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Gertrude Atherton


Gertrude Atherton

Gertrude Atherton
Gertrude Atherton
Born (1857-10-30)October 30, 1857
San Francisco
Died June 14, 1948(1948-06-14) (aged 90) (stroke)
San Francisco
Pen name Asmodeus, Frank Lin
Occupation Novelist and short story writer.
Notable awards International Academy of Letters and Sciences of Italy (Gold Medal)
Legion of Honor honorary member, 1925
D. Litt., Mills College
LL.D., University of California
Spouse George H. Bowen Atherton (1876–1887)

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton (October 30, 1857 – June 14, 1948) was a prominent and prolific American author. Many of her novels are set in her home state, California. Her best-seller Black Oxen (1923) was made into a silent movie of the same name. In addition to novels, she wrote short stories, essays, and articles for magazines and newspapers on such issues as feminism, politics, and war. She was strong-willed, independent-minded, and sometimes controversial.


  • Biography 1
    • Childhood 1.1
    • Writing career 1.2
  • Legacy 2
  • Quotes 3
  • Controversial comments 4
  • Bibliography 5
    • Literature 5.1
    • Plays 5.2
    • Films 5.3
    • Other contributions 5.4
  • Sources 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8



Gertrude Franklin Horn was born on October 30, 1857, in San Francisco, California, to Thomas Ludovich Horn and his wife, the former Gertrude Franklin. Her parents separated when she was two years old, and she was raised by her maternal grandfather, Stephen Franklin, a devout Presbyterian and a relative of Benjamin Franklin.[1] Grandfather Franklin insisted she be well read, and this influenced her greatly. She attended St. Mary's Hall high school in Benicia, California, and, briefly, the Sayre School in Lexington, Kentucky.

Returning from Kentucky, she met George H.B. Atherton, son of diphtheria, and her husband died at sea. She was left alone with their daughter Muriel and needed to support herself.[3]

Writing career

Gertrude Atherton early in her career.

Atherton's first publication was "The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance", serialized in The Argonaut in March 1882 under the pseudonym Asmodeus. When she revealed to her family that she was the author, it caused her to be ostracized. In 1888, she left for New York, leaving Muriel with her grandmother. She traveled to London, and eventually returned to California. Atherton's first novel, What Dreams May Come, was published in 1888 under the pseudonym Frank Lin.

In 1889, she went to Paris at the invitation of her sister-in-law Alejandra Rathbone (married to Major Jared Lawrence Rathbone). That year, she heard from British publisher G. Routledge and Sons that they would publish her first two books. William Sharp wrote in The Spectator praising her fiction and would later invite Atherton to stay with him and his wife, Elizabeth, in South Hampstead.[4]

In London, she had the opportunity through Jane Wilde to meet Oscar Wilde, her son. She recalled in her memoir Adventures of a Novelist (1932) that she made an excuse to avoid the meeting because she thought he was physically repulsive. In an 1899 article for London's Bookman, Atherton wrote of Wilde's style and associated it with "the decadence, the loss of virility that must follow over-civilization."

She returned to California in 1890 at the death of her grandfather Franklin and her mother-in-law Dominga Atherton, and she resumed taking care of Muriel. In 1891, she wrote for The San Francisco Examiner where she met Ambrose Bierce, with whom she carried on a taunting, almost love-hate friendship.

When Kate Field remarked on California writers' neglect of the picturesque and romantic old Spanish life of the state, Atherton explored the history and culture of Spanish California in Monterey, San Juan Bautista, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara.[3]

She wrote Doomswoman in 1892, and it was published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine before being published in book form in 1893. The story focuses on Chonita Moncada y Iturbi and her love of Diego Estenega (modeled after Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo), as he dreams of modernizing California, retaining its Mexican character without sacrificing American economic vigor. Chonita is Catholic, and her faith stands in the way of Diego's political ambitions. The dramatic climax peaks when Diego kills Chonita's brother, Reynaldo, and she is forced to choose between her cultural loyalty or the love of her life. The plot of the novel closely resembles that of Romeo and Juliet.

The book was successful with critics, some comparing it to Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. Atherton was not pleased with this comparison because Jackson was not from California. However, she was satisfied when Bierce said it was "as in its class . . . superior to any that any Californian has done".

