Nancy Hale Papers
Nancy Hale was born Anna Westcott Hale on May 6, 1908, in Boston, Massachusetts, the only child of painters Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Clark Westcott. Descended from a distinguished New England family, Nancy Hale's grandfather was the orator, author, and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale, and two of her great-aunts were the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lucretia Peabody Hale. Philip L. Hale achieved some success as a neo-impressionist painter of the Boston School, but probably had a greater influence as an instructor at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and as an art critic for Boston newspapers. Lilian W. Hale, the more talented artist of the pair, was well known for her portraits and landscapes in oil, pastel, and charcoal.
Nancy Hale began writing at an early age, producing a family newspaper, the Society Cat, at age eight, and publishing her first story, "The Key Glorious," in the Boston Herald, at age eleven. She also devoted considerable energy to the study of art under her parents' tutelage and, after she was graduated from the Winsor School in 1926, at the Boston Museum School (1926-28).
In 1928, she married aspiring writer Taylor Scott Hardin and moved with him to New York City where she was hired to work in the art department at Vogue. She was, however, almost immediately put to work as an assistant editor and writer instead. Under the pen name Anne Leslie, she wrote "chatty news" items, fashion news, and editorials.
Hale's true ambition was to write fiction. Jobs at Vogue and later Vantiy Fair provided financial support while she built her reputation as a fiction writer. While working full time she was also writing pieces on commission for a variety of magazines as well as free-lance fiction. Her first son, Mark Hardin, was born in 1930.
Hale's first novel, The Young Die Good (1932), was a chronicle of the shallow lives of the post-flapper "smart set" in New York. In 1933, one of her stories,"To the Invader," won the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize. A second novel, Never Any More, was published in 1934.
Hale was hired by the New York Times as its first woman straight news reporter in the spring of 1934, a job which she left after an exhausting six months. By then, she and her husband had been living apart for some time. They were divorced late in 1934.
In October of 1935, Hale entered into a troubled second marriage with author and journalist Charles Christian Wertenbaker. They settled in Charlottesville, VA, in 1936. Her next book, The Earliest Dreams (1936), was a selection made from the already substantial body of short stories published by Hale in such magazines as the New Yorker, Harper's, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal. Writing was now her primary means of financial support.
Hale's second son, William Wertenbaker, was born in the spring of 1938. After several separations, she was divorced from Charles Wertenbaker in 1941. In 1942, Hale married Fredson Thayer Bowers an English professor on the faculty of the University of Virginia.
Her third and best known novel, The Prodigal Women, was published later that year. It is an immense book (over 700 pages) which, in the words of writer Anne Hobson Freeman, "dramatized, with unflinching candor, the psychological cost of being a woman at that time." It is the story of three women, each in her own way taking advantage of the freedoms offered by the post World War I rejection of Victorian social mores.
Throughout this period Hale was plagued by a series of physical ailments and bouts of anxiety severe enough to result in 1938 and again in 1943 in what was called a "nervous breakdown." Always intensely self-critical, Hale worried that she had squandered a promising career and sold- out artistically by writing to make money. She was fortunate in 1943 to find a psychoanalyst, Beatrice Hinkle, who helped her begin to solve what Hale called "this problem of who to be."
Always extremely hard-working, Hale published a collection of stories, the first of two much-loved volumes of "autobiographical fiction," A New England Girlhood (1958), and three novels in the 1950s. Hale singled out a favorite among these, Heaven and Hardpan Farm (1957). A humorous and humane novel about a group of "neurotic" women and their Jungian doctor at a small country sanitarium, Hale felt it was her most successful effort at writing about the experience of psychoanalysis.
In 1958, the University of Illinois awarded Hale a Benjamin Franklin Magazine citation for excellence in short story writing.
In 1961 Hale sold more stories (12) to the New Yorker than any other writer in the magazine's history. Also, in that year, she put together The Realities of Fiction, a volume of lectures on writing primarily given at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1959-60. Another novel, a collection of stories, and an anthology of writings by New England authors followed in the 1960s. In 1968, Hale received the Henry H. Bellamann Foundation Award for her significant contribution to the arts. One of Hale's best-loved books, The Life in the Studio, was published in 1969. "My mother died and I felt more than I could stand without expressing it," Hale told a newspaper reporter in 1969. Advertised as "an affectionate recollection of some singular parents," The Life in the Studio is as much about coming to terms with their memory and their loss. Hale blurred the boundaries of fiction and fact to discover for herself "the meaning of the past," but also "to awaken an echo in other lives; to arouse a consciousness where perhaps formerly there was none."
It is clear that Hale shared her parents' artistic philosophy as described in The Life in the Studio. The artist's role is to create a subtle marriage of objectivity and subjectivity, to use "the interplay of the painter's subjective view with the way the light actually falls upon the object" to "render" its essence and its meaning. In Mary Cassatt (1975), a biography of the American artist commissioned by Doubleday and Co. after the success of The Life in the Studio, Hale was clearly aiming for "the special marriage of subject and object." Written with an authority quite different from that conferred by scholarly credentials, Hale combined personal knowledge of Mary Cassatt's social and artistic milieu with the style developed in her "autobiographical fiction" to produce a biography that seems, in many ways, ahead of its time.
Hale next turned her attention to stories for children, publishing The Night of the Hurricane in 1978 and, in the mid 1980s, writing a collection of stories for young dyslexic readers. She died in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 24, 1988.
It is difficult to neatly characterize such a large and varied output. Hale is probably best known for her short stories whose impact can be stunning. "...[W]hat I look for in a short story," wrote Hale in The Realities of Fiction, "is the reverberation of significance beyond the matters immediately under observation. I want to be able to look up from the end of the story and then, slowly, as what I have read sifts down, to have the flower of relevance open for me."
Her protagonists are most often women, usually rather well-to-do. As they go about their daily lives, skillfully drawn through careful attention to the minutest of details, these women come to an epiphany. Their moments of illumination bring better understanding of the patterns of their lives, but Hale's epiphanies confer what Hale's friend and sometime editor William Maxwell called "a sad wisdom." They are, in the words of Anne Hobson Freeman, "penetrating portraits of women who may seem calm, and even satisfied, but beneath the surface are struggling to retain their self-esteem and individuality."
In interviews throughout her life, Hale expressed amazement that the writing she felt was most private and personal evoked the strongest response in others. "I seem to do better by the world when I am acting for what is most inwardly myself."
Hale was described as elegant, regal, distinguished, and formidable, but with a disarming frankness and deep understanding. What writer Mary Gray Hughes called "a sense of risk along with the beautiful manners." Her writing reflects this complexity. Often described as "poetic," with what one writer called a "delicate balance of understatement and passion," Hale's "subtle and unsparing" work "depicts the quiet horror of life with a directness that is positively unnerving." Whether writing fiction, autobiography, or biography, Hale strove not so much for the literal, factual truth as for the emotional truth that lies beneath the surface. In a 1958 interview, Hale described most of her work as psychological. "I'm never writing about what I appear to be writing about. Anything that is worth conveying cannot be said directly."
See also "Nancy Hale: A Bibliography," by Norah Lind (2008)