American author Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) wrote many novels and other works set in California, primarily in San Francisco. Many of her works consider themes related to the West, social ideas, and women.
Atherton was born Gertrude Horn on October 30, 1857, in San Francisco, California, the only child of Thomas L. Horn and Gertrude Franklin Horn. Her father was a businessman with a tobacco and cigar business from Connecticut, while her mother was a Southern belle who had been born in New Orleans. Atherton's mother married Thomas Horn mostly for his money.
The Horns had a tough marriage that ended in divorce when Atherton was two. Until the divorce, Atherton lived in relative wealth. After the divorce, her parents both re-married and she had one half-brother and two half-sisters. Immediately following her parents' divorce, Atherton lived on a ranch owned by her maternal grandfather, Stephen Franklin, in San Jose, California. He was a relative of Benjamin Franklin and worked as a newspaper editor and secretary of the Bank of California. Atherton credits her grandfather with introducing her to serious literature, and she read books in his library while growing up. She lived there from 1859 to 1865, until her mother married to a man she did not like, John Frederick Uhlhorn. They returned when Uhlhorn left the family in 1870.
Though Atherton was well read because of her readings in her grandfather's library, she did not receive much in the way of a formal, organized education. She began writing on her own when she was 14 years old. Atherton did attend St. Mary's Hall School in Benicia, California. When she was 17 years old, she was a student at the Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. Atherton was sent there because it was thought she might have tuberculosis and need treatment. She did not finish her education there, but returned home. Atherton was a very difficult child, and she later admitted that she tried to be.
When Atherton returned to California from Kentucky, she found that her mother was dating a man 14 years younger than her. George H. Bowen Atherton was a wealthy heir. George Atherton decided he was more attracted to daughter than mother and asked the 17-year-old-girl to marry him. Atherton agreed, and they eloped in early 1876. Because of the marriage, Atherton's relationship with her mother ended.
The marriage was not particularly successful. The couple lived at Fair Oaks, the Atherton estate. Atherton's life was run by her mother-in-law, who was a Chilean aristocrat, and her husband, who did not support her ambitions to write. George Atherton was very jealous. He did not even like Atherton to read on her own. Though the marriage produced two children, George Goñi (who died at age six) and Muriel Florence, Atherton was bored there. She allowed her children to be raised by her mother-in-law.
Wrote First Novel
On the sly while living at Fair Oaks, Atherton wrote her first novel, The Randolphs of Redwood. This work was based on a local scandal in society. It was first published in serial fashion in the San Francisco-based publication Argonaut in 1882. Its publication created a family scandal in part because of the sexually suggestive scenes, though it was published in the periodical anonymously. The Randolphs was later published as a novel in 1899 under the title A Daughter of the Vine. Despite the objections of her husband and his family, Atherton continued to write by herself, primarily at night. Her output included another novel as well as stories.
Atherton was freed from her life at Fair Oaks when her husband died in 1887 while sailing on a Chilean warship. He died of a kidney hemorrhage. After his death, Atherton left California and traveled to New York City. She then went to Europe on several occasions, traveling to England, France, and Germany. Atherton moved back to California in 1890.
Became Prolific Author
Atherton's widowhood allowed her time to write and do research. When she returned to California, she began doing many interviews and research on California. Many of her works from this time period feature strong heroines and are often set in her native state. They include: What Dreams May Come (1888), a story about reincarnation that was ignored by critics; Hermia Suydam (1889), which focuses on the love life of a single woman and was harshly criticized for being immoral; Los Cerritos (1890), her first novel set in California, specifically a French Convent; The Doomswoman (1892), set in California in the Spanish period, this novel explores the conflict between Mexican and American cultures in a tragic love story; and Before Gringo Came (1894), about Old California and the missions.
Writing novels was not Atherton's only profession. She also wrote a weekly column for the San Francisco Examiner called "A Woman in Her Variety." There, she found a mentor in American author Ambrose Bierce, who praised The Doomswoman. When Atherton went east again to New York City in 1892, she also did some journalism work to make money.
Journalism was never Atherton's primary focus. She continued to write novels. It was in this time period that she wrote Patience Sparhawk and Her Times. But because Atherton could not secure a publisher, she moved to England in 1895. During her four years in that country, she published six novels.
Published Patience Sparhawk
Patience Sparhawk was published in London in 1897 and proved to be Atherton's first novel of significance. She was appreciated first as an author in Europe, where this book was popular. This was the first novel that introduced what became known as the new Western-American woman—a character featured in three other novels by Atherton. The story focuses on a woman who lived in the West in the 1890s who tried to succeed and overcome her low birth to be self-reliant and passionate. The novel offers Atherton's take on the argument about how much heredity versus environment affects a person.