In 1892, Atherton left for New York. There she wrote for the New York World. She also wrote letters to Bierce, confiding her loneliness, her dismay at the necessity to do freelance writing (in particular for the New York World), and her dislike of eastern literary circles. Her distaste came from their belittlement of the West and its authors, and the fact they did not accept Bierce's work.

While in New York she published another California novel, Before the Gringo Came (1894).

She next wrote Patience Sparhawk and Her Times, A Novel (1897), but it proved to be too controversial. Its rejection encouraged her to leave for London. It was 1898 and John Lane of The Bodley Head agreed to publish it, but not for two years. She continued to write, writing book reviews for Oliver Fry's Vanity Fair, and even completed a book-length version of "The Randolphs of Redwood" (retitled A Daughter of the Vine, 1899) while staying in Haworth.

Max Pemberton asked her to write a 10,000 word essay for a series he was editing for Cassells Pocket Library, which she wrote as A Whirl Asunder (1895).

Once Patience Sparhawk and Her Times, A Novel was published, William Robertson Nicoll gave a review of it in the April 12, 1897 edition of The Bookman that said it was "crude" in its portrayal of a clever young woman with burning interest in life and identified it as a protest against the tame American novel. In the May 15 issue of The New York Times, the reviewer said that Atherton had "incontestable" ability and a "very original talent" while noting that the book offered a series of "fleshy" episodes in Patience's life that must have scared a sensitive reader.[4] It was banned from the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute, and the San Francisco Call review said it represented Atherton's departure from her proper literary goal of treating early California themes romantically

In 1898 she completed The Californians, her first novel in set the post-Spanish era. Critics received this much more positively than Patience, and a review in the The Spectator (October 1, 1898) said it "was by far more convincing and attractive in delineating California manners and morals. . . . The novel fairly establishes her claim to be considered as one of the most vivid and entertaining interpreters of the complex characters of emancipated American womanhood." The November 8 Bookman said it was her "most ambitious work," which has "a feeling of surety that only the consciousness of knowing one's ground can convey."[4]

She traveled to Rouen and wrote American Wives and English Husbands (1898), set in contemporary time. In this novel, she contrasts English and American men, American and English civilizations, and comments on the relationships between men and women. She also completed The Valiant Runaways (1898), an adventure novel for boys that dealt with the Spanish Mexican attempt to civilize California. In 1899 she returned to the United States.

Her novel Senator North (1900) was based on Maine's senator Eugene Hale.[5]

In a May 1904 article, Why Is American Literature Bourgeois? in the North American Review, Atherton critiqued William Dean Howells for the "littleism" or "thin" realism of his fiction.

Gertrude Atherton, ca. 1904

She is best remembered for her California Series, several novels and short stories dealing with the social history of California. The series includes The Splendid, Idle Forties (1902); The Conqueror (1902), which is a fictionalized biography of Alexander Hamilton; and her sensational, semi-autobiographical novel Black Oxen (1923), about an aging woman who miraculously becomes young again after glandular therapy. The latter was adapted into the film Black Oxen in 1923.[6]

Her novels often feature strong heroines who pursue independent lives, undoubtedly a reaction to her stifling married life.

Atherton wrote several stories of supernatural horror, including the ghost stories "Death and the Woman", and "Crowned with One Crest", as well as "The Foghorn", and the often anthologised "The Striding Place".[6][7] "The Foghorn", written in 1933, is a psychological horror story that has been compared to "The Yellow Wallpaper". W. Somerset Maugham called it a powerful story in a 1943 publication of his, Great Modern Reading.

In 2009, The Library of America selected Atherton’s story "The Striding Place" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales.


