CALIFORNIA'S DAUGHTER: Gertrude Atherton and Her T by Emily Wortis Leider

CALIFORNIA'S DAUGHTER: Gertrude Atherton and Her T

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A fine biography of Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), who--author of nearly 60 books, most of which were best-selling, now-forgotten novels--embodied and projected in her writing an idealized new American woman: glamorous, independent, iconoclastic, clever, ambitious, unsentimental, openly but fastidiously sexual, a civilizing force in society. Born into the thriving but provincial culture of 19th-century San Francisco, Atherton (who preferred puppies to children, she said) married at 18, bore two children (one of whom died at age six), and was widowed at 27 when her "unlamented" husband died at sea, his body returned to her embalmed in a keg of rum. Leaving her daughter behind, she began a new and, for an author, unusually nomadic life--first in New York, then Europe, in pursuit of the power and celebrity that the new popular press, which inspired much of her fiction, conferred. Atherton's novels, such as Patience Sparhawk (1897), Senator North (1900), and The Horn of Life (1942)--realistic in style, conventional in form--were largely social history, often set in California, occasionally in historical or classical dress. In turn, the writing of them became the topic of her aptly titled autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist (1932). Briefly interested in politics and obliquely in feminism, she rarely dealt with issues any more serious than the Steinbach rejuvenation treatment she undertook at age 64 to counteract her mental "sterility." In her own time, she was considered on a plane with Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. What stands out here is Leider's respect for the central enigma of Atherton's life (a mystery either intentionally cultivated or merely a reflection of the narcissist's hollow inner life), captured in the portrait on the cover by her great granddaughter depicting her as a jigsaw puzzle, with the famous "alabaster shoulders" exposed and the elegant and fair profile in full display, but with a large piece, close to the heart, missing.

ISBN: 8047-1820-2
Publisher: Stanford Univ.
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