Susan Keating Glaspell was born on July 1st, 1876 in Davenport, Iowa to Elmer Glaspell, a hay farmer, and Alice Keating, a public school teacher.
Home was a rural homestead just below the bluffs of the Mississippi River on land purchased from the US Government.
Gradually the sprawl of suburban development crept up to the farms edge and Glaspell, a precocious child, understood that her world was balanced between that and the pioneer tales of her grandmother, reciting the regular visits by Native Americans to the farm in the years before Iowa gained statehood.
During the Panic of 1893, the farm was sold and Glaspell moved with her family into the city.
Glaspell was an active student at Davenport High School where she took an advanced course of study and gave a commencement speech at her 1894 graduation. By age eighteen she was earning a regular salary at the local newspaper as a journalist, and by twenty she was the author of a weekly 'Society' column which made fun of Davenport's elite.
At twenty-one Glaspell returned to education enrolled herself at Drake University, despite the sadly prevailing belief that college made a woman unfit to marry. A philosophy major, she also excelled in debate competitions, and represented Drake at the state tournament in her senior year. A Des Moines Daily News article on her graduation called Glaspell "a leader in the social and intellectual life of the university."
The day after her graduation, Glaspell began work for the paper as a reporter, a rare position for a woman. She was assigned to cover the state legislature and murder cases.
At twenty-four, after covering the conviction of a woman accused of murdering her abusive husband, Glaspell abruptly resigned and moved back to Davenport, and with it, a hoped for career writing fiction.
Her new career brought excellent early results; her stories were published by many periodicals, including Harper's, Munsey's, The Ladies' Home Journal, and Woman's Home Companion.
A cash prize from a short story enabled her to move to Chicago, where she wrote her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered. Published in 1909, it was a best-seller. The New York Times review was typical in its praise, "Unless Susan Glaspell is an assumed name covering that of some already well-known author—and the book has qualities so out of the ordinary in American fiction and so individual that this does not seem likely—The Glory of the Conquered brings forward a new author of fine and notable gifts."
Glaspell's second novel, The Visioning, was published in 1911. Again the New York Times was at the forefront in its praise, "it does prove Miss Glaspell's staying power, her possession of abilities that put her high among the ranks of American storytellers."
In 1915 her third novel, Fidelity, was published. Once again reviews were excellent. The New York Times called it "a big and real contribution to American novels."
In Davenport, Glaspell associated with local writers to form the Davenport group. Among them was George Cram Cook, a wealthy classics professor and gentleman farmer. Cook was already on a second, troubled marriage. Glaspell fell in love with him, and they wed in 1913 and moved to New York to escape Davenport's chorus of disapproving gossip. They were immediately immersed in the City, becoming key participants in America's first avant-garde artistic movement, and were associated with many well-known social reformers and activists, including Upton Sinclair and John Reed.
It was here that Glaspell became a leading member of Heterodoxy, an early feminist debating group. However, on a personal level life was more troubling. She endured a number of miscarriages as well as surgery to remove a fibroid tumor pressed against her uterus.
Although still weak in her recuperation she and Cook started a non-profit theatre company alongside their rented summer cottage in Provincetown, Cape Cod.
This Provincetown Playhouse would be devoted to plays that were more able to reflect contemporary American issues and they rejected and avoided the more commercial and escapist melodramas produced on Broadway.
Despite the early and continued success of her fiction it is her twelve groundbreaking plays that she wrote for the Provincetown Playhouse company over seven years that she is, perhaps, most well-known for.
Her first play, Trifles (1916), was based on the murder trial she covered as a young reporter in Des Moines. Once again this new branch of her career was an instant success. It riveted audiences with its daring views of justice and morality. Since publication it has become one of the most anthologized works in American theatre history.
In 1921 she completed Inheritors; following three generations of a pioneer family and that same year she completed The Verge, an early example of expressionist art.
Believing an amateur staff would lead to further innovation, the Provincetown playwrights often participated directly in their productions. Though unschooled in acting, Glaspell would receive further acclaim as an actress. William Zorach, an early member of the group, reported "she had only to be on the stage and the play and the audience came alive."
Once established, the theater moved from Cape Cod to New York City. While reviewing new plays to produce, Glaspell discovered Eugene O'Neill, who would eventually be recognized as one of the greatest playwrights in American history. Others associated with the group were Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Dreiser, and Glaspell's fellow Davenport group friend Floyd Dell.
As the company became more successful, playwrights began to view it as a launch pad to other, more commercial theatre venues, a violation of the group's original purpose. Cook and Glaspell decided to leave the company they founded, which had become 'too successful'.
Glaspell was by now at the height of her theatre career, with her most recently written play, The Verge, bringing the most praise. In 1922 Glaspell and Cook moved to Delphi, Greece. Cook died there in 1924 of glanders. (The unusually named Glanders is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei. It is primarily a disease affecting horses, donkeys and mules and can be naturally contracted by other mammals such as goats, dogs, and cats. It is quite rare in humans).
From the onset, Glaspell's plays were also published in print form, receiving laudatory reviews by New York's most prestigious periodicals. By 1918 Glaspell was already considered one of America's most significant new playwrights.
In 1920 her plays began to be printed in England. Here, she would be better received than in America. Hailed as a genius, English critics ranked her above O'Neill, and compared her favorably to the most important playwright since Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen. To satisfy demand for Glaspell's writing, a British version of her novel Fidelity was published, going through five editions in just five weeks.
When Inheritors was produced for England in 1925, every leading newspaper and literary magazine published an extensive review, almost all unanimous in their praise.
However, the impact and critical success of Glaspell's theatre work did not unfortunately make financial sense. Glaspell continued to submit short stories to the top periodicals for publication in order to support the two of them during their years with the theater. The stories from this period are among her finest, and it was during her time as a playwright that Glaspell also established herself as one of the most noted of the modern American short story writers.
Following her husband’s death in Delphi in 1924 Glaspell returned to Cape Cod where she wrote his biography, The Road to the Temple (1927).
Despite the tragedy of losing her husband she soon became romantically attached with the younger writer Norman H. Matson and they wed in 1925.
In this period she wrote three best-selling novels, which she considered her personal favorites: Brook Evans (1928), Fugitive's Return (1929), and Ambrose Holt and Family (1931).
This period also brought the excellent play, Alison's House (1931), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1932 Glaspell's relationship with Matson ended after eight years, and she fell into her only known period of little work as she struggled with depression, alcoholism, and poor health.
In 1936 Glaspell moved to Chicago after being appointed Midwest Bureau Director of the Federal Theater Project. Over the next few years she reconnected with siblings, controlled her drinking and once more began to write.
Glaspell returned to Cape Cod when her work for the Federal Theater Project was finished. The time she spent back in the Midwest influenced her work, and her last three novels increasingly focused on the region, on family life, and on theistic questions. They included The Morning is Near Us (1939), Norma Ashe (1942), and Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945).
Susan Keating Glaspell died of viral pneumonia in Provincetown on July 28, 1948.
In her long career she had written nine novels, fifteen plays, over fifty short stories and a biography.
In the years following her death new movements and waves of writers obscured the worth of her work and she became marginalized. She has now however, begun to receive greater recognition.