Atherton was often compared to contemporary authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. James assessed Atherton's work and claimed she had reduced the typical man/woman relationship to a personality clash.[5]

Atherton presided in her last years over the San Francisco branch of PEN, an international organization of poets, essayists, novelists and playwrights founded in England with John Galsworthy as its first president. As her biographer Emily Wortis Leider notes in California's Daughter, however, "under her domination it became little more than a social club that might have been called Friends of Atherton and (Senator) Phelan". A strong advocate of social reform, and the grande dame of California literature, she yet remained a strong force in the promotion of a California cultural identity. She was a personal friend of Senator James Duval Phelan and his nephew, the philanthropist Noel Sullivan, and often was a guest at Phelan's estate, Villa Montalvo. Among her celebrity friends was travel writer Richard Halliburton, who shared her interest in artists' rights, and whose disappearance at sea she lamented.[8] Though she could be offensively assertive with her acerbic wit, notes Gerry Max, she valorously embraced many of the key intellectual freedom issues of her day, especially those involved with women's rights, and remained, throughout a long creative life, a true friend to writers.

Atherton was an early feminist well acquainted with the plight of women. She knew "the pain of sexual repression, knew the cost of strength required to escape it (strength some women do not have to spend), knew its scars—the scars that made her wary of emotional commitment and relegated her, despite her splendid professional triumphs and her surpassing benefit to women, to largely an observer role in human relations. She knew the full cost of the destructive battle of the sexes, and urged that it end at last with true sexual equality."[9]


Charlotte S. McClure in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay said that Atherton "redefined women's potential and presented a psychological drama of a woman's quest for identity and for a life purpose and happiness within and beyond her procreative function". She also said that Patience Sparhawk was Atherton's "first significant novel".

In an 1898 essay in Bookman, a critic stated:

"the amazing and memorable Patience Sparhawk may perhaps be referred to as the first foreshadowing of the good work that [Atherton] has done since. It seems to have been also generally conceded that no matter what the subject chanced to be . . . nothing from her pen would be commonplace or dull. [But] that startling performance [in Patience Sparhawk] introduced her to a different audience, one much larger and more seriously interested than she had had before."

Carl van Vechten said of Atherton in a Nation article: "Usually (not always, to be sure), the work of Mrs. Wharton seems to me to be scrupulous, clever and uninspiring, while that of Mrs. Atherton is often careless, sprawling, but inspired. Mrs. Wharton, with some difficulty, it would appear, has learned to write; Mrs. Atherton was born with a facility for telling stories."

In an essay for Bookman, Frederic Taber Cooper stated that in Senator North, the character Harriet "is practically a white woman but for a scarcely perceptible blueness at the base of her fingernails, this character of Harriet is perhaps the best bit of feminine analysis that Mrs. Atherton ever did."[5]

Atherton's autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist (New York: Horace Liveright, 1932), is a lively, often quotable account of both her own tempestuous life and the many remarkable people, including Ambrose Bierce and James Phelan, who filled it. It also features engaging historical reminiscences of San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Controversial comments

Gertrude Atherton made some controversial comments during her career. Among the most vicious and unprovoked was her shallow and cruel assault on Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. Pio Pico suffered from severe facial disfigurement that may have been due to acromegaly caused by a pituitary tumor. In 1902 Atherton ridiculed Pio Pico's facial disfigurement as follows:[10]

“…an uglier man than Pio Pico rarely had entered this world. The upper lip of his enormous mouth dipped at the middle; the broad thick under lip hung down with its own weight. The nose was big and coarse, although there was a certain spirited suggestion in the cavernous nostrils…”

Her apparent shallow and superficial tendencies to revile and disrespect those people whom she considered physically flawed were consistent with an admission she made in her memoir Adventures of a Novelist (1932), where she reveals that she made an excuse to avoid meeting Oscar Wilde because she thought he was physically repulsive.

In the 1930s, Atherton developed a hostility to Communism.[11] When asked by the League of American Writers which side she supported in the Spanish Civil War, she stated that she supported the Spanish Nationalists- the only author of the 418 the League surveyed who did.[11][12] In the League pamphlet Writers Take Sides (collecting the authors' responses) Atherton stated that although she disliked both Fascism and Communism, she considered Communism the greater evil, and added 'Although I have no love for Franco, I hope he will mop up the Communists, and send home, with tails between legs, all those gullible Americans who enlisted to save Spanish "Democracy"'.[11]



