Gene Stratton Porter's novel A Daughter of the Land was a bestseller in 1918, but its sales were low in comparison to Stratton-Porter's biggest books, not sustained over time, and it is not often discussed today by fans of her work or those in academia. It is unique from Stratton-Porter's other novels in several ways, and it may be this uniqueness that accounts for its lack of popularity. This is not to say that it is a brilliant book that went unrecognized; while it touches on issues that might be considered controversial or forward-thinking, it still utilizes many of Stratton-Porter's predictable devices and it still ends in the marriage of the female protagonist. When the book was published, however, several critics agreed that its characterization and ideas were interesting and even good, despite being flawed overall. The book was praised for being more realistic and less sweet than her most popular books (see reception history for more details). Today, readers see those same differences and some memorable elements, perhaps making the feeling of unrealized potential more obvious. But what may be most interesting to a modern reader are the social anxieties always at work in the novel, between urban and rural, ideologies that aren't realized satisfactorily, a need for Kate to be a strong woman who does the work of a man but becomes a superior housewife, and the odd relationship between Bates family members. Like many of the forgotten bestsellers of the early 20th century, this is a novel that needs to be culturally and historically contextualized to be sympathetic and of interest.
Stratton-Porter's fiction was lambasted as being overly sweet and unbelievable, stilted in its plot contrivances, and many critics wondered why it was so popular. In retrospect, it is obvious that her popular novels fit easily into contemporaneous anxiety about the corrupting influence of urban life, and the redemptive quality of the rural. Most contemporary critics understood this, writing that Stratton-Porter's sincere love of nature and her gift for describing it redeem her fiction and account for its popularity. One critic writes that because there is more sentimentality in the world than is generally admitted, "it is rather pleasant to return to nature vicariously through the pages of Mrs. Porter's stories, explore the woodlands and swamps" (Cooper). The most notable difference between A Daughter of the Land, then, and Stratton-Porter's other novels is that this is not a nature novel. Rather than focusing on characters who dwell in and contemplate nature, Stratton-Porter takes pains to distinguish the agricultural life from the natural one in portraying the lifestyle of the Bates family. It is not as romantic, and it does not elevate the rural above the urban nearly as effectively. It seems clear that, unlike some of her other novels, this book cannot inspire a subsequent nature study as A Girl of the Limberlost did for Moths of the Limberlost. When Stratton-Porter introduces the reader to Kate Bates, she does so by explaining that "she knew less of the woods than the average city girl" (4). And it is only because she takes a moment to rebel against her father's heavy workload that she has a chance to sit and contemplate nature at all; when she sits on a log to think, it is "a most unusual occurrence for her" (4). Although these moments in nature serve to clear Kate's head, they do not occur often, and there are none of the soaring descriptions of nature found in Stratton-Porter's other books.
Without depending on the strength of her nature descriptions, Stratton-Porter relies on plot and characterization to convey her ideology. Like many of Gene Stratton-Porter's characters, and like the author claimed to be herself, Kate Bates represents the ideal of the hard-working, self-made woman. The ideal of the self-made American is promoted many times. After years of unfortunate circumstances, Kate sits with her son, thinking about their sad level of poverty, and she asks, her head suddenly clearing, "Adam, how long are we going to stay in the beggar class? [?] I'm big and strong, you're almost a man, why don't we do something?" (237). Along with the idea that gumption is all a poor person really needs, the novel also promotes the idea that hardship makes you a better person, so much so that lack of hardship may make for a useless person. Kate spends most of the novel having a hard time, so that happiness is just out of her reach. After many years spent in fruitless toil, when Kate's father's death allows her to reunite with her mother and siblings after a long estrangement, her mother Mrs. Bates says that Kate must make the family decisions now, as she's the only one who can be fair (192). And after the extended Bates family has again had many difficult experiences, Mrs. Bates observes that "sometimes it seems to me that the more we get hurt in this world the decenter it makes us" (249). No one could miss the forcefulness of these ideas, and they are used liberally in contemporary advertising to connect to any hardship readers experienced through World War One. An August 17, 1918 ad in Publisher's Weekly explains that "in her battle for the things in life that were rightfully hers she learned, as America is now learning, that only through sacrifice and sorrow is character builded and happiness attained" (555).
