel, The John Wood Case, in Claremont in 1959, and died at home eight years later.


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

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York