The Sex Without the Sentiment

Thyra Samter Winslow’s collection of short stories from 1957 came up recently on Neglected Books (he’s got a soft spot for Winslow!) so I summoned a copy from interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, none of her collections stand up to the one from 1923— Picture Frames.

There are a few strong stories in the bunch, but several yawn-inducers. I enjoyed the description of the lonely old woman in A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog, given a dog by her friend who was moving overseas and suddenly her world changes, she becomes a PERSON, people stop to talk to her (about dog stuff). Rudolph was another entertaining one about a ghost who comes to haunt the wrong house and the housewife loves him for babysitting the children and tidying up the house. Technique also delighted, a story about a playwright who fools around on his actress wife with a younger actress and who writes a play to launch the mistress but leaves the dialogue tweaks up to his wife, who turns his play into a masterpiece elevating herself over the tramp.

My Own, My Native Land

A weak collection of short stories by the otherwise power-house Thyra Samter Winslow, who recently bowled me over with Picture Frames. The most substantial part of this 1935 book is the thickness of the pages, straining muscles to turn them. The collection starts out deceptively strong, with Little Pitchers, a girl who reads too much (busted!): “Her father thought she read too much. He said that too much book learning was bad for girls – gave them ideas. Besides, it might ruin her eyes, and she’d have to wear glasses – and girls with glasses had few matrimonial opportunities – and you’d pretty nearly be better off dead than an old maid.” Otherwise, the other stories become boring with their continual reliance on the old “I visited my hometown and this is what I noticed” tone.

Picture Frames

Eleven delightful stories originally published in 1923 by Thyra Samter Winslow describing country girls in the city (either Chicago or NYC), the plight of forgotten grandmas, machinations to maneuver men into marriage, the rise of one immigrant family, the staleness of married life. Happiness/success seems to be defined as making it over the finish line into marriage, because what other prospects did these girls have? The first story starts out strong and gives you a taste of the flinty prose to follow:

When little Emma Hooper, from Black Plains, Iowa, came to Chicago to carve out her fortune, she did not leave behind her a sorrowing family who wondered about the fate of their dear child in the city. Neither did she sneak away from a cruel step-mother who had made life hard, unbearable. Emma’s family was quite glad to see her go.

* Little Emma – as referenced in the above quote, heads to Chicago and plans on playing up her “country girl” persona to land a job and then a millionaire husband. An older woman kindly helps her to buy the correct outfits to cultivate this image, and Emma gets a job typing and taking dictation at a bond firm run by two brothers. One of the brothers is married, the other brother single but lives with the married brother. Hilarity (sort of) ensues when Emma thinks she’s being wined & dined by the married brother, only to be proposed to and find out that it’s the other one that’s married.
* Grandma – the first of the two tales about how old women feel when they live with their children’s families and are neglected. This grandma makes the rounds between her three children, living for 4 months at a time with each, and confesses that her favorite days of the year are her 3 travel days on the train. When she’s at Fred’s house, she works too much, cleaning, caring for the baby, cooking, sewing. She’s looking forward to the holiday of living for 4 months with Albert in NYC, a wealthy man but whose house leaves her cold – nothing to do, lots of lonely dinners, Grandma is virtually ignored the whole time she’s there. Living with daughter Mary is no picnic either, always being criticized by them for something and always the last to be served whatever remained of dinner. But traveling, that was the ticket. On the train, she put on her best clothes, ordered up steaks, made friends with the passengers, talked about her lovely family. She was queen of the train for 48 hours, and then slips back into the lonely Grandma reality.
* Mamie Carpenter – Mamie is a beautiful blonde whose family is poor, so she quits school to work at the candy shop and turns her nose up at the “society set” she doesn’t belong to. Marlin Embury comes back to town, son of a rich oil man, and Mamie begins to work her magic on him, convincing him that she’s interested in what he does with his days, demurely rejecting his offers to go for a ride. She nets him, to the consternation of “society” but then ends up being one of them.
* Cycle of Manhattan – Jewish family of recent immigrants to NYC. The family starts out on MacDougal street, the father eventually becomes a partner in his garment factory, they rise, move about to various apartments further up the island, dropping letters from their name until Rosenheimer turns finally into Ross. The “cycle” referred to is that at the end, son turns artist and rents a bohemian studio in the Village– he shows it off to the family and only the mother and father recognize it as their original home in NYC.
* Amy’s Story – Amy lives under the delusion that her life is almost ready to start, that it will be a grand story. In her mid-twenties she panics and marries a man who does not excite her, who dies a decade later leaving her with two children. She moves back in with her parents and runs across Lulu, her old friend whose life really did have a story– living in NYC, traveling to Europe. Amy eventually gives up on the idea that her life “was going to start.”
* City Folks – Joe and Mattie Harper are country folks who’ve lived in NYC for almost a decade, and who get a letter from Joe’s mom asking them to move back to care for their father. At first, they love the idea of having a home and getting out of the rat race. But they meet for dinner later that day and both have changed their minds, having run into celebrities downtown and been given tickets to a theater performance. “Why, we’re, we’re – city folks!”
* Indian Summer – Evelyn is a 35 year old married woman who vacillates in whether she likes her husband or not. They go to a party, Evelyn meets a man who takes her into his apartment for drinks during the party and tells her he loves her, kisses her. They rejoin the party and she gives her number to the man as she’s leaving. The next day she adjusts her dresses to be less matronly, waits for his call. Finally calls him, he’s not available. Calls her friend who had the party, learns that he’s a drunk who makes love to all the ladies. Resigns herself to husband Martin.
* Love Affair – Laura finds out her ex-beau Howard is engaged, so she agrees to marry a man she has no interest in.
* Birthday – the second of the Grandma stories, living with son Herman, tormented by the family and overworked by them. Given the worst piece of fruit, no cream for her coffee, laughed at by the family when she read books. On her birthday, she receives a letter from her grand-daughter Helen with $25. She reads it to the family in order to make them jealous about Helen’s life, gives the $25 to her daughter-in-law. Her present was the joy in making them jealous.
* Corinna and her man – A girl tells her mother that when she grows up she’s not going to slave over her husband. She grows up, finds herself slaving over her husband, hearing her daughter say the same thing to her.
* The End of Anna – a story of Anna Clark’s suicide, reasons for which given by various people arising from their own situations (sister Ruth- she was in love, sister Sophie – husband was a drunk, husband Fred – she felt bad being poor). Then we hear Anna’s side – as she’s buttoning up her spats, she realizes that she’ll have to unbutton them at night, and every morning she has to go through the same process of bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning, laundry, cooking. “Life stretched out before Anna – a void of little things – punctuated only by dressing and undressing.”