Dorothy Thomas

Radio essay: 

Dorothy Thomas’ best stories are about women doing things they aren’t supposed to. The social infraction might involve an old lady getting married for a second time, as in “Grandma Hotel Adams,” or a young mother shirking familial responsibilities, as in “The Getaway,” in which Mrs. Riggs attempts to flee to Kansas City with few qualms for the children she is leaving behind. It can be as provocative as a tourist in New York City curious about the couple having sex in the adjacent apartment or as seemingly innocuous as a schoolgirl who dares to utter the word “bull” in class. As a friend informs the protagonist of the latter story, “‘Girls and women say ‘critter’ or ‘the animal’ but they don’t say even that in front of boys.’”

An early poem, "For Perry."

The offending bull appears in “Frost in the Morning,” written in 1924 when Thomas was 26 years old. This story—the earliest of Thomas’ manuscripts preserved—demonstrates the young writer’s descriptive powers (the bull’s “breath came out blue as a flame”) and foreshadows her determination to explore what is and is not acceptable to say “in front of boys.” As Mary Cordier writes in Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains, rural Midwestern women—even those with careers, like Thomas—were expected to conform to “the traditional definition of womanhood: the well-being of the family, the neighbors, and the community.”[1]
 

Literary writing, a relatively solitary pursuit that revealed individual ambition, didn’t fit this value system. Dorothy Thomas’ relationship with her mother, Augusta, reveals the stress these social conventions exerted on the young writer. Dorothy and her mother were unusually close even when they lived far apart, exchanging letters for over two decades. In many ways, Augusta Thomas supported her daughter’s writing. She read and commented on drafts and bolstered Dorothy’s spirits during bouts of low confidence. This was in her interest, after all, as Dorothy’s publications began to form a substantial part of the family’s income.

However, Augusta’s literary suggestions often served as thinly veiled disguises for dictates concerning feminine propriety. Instead of stories about self-reliant but flawed women, Augusta would have rather her daughter written uplifting stories that affirmed the prevailing social order. Augusta voiced this ethos through many pleas for her daughter to rethink both the content and tone of her writing. Augusta’s letters to Dorothy, though often filled with praise for her daughter’s stories, regularly beg Dorothy to “Try for some more happy ones now,” or exclaim, “What unlovely characters some of them are!”[2] When in 1933 Knopf expressed interest in a novel based on Thomas’ stories involving the “Jeeter Girls”—women who become pregnant before marriage—Thomas agonized whether to go forward with the project over her mother’s objections. “It is so hard to write under disapproval of what one is writing,” Thomas said in a letter to her friend.[3]

(Top) One of Thomas' sketches in the frontispiece of the 1936 novel, The Home Place/ (bottom) Dorothy Thomas at a typewriter.

Fortunately Thomas persisted, and The Jeeter Girls as well as Thomas’ subsequent novel, The Home Place, were well received by critics. The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed Thomas’ first novel, “an unusual piece of realistic writing. You feel that it is absolutely veracious—a picture of rural America without any undue emphasis or distortion.” The very themes that worried Augusta Thomas proved her daughter’s worth to an East Coast literary establishment that sought subject matter more risky than stories of agrarian virtue.
 

Thomas was published in the nation’s best literary magazines, received praise from such luminaries as H.L. Mencken and New Yorker editor Harold Ross, was compared favorably to Willa Cather and placed several times in the annual O. Henry Prizes.[4]

This success would be remarkable enough for a rural woman who called herself “wild and wooly” and spoke self-deprecatingly about her lack of sophistication. Add to this that Thomas came from a poor family and didn’t finish high school and the significance of her achievement stands out even more starkly.

Dorothy Thomas was one of ten children, born to a minister and his wife in 1898. She grew up first in Kansas and then in a remote area of Alberta, Canada, where the family built their own home. After Dorothy’s father’s death the family moved back to the Midwest, eventually settling in Nebraska. Getting a teaching certificate at 16 and tutoring assignments in remote rural regions allowed Thomas to support her family for the next decade.[5]

Like the fiery Kate Steckley in Thomas’ short story, “The Steckley Girls,” who tells the narrator that “‘I wear the pants around here,’” Dorothy was often the main breadwinner and one of the key decision makers for her family. Itinerant teaching also provided inspiration for stories such as “The Steckley Girls,” which is told from the perspective of a school teacher observing the antic Steckley family.

An elementary school assignment in Lincoln enabled Thomas to make valuable connections with the Lincoln literary community. Mari Sandoz and Loren Eiseley praised her writing, and Prairie Schooner editor Lowry Wimberly published her short story, “The Beast Room” in 1927. A Gothic tale of an orphan girl’s night in a room full of taxidermied animals, the story departs from Thomas’ typical realism but forecasts her interest in depicting the claustrophobic nature of female lives.

By the 1930s Thomas had stopped teaching, devoting herself full time to writing and selling short stories to major periodicals such as Scribner’s and American Mercury. This didn’t mean that Thomas was free of monetary concerns. In 1937 Augusta wrote her daughter: “Hope your stories sell soon so you won’t have to worry about, ‘What shall I eat, or what shall I put on,’ etc.”[6] Thomas’ life as a writer with no financial safety net wasn’t easy, but her talent made it possible for a little while.

Thomas with Loren and Mabel Eiseley on their honeymoon in New Mexico, 1938.

The 1930s was a productive decade for Thomas, including a long stay in Santa Fe, where she became close friends with Frieda Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence’s widow. The 1940s marked a turning point for Thomas’ work, however. Though Thomas continued to write and publish individual stories for the next fifty years—she died in 1990—the quality of her stories changed, and she sold primarily to mass-market publishers.
 

Christine Pappas, editor of a collection of Thomas’ stories, suggests that Thomas’ work grew too sentimental in tone. She was dealt a significant blow when an editor asked to reprint one of her stories, only to anthologize it as an example of poor writing. Thomas already suffered from an autoimmune disorder, and the shock of the negative review triggered a stroke. Augusta Thomas died in 1954; in 1959 Dorothy married John Buickerood, a former machinist and construction worker, eventually settling with him in West Texas.

Dorothy Thomas had to face many of the struggles that beset her characters, but she transcended them long enough to write memorably enduring works of fiction. In her works Thomas portrayed the lives of rural women with as much perceptive acuity and humor as she herself possessed.


References


[1] Mary Cordier, Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) 39.

[2] Augusta Thomas to Dorothy Thomas, 1935. Box 10, Dorothy Thomas Archive, Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors, Lincoln City Libraries, Lincoln, Nebraska. 

[3] Dorothy Thomas to Marguerite Goode Lewis, 1931. Box 12, Dorothy Thomas Archive.

[4] Christine Pappas, ed., The Getaway and Other Stories, by Dorothy Thomas, (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2002): Introduction. All Thomas stories cited are from this edition unless otherwise noted.

[5] ibid

[6] Augusta Thomas to Dorothy Thomas, 1937. Box 10, Dorothy Thomas Archive.