Atherton also received critical acclaim for The Californians (1898), another novel that explores the themes of man versus woman and of nature. It also reflects conflicts with which Atherton was very familiar. In it, a woman tries to fight an oppressive Spanish society. American Wives and English Husbands (1898)—which was later republished as Transplanted in 1919—also features an independent woman, an American from California who marries an English gentleman. The novel explores the tensions in their marriage and different civilizations. This novel also attracted attention and received critical praise.
Returned to the United States
In 1899, Atherton returned to the United States and immediately began working on a novel about politics in the United States. She did research in Washington, D.C., observing the political process and meeting President William McKinley. The novel was published in 1900 as Senator North, and the main character was based on Eugene Hall of Maine. The novel reflects the political tensions of the time.
Atherton became as famous in the United States as she was in Europe with the 1902 publication of her fictionalized biography of Alexander Hamilton, The Conqueror. This was one of the first biographical novels. To write it, Atherton did much research, reading hundreds of books and traveling to the British West Indies where Hamilton was born. Though the book received mixed reviews, it sold a million copies.
Between 1903 and 1910, Atherton lived in San Francisco and Munich, Germany. She lost much in terms of papers in the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. Strong women still figured prominently in her books. In Ancestors (1907), she wrote about a woman who is financially independent and who has a friendship with a rich British aristocrat, bringing them together with values and friendship instead of expected love. Atherton believed that Tower of Ivory (1910), a study of genius set in Munich, was her best novel, though most critics disagreed.
Atherton wrote a number of works about women's rights and the early feminist movement. They include Julia France and Her Times (1912), which was originally a play. In the novel, the title character, France, is a suffrage campaigner in England. Atherton took on other social issues. In 1914, she published Perch of the Devil, which is set in Butte, Montana, during the War of the Copper Kings.
Covered World War I
During World War I, Atherton returned to Europe to cover the conflict for the New York Times. While there, she also did charity work related to the war. Two novels came out of the experience: The Living Present (1917) and The White Morning (1918). In The White Morning, she explores the idea of German women revolting against Kaiser Wilhelm.
By the early 1920s, Atherton was in her sixties and underwent a treatment to rejuvenate older women by using radioactive x-rays to stimulate their ovaries and other sex glands. She used the experience as the basis for her best-selling novel Black Oxen (1923), which relates the story of the doctor who did these treatments, Dr. Eugen Steinach. Black Oxen also concerns romantic elements and was later adapted for film.
By this point in her life, Atherton primarily lived in San Francisco. Though she lived in California, she wrote a number of works about ancient Greece. In 1927, she published the fictionalized biography of Pericles and Aspasia entitled The Immortal Marriage. Like her other historical works, it contains many authentic details. Atherton also wrote The Jealous Gods (1928) about the Athenian general Alcibiades and Dido, Queen of Hearts (1929), about Dido, the woman reputed to have founded Carthage.
Two of Atherton's later novels return to her early themes. In The House of Lee (1940), she wrote about California and three generations of aristocratic women who face changes in money and social standing. The Horn of Life (1942) focuses on self-reliant women who marry for common interests and the character of the man, instead of money.
Atherton also reflected on herself later in her career. In 1932, she published an autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist. While she omitted some facts about her life, she also recounted her way of being different. While My San Francisco: A Wayward Biography (1946) was mostly about the city in which she was born, it also had many autobiographical elements.
Over the course of her writing career, Atherton published more than 56 books, mostly novels. Her best years were in the 1890s and early 1900s when she was regarded as one of the best women authors in the United States. Generally though, critics had a mixed view of Atherton. Many believed that she wrote too much without care, while others praised her use of realism, women characters as heroines, and what was going on in California in her time period.
One observer, Grant Overton, wrote in The Women Who Make Our Novels in 1928, "Almost without exception her fiction has been made the vehicle for ideas—not single, dominating ideas but casual, highly incisive judgments on everything under the sun. She lards her narratives with opinions, but it is not thereby rendered more tender… . Aristocratic in all her attitudes, she prefers frankness and is not afraid of coarseness."
Atherton was still writing near her death. She had a stroke about a month before she died on June 14, 1948, in San Francisco. As Brian St. Pierre wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Though poorly educated and ill-prepared for much of a life, Atherton made herself, by sheer force of will and hard work, into a force to be reckoned with. Luck had nothing to do with her success …."
Benbow-Pfalzgraf, Taryn, ed., American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, Volume 1, St. James Press, 2000.
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McHenry, Robert, ed., Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, Merriam-Webster, 1994.
Overton, Grant, The Women Who Make Our Novels, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1928.
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San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1991.