I learned of the forgotten novelist Claire Spencer (1895–1987) through Houghton Library's post of this art deco cover. Spencer might fall into the category of “justly neglected?”—and it’s likely I’ll never get around to reading her three novels, Gallows’ Orchard (1930), The Quick and the Dead (1932), and The Island (1935). (You can read two of the books online by following those links.) At first I was just going to post the cover, but finding no wikipedia entry or online bio I decided to cobble one together myself.
Claire Spencer was born in Paisley, Scotland, and emigrated to the United States in 1918. At some point before the publication of her first novel, she married the editor and publisher Harrison “Hal” Smith, and they had two children together. They divorced in 1933 and the same year Claire married John Evans, the only son of bohemian arts patron Mable Dodge Luhan and the author of two novels. Much of this info was gleaned from the letters of Robinson Jeffers’ wife Una, who was friends with John and Claire during their time in Taos. Una called Claire “the strangest woman I’ve ever met & one of the most interesting.” Hal Smith did publish The Island two years after the divorce, but it would be Claire’s last book. The couple and their brood eventually settled in Brooksville, Maine, where Claire Spencer Evans died in 1987 (I cannot find an obituary). John served in a number of government positions until his death in 1978.
(John Evans and Claire Spencer, portraits by Edward Weston)
In Gallows’ Orchard, “marriage and child birth and death take on distorted forms for Effie Gallows. Her neighbors loathe and fear her, and eventually the village children stone her to death.” It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. (Time says, “Book-of-the-Month selectors defend their choice by comparing Gallows’ Orchard to the work of the late great Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy.”)
Kirkus Reviews tells us that The Island “emerges with a certain stark beauty in spite of an incredible number of tragedies and violent deaths.” They end their short review, "Not a book to be sold indiscriminately."
The Quick and the Dead — set in New York City, unlike the Scottish village setting of the other novels — seems to have gotten the strongest reaction from 1930s reviewers. John Bronson, reviewer for The Bookman, drolly summarizes, “When his mother dies Peter is at last happy and commits suicide” and continues:
The retching jagged emotion, the dribbling loathsome sensation, the hysterical impression, the granulation and distortion and decomposition of life are Miss Spencer’s material. There is no question of the success of her style: it is sensitive, intense, and original. The only questions are whether the public is interested in being tortured and nauseated and, this premise granted, whether Miss Spencer’s rather abstract characters possess the reality to attain that end. [source]
That sounds like a review of an AMC or HBO TV show.
The notice in Literary Sign-Posts couldn’t have helped sell many copies: “The people are filled with a deep revulsion with themselves and with each other and with the lives they lead, occasionally touching a depth of disgust that is almost a spiritual nausea.”
I wonder if Graves and Faulkner read her books?