Susan Glaspell, Fugitive's Return. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1929. 324 pp. Currently out of print.
In 1929, Susan Glaspell's novel Fugitive's Return stood near the top of national bestseller lists, only a few notches down from the number one novel of the year, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Two years later, in 1931, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison's House. The Pulitzer Prize was the culmination of an important and successful career in the theater as a playwright and as one of the co-founders, with her husband George Cram Cook, of the Provincetown Players, the theater that also launched the career of Eugene O'Neill. Unfortunately, Glaspell is little known today outside of academic circles. Two of her novels, Fidelity (1915) and Brook Evans (1928), have been reissued by Persephone Books in London, but Fugitive's Return remains out of print. This is a shame, because Fugitive's Return is a beautiful, deep, and moving book about a woman's struggle to reclaim her life in the aftermath of tragedy.
In 1922, Glaspell and her husband left the Provincetown Players and sailed for Greece. For Cook, like Glaspell a native Iowan, this was an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a shepherd poet on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, a living figure out of the ancient poetry of Theocritus. He and Glaspell settled in Delphi. On the road up from the coast, even the Greek billboards excited him. Two years later, Cook was dead from glanders, a disease contracted from a stray dog he had taken in.
A stray dog plays a pivotal role in Fugitive's Return. The novel is clearly very personal, drawn from Glaspell's own experience in Delphi, her own tragedy, her own personal journey from Iowa to Cape Cod to Delphi. The main character is a woman named Irma Lee Shraeder, and the novel opens as she steps from her bath and prepares to take her own life with an overdose of pills. In dream-like prose, the novel transports Irma to Delphi, where she slowly begins to reinhabit her own life—reliving her Midwestern childhood, her marriage and motherhood on Cape Cod—and to discern its true shape.
Irma—her name suggests Hermes, the Greek god of boundary crossing—is both Alcestis, left voiceless by her trauma, and the Pythia, the oracular voice of old Delphi. The novel is about a woman finding her voice and telling herself, in a meaningful way, the story of her own life. Irma has lived much of her life as one in a play, attempting to give form to her life while drawing back from its more troubling depths—from passion, from risk, from the painful beauty of an intensely lived life. Her journey is toward learning that "form must come from within." At Delphi, in the midst of ancient ruins, she comes to realize that "she might be scrubbing a floor and have more dignity than in ascending noble old steps."
The novel is often stunningly beautiful, and Glaspell is brilliant at charging images with significance without deadening them into static and obvious symbols. In a beautiful scene early in the novel, she describes Irma and Stamula, her Greek friend, setting up their looms on the stage of the ancient theater and communicating with each other through gestures. Glaspell is, obviously, interested in acting and communication, and in how the past remains always present, repeating itself in word and thought and gesture. As she says later in the novel, it is "as if all those things man does in common make man one." She explores these themes—of art and life, individuality and common humanity, suffering and survival—with modernist sophistication and mythical simplicity, in luminous prose that often reads like poetry.
Speaking of the Cape Cod landscape around Truro, she writes: "These hills were as waves arrested. Once it had been dunes; time and man had made the dunes soil, bringing to rest something long restless." This brief description is both lovely on its own, and connected seamlessly to the larger concerns of the novel. How do we create form and meaning out of our human restlessness, out of our suffering, out of our often haphazard attempts at living?
"Just to sit there with her was healing, and brought understanding of what she had herself wanted. She too had wanted an ordered life. Watching Stamula she seemed to be watching generations of women behind her who had spun as the woman now in life was spinning. It gave to Stamula something authoritative, a beauty."
For me, as a classicist, Glaspell reaffirms the importance of the classics as an expression of something enduringly human. "It was now," Glaspell writes, "she read the tragedies of ancient Greece. Her books were an edition both Greek and English; where she could not achieve the old language she turned to her own. At times she was not reading of something outside herself; at times it was almost—(not quite, not yet) as if her own years, formed in tragedy, could also be resolved in beauty."
I'm reminded of my favorite line of Derek Walcott's poetry: "The classics can console. But not enough."
Fugitive's Return is a glorious book, and one that deserves to be reprinted and to reach a new audience.
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