I had never read a word of Zona Gale’s, a writer among ten-thousand others whose reputations evaporated decades before I was born. I know her thanks to William Maxwell. Gale befriended him when the future novelist was sixteen and served as his informal literary mentor before such relationships had a name. Maxwell met her in 1925 when he had a summer job working on a farm near Portage, Wis., Gale’s home town. In 1972, in a speech before the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Maxwell paid tribute to Gale thirty-four years after her death:
“I do not understand why Zona Gale’s books are not read today. Some of them are very good indeed. And what she was concerned about is what young people now— the young—are concerned about: an order of existence that is not grounded in materialism. Perhaps it is because she was gentle and vague and not sufficiently didactic. She suggested spiritual possibilities, rather than laying down rules.”
Maxwell makes Gale (1874-1938) sound like a Midwestern contemporary of the High Modernists, though never a member of that club. Sherwood Anderson is another, along with Dreiser, Masters and Sandburg -- the so-called Chicago literary renaissance. Out of long-deferred curiosity I borrowed, almost at random, one of her books from the library. Knopf published her Portage, Wisconsin and Other Essays in 1928. I can’t say I was disappointed because I came to the volume without expectations. Maxwell’s characterization – “gentle and vague” – is accurate, and might describe much of Anderson’s prose and sensibility as well. There’s a certain mushy, semi-formed quality to many of her sentences. In an essay titled “Father,” she recounts a type with a long history in the Midwest – the working-class autodidact, a reader and dreamer. I knew such men and women in Ohio and Indiana. Here she describes her father, Charles F. Gale, born in Sandusky County, Ohio, where I landed my first daily newspaper job as a reporter:
“For years the man’s free hours had been spent in second-hand book-stalls. There was always money for books: Spencer, Darwin, Emerson, Drummond, Bacon; through one winter he read Macaulay’s England and then all of Fiske. He formed a habit of fathoming all words new to him in his reading, and by middle life had revised his vocabulary. An old taste for chemistry developed, and with a few scientific books he elicited enchantment. It was in a farm journal that he was attracted to a star map and peopled for himself the heavens. Creative thinking followed all his reading.”
This sounds familiar. Gale felt no embarrassment over her Midwestern origins. She lived nearly all of her life in Portage. As a writer, Gale was no naturalist or connoisseur of the squalid. Like her father with his test tubes, she sought to elicit enchantment. I haven’t yet read any of her fiction but in an essay titled “The Novel of Tomorrow” she writes:
“The function of the novel is not to treat of life as it appears to the ordinary eye; or even to treat life in its ordinary aspect, if that were ascertainable. It is not even to treat of life as it should be, if that were ascertainable. Its function is not primarily to report the familiar at all. The function of the novel is to reflect the familiar as permeated by the unfamiliar; to reflect the unknown in its daily office of permeating the known.”
She sounds a little like a plain-talking Corn Belt version of Viktor Shklovsky, toying with his notion of ostranenie. She also sounds as though she were describing some of the novels William Maxwell was still decades away from writing.
[The passage from Maxwell’s tribute to Gale can be found in Conversations with William Maxwell (ed. Barbara Burkhardt, University Press of Mississippi, 2012).]