H. L. Mencken, an writer known for wielding a pen as if it were a stiletto, once said that Ruth Suckow "was unquestionably. . .the most remarkable woman writing short stories in the Republic." While Mencken acted as the editor of two literary magazines, he published every story Ms. Suckow ever sent him.
Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street sidewalks are full of dorks and dopes drawn from Midwestern small towns, praised Suckow's Country People, calling it "a spiritual accounting. . .of that bright heady country that stands at the head of the Great [Mississippi] Valley."
Robert Frost, whose well-nurtured image as a country sage sometimes rather devilishly covered over the spiritual darkness that characterizes much of his poetry, once told Ruth Suckow that he found her short stories “. . . without guile or thesis. It is just stories of life vividly restored, each one satisfied if it is true to its inward self. That is the way I like stories and should wish my own always to be.”
There's a glass display case in the Ruth Suckow house (just a half block off Hwy 10 in Hawarden, Iowa) that displays all of Ruth Suckow's work. Last night a couple of dozen readers visited that house, the house in which she was born; and many were flabbergasted that someone so close to their own worlds, just down the road really, could have put together such a celebrated literary life.
She did, and she's no slouch writer, even today.
Granted, her world is not on the American reading public's front burner; she's unabashed in her attention to the goings-on in small Iowa towns not unlike those where she spent her childhood and most of her life. She's a psychological realist who loved the domestic world in which most of us live, a landscape not highly favored these days of fantasy and multi-culturalism. What's more, she's a spiritual writer, a religious writer, someone who cared deeply about human values often disdained by a consumerist society. There are good reasons she's slipped from national and even regional prominence.
Last night we toured the parsonage in which she was born, led by a wonderful local guide who blessed us all with a sumptuous helping of Suckow minutia. All of the folks who toured the Suckow house last night were readers. If they weren't, they wouldn't have joined the gang who visited. Most of them were born and reared a stone's throw from Suckow's New Hope, the town she created for her novel of that name, a town that's only a few key strokes different from her hometown of Hawarden, Iowa.
Ruth Suckow used to write about here, about the us who lived down the street at the turn of the 20th century. But the gang who visited her birthplace last night stood there at the case of her books and shook their heads, amazed. "How could we have missed her?--all these books?" people asked with their eyes.
We'd read The John Hope Case, Suckow's last novel, published in 1950, rather significantly after she'd garnered all that praise. The novel's story line comes out of her childhood in the parsonage in Hawarden, where once upon a time, a highly respected man, a church and town leader fell from community's graces when it was discovered that he'd lived a second life as a thief and gambler--and loser. She remembers the incident in her "Memoir" because of the impact it had one the entire family. especially her father, the pastor:
To my father, this tragic happening, involving one of his dearest friends and most trusted church members, was of almost crushing nature. It touched me through my parents. I may well have led to the next novel which, for me, perhaps for all of our family, closed the cover of the book upon the first golden period of youthful trust and 'enthusiastic cooperation' and gave those few years in H----- almost the quality of legend.We spent a great night in Suckow's world last night, a kind of homecoming, maybe a long-neglected "coming out" with someone who through her stories, just like that became a friend. At least some of those who visited last night will grab a few more Suckows from the shelves of their local libraries--or ask for them if they're not there.
Sobering to know Ruth Suckow and her world could be that plentifully forgotten, yet blissful to be able to discover a new, good old friend.
In every way, it was the kind of night for which one can't help but be thankful.