  • What Dreams May Come (1888), as Frank Lin
  • Hermia Suydam (1889)
  • Los Cerritos (1890)
  • A Questions of Time (1891)
  • The Doomswoman (1893)
  • Before the Gringo Came (1894), revised and enlarged as The Splendid Idle Forties: Stories of Old California (1902)
  • A Whirl Asunder (1895)
  • His Fortunate Grace (1897)
  • Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897)
  • American Wives and English Husbands (1898)
  • The Californians (1898)
  • The Valiant Runaways (1898)
  • A Daughter of the Vine (1899)
  • Senator North (1900)
  • The Aristocrats (1901)
  • The Conqueror, Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton (1902)
  • Heart of Hyacinth (1903)
  • Mrs. Pendleton's Four-in-Hand (1903)
  • Rulers of Kings (1904)
  • The Bell in the Fog, and Other Stories (1905)
  • The Travelling Thirds (1905)
  • Rezanov (1906)
  • Ancestors (1907)
  • The Gorgeous Isle (1908)
  • Tower of Ivory (1910)
  • Julia France and Her Times (1912)
  • Perch of the Devil (1914)
  • California, An Intimate History (1914), revised and enlarged in 1927 and 1971
  • Life in the War Zone (1916)
  • Mrs. Belfame (1916)
  • The Living Present (1917) – Book I: French Women in Wartime; Book II: Feminism in Peace and War
  • The White Morning: a Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime (1918)
  • The Avalanche: A Mystery Story (1919)
  • Transplanted (1919)
  • The Sisters-in-Law: A Novel of Our Times (1921)
  • Sleeping Fires (1922)
  • Black Oxen (1923)
  • The Crystal Cup (1925)
  • The Immortal Marriage (1927)
  • The Jealous Gods, A Processional Novel of the Fifth Century B.C. (Concerning One Alcibiades) (1928)
  • Dido: Queen of Hearts (1929)
  • The Sophisticates (1931)
  • Adventures of a Novelist (1932)
  • The Foghorn: Stories (1934)
  • California: An Intimate History (1936)
  • Golden Peacock (1936)
  • Rezánov and Doña Concha (1937)
  • Can Women Be Gentlemen? (1938)
  • The House of Lee (1940)
  • The Horn of Life (1942)
  • The Conqueror (1943)
  • Golden Gate Country (1945, American Folkways series)
  • My San Francisco (1946)


  • Julia France (1912)


  • Don't Neglect Your Wife (1921), screenwriter

Other contributions

  • The Spinsters' Book of Fiction (wrote: Concha Arguëllo, Sister Dominica)(1907), made to help out her friend Ina Coolbrith
  • What Is a Book? (1935)


  • Leider, Emily Wortis, California's Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and her Times, Stanford University Press, 1991, quoted p. 313.
  • The Literature Network
  • Preface to The Sisters-in-Law
  • Laing, Alexander, ed. The Haunted Omnibus, 1965


  1. ^ Merriman, C.D. "Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton". Biography. The Literature Network. Retrieved November 28, 2011. 
  2. ^ Leider, Emily Wortis (1991). California's Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times, p. 42. Stanford University Press. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  3. ^ a b McClure, Charlotte S. (1989). American Short-Story Writers, 1880–1910.  
  4. ^ a b c McClure, Charlotte S. (1997). Nineteenth-Century American Western Writers.  
  5. ^ a b c Contemporary Authors Online.  
  6. ^ a b Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (2004). Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts on File. pp. 14–5.  
  7. ^  
  8. ^ See Gerry Max, Horizon Chasers: The Lives and Adventures of Richard Halliburton and Paul Mooney (McFarland, 2007), pp. 177–179, 227.
  9. ^ See Elinor Richey, "Gertrude Atherton: The Flappers Were her Daughters." In Eminent Women of the West (Berkeley, California: Howell-North Books, 1975), pp. 97–123, at p. 123.
  10. ^ Atherton GFA. "The Pearls of Loreto". In: The Splendid Idle Forties. Kentfield, California: Allen Press, 1960, 26
  11. ^ a b c  
  12. ^ Monteath, Peter (1994). Writing The Good Fight: political commitment in the international literature of the Spanish Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. xxi.  

External links

  • Gertrude Atherton on Women Film Pioneers Project
  • Works by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Gertrude Atherton at Internet Archive
  • Works by Gertrude Atherton at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Gertrude Atherton: Short Stories
  • Online guide to the Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton Collection of Papers, The Bancroft Library
  • Gertrude Atherton's Photo & Gravesite
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