Making an Arts and Crafts Difference
June 12, 1935.
On this date F. Scott Fitzgerald had lunch with friends in Tryon, North Carolina, as he celebrated the completion of a short story he had been writing in room 441 at the Grove Park Inn. Fearing tuberculosis and desperate to escape the pressure of Zelda’s suicidal tendencies, his daughter’s failing marks in school, and several thousand dollars of debts, Fitzgerald had earlier sequestered himself inside the Grove Park Inn for the summer.
As I was retracing his steps exactly 78 years later, I came upon the name of Tryon’s celebrated author who had been invited to lunch that day with Fitzgerald. It was a name I had never encountered, either in my days as a teacher of 20th century American literature or as a researcher into the Arts and Crafts movement.
Margaret Culkin Banning.
As I soon discovered, Margaret Culkin Banning’s career ran parallel to that of Fitzgerald’s. Both were born in Minnesota in the 1890s, enjoyed Ivy League educations, suffered through disastrous marriages, saw their first novels published in 1920, and spent the remainder of their lives writing novels and short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Esquire, Scribner’s and a dozen other major magazines.
Margaret Banning’s career spanned 62 years, producing 36 novels and over 400 short stories and articles. Fitzgerald’s lasted 20 years, producing just 4 novels and around 160 short stories. He died of a heart attack brought on by alcoholism at the age of 44, deep in debt, his books out of print, his name nearly forgotten. Margaret Banning died at the age of 90, very wealthy, with homes in Tryon and Minnesota, her books still in print, and while working on another novel.
Yet Fitzgerald’s reputation has been revived in recent years, while Banning’s languishes in obscurity.
That made me curious.
Banning, as I discovered, has been delegated to the list of writers of “romance novels,” the kiss of death for any author’s literary reputation, and one which Fitzgerald narrowly avoided. Both The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night do involve romances, right?
Margaret Banning, however, did more than pen fluffy, meaningless romantic fiction. She tackled key issues of the Arts and Crafts era, issues we often overlook in our close scrutiny of shopmarks, glazes and patinas: women’s rights, birth control, pre-marital sex, mixed marriages, divorce for Catholic women, the stress of wives making more money than their husbands, and women balancing their careers with their responsibilities of also being mothers and wives.
Arts and Crafts issues, then and now.
My point is not to suggest that Margaret Culkin Banning should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but to remind ourselves that the Arts and Crafts movement and the objects we collect did not exist in a vacuum. Margaret Banning grew up and was educated during the Arts and Crafts era. While she may never have owned a Stickley sideboard or a Rookwood vase, she became a fighter for women’s rights.
The Arts and Crafts movement not only represented an escape from the pretentiousness of Victorian homes, furnishings, and morals, it also advocated important social issues of the day, issues that made a difference not only in the lives of our parents, but for us as well.
Margaret Culkin Banning.
I now have no doubt that she influenced and altered more lives — especially those of young women and wives of every age — than did F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!
PS – You can read a brief autobiographical sketch Banning wrote at http://www.catholicauthors.com/banning.html.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Authors Biography.