In observing the self-made ideology throughout the novel, one cannot help but feel that it is never proved out in the events of the story. Throughout Kate's life people die and things explode (sometimes it seems these awful things only happen so that Kate can experience trials and travails) but Kate finally inherits family money and land not once, but twice, from both her father and mother. How can a person be self-made who receives so much help in finally attaining large goals? A contemporary critic asked just such a question about Stratton-Porter herself, following the publication of a lengthy promotional pamphlet on Stratton-Porter's life. In his book American Nights Entertainment, Grant Overton questions whether Stratton-Porter is actually self-made (as she claims to be), having received so much encouragement and help over the years. He concludes that she may make the claim to be self-made based on the strength of her personality. Such a drive has its drawbacks, he writes (271). Her ego kept her always busy, so that she "was a naturalist first and a novelist afterward, that she underwent the preoccupations of a wife and mother, that she toiled in swamps and wrote books, kept other people alive with her money as well as her courage and vitality," and the list goes on (273). Overton's tone is sarcastic, but he conveys the ambitious activity in which Stratton-Porter was always involved. Although the conclusion of most of her novels was the marriage of a self-made female character, Stratton-Porter became more involved in her career, not her family, as her life progressed towards its end. Perhaps her fiction and writing conveyed an ideal that she didn't want to live herself, no matter how much she professed to believe it.
The anxiety regarding what a woman's priorities should be is fleshed out ambiguously in A Daughter of the Land. It is this aspect of the novel which may no longer attract modern readers; it feels dated and unsympathetic. Stratton-Porter's biography shows that she is on the fence about women's issues. Richards writes that she was aware of women's rights, but not a suffragette. Although her own life did not embody this ideal, she believed that a woman's place was in the home. Only two of her novels show women exerting power in the men's world: A Daughter of the Land is one of them (Richards 120). Despite the presence of strong female characters like Kate, her sister-in-law Agatha, and Mrs. Bates, Stratton-Porter's ideas about what roles women should fulfill, and an odd sort of guilt over what her female characters do or don't accomplish are realized in her sister Nancy Ellen and her daughter Polly. Kate spends much of the novel fighting with her mother and father over the unfair treatment she receives because she is not a boy; this unfair treatment and her reaction against it are the main thrust of the story. To explain her initial rebellion (inspired by an overheard sermon that advises she "take the wings of morning") she confronts her brother and sister-in-law with what they already know is true: "things are blame unfair in our family, anyway! You have got to be born a boy to have any chance worthwhile." She goes on to explain "I have worked for years, knowing every cent I saved and earned above barely enough to cover me, would go to pay for Hiram's land and house and stock; but he wouldn't turn a hand to help me" (16). However, we do not get to know Hiram or the other brothers who benefit from Mr. Bates' prejudices nearly as well as the sisters.
Although the main problem with her parents traditional rules is that girls get nothing, because she is also the youngest, Kate gets especially little. She spends equal time lamenting her standing as youngest girl and lashing out at her next older sister Nancy Ellen. It is their opposing natures and often strained relationship that drives much of the novel. Nancy Ellen likes pretty clothes and things almost to a fault. When she gets her first pretty dress, she "so appreciated herself in pink that the extreme care she used with that dress saved it from half the trips of a dirt-brown one to the washboard [?] marvel of marvels, it did not shrink, it did not fade, also it wore like buckskin" (33). Like her beautifully maintained dress all things have come easily to Nancy Ellen. She is perceived to be lovely and smart, allowing her to become a teacher before Kate even though Kate is smarter. Her dreamy husband, handsome and a doctor, Robert, falls into her lap when she meets him in the blackberry patch (34). The lack of hard work may have allowed her to turn out all right if she had had a brood of children to keep up with following marriage, but Nancy Ellen is unable to have children. And Stratton-Porter does not spare us the results. As Nancy Ellen becomes more spoiled and Robert's eye wanders, Kate begs her to be on the look out for a child to adopt. Nancy Ellen finally agrees, but her new happiness when she finds a child distracts her, and as she's driving while looking at a photograph of the child, she drives her new car into the fresh sand of the river levee, to her death (314). She didn't work hard and become sensible soon enough. In the end, Kate marries her widower Robert and plans to move into her dead sister's house; Stratton-Porter gives the distinct impression that Robert should have married the hard-working sister in the first place.
Perhaps more unsettling is the fate that meets Kate's daughter Polly. Although Kate has always bristled at the way she was treated as a girl, she appears to do the same thing to Polly, favoring her son Adam. However, it is because her daughter looks like her hated mother-in-law (another strong female character) that Kate claims to like Adam better?he looks like a Bates. Though she loves Adam while showing little affection for Polly, she does have a plan for her life, expecting Polly to do what she thinks is right, rather than allowing Polly to make decisions. Although Kate wants different things for her daughter, she wants to dictate those things just as her parents did to her. And just as Kate was, Polly is expected to do much of the housework and prepare dinner. When for the "first time" dinner is late because Polly took a few moments to fails to spend time with Henry, the farmboy she falls in love with, Kate is especially cruel. She "sweeps her with a glance" and says "Just as I think you're going to make something of yourself [by becoming a teacher] and be of some use, you begin mooning" (264). During the confrontation she won't even look at her daughter, and misses understanding how little Polly wants to go off to school. The lack of communication results in Polly's elopement and abandonment of the Bates household. She is terribly unhappy and grows sick in her new marriage, and oddly, Stratton-Porter describes how well the house runs without Polly's contribution: "they were growing in physical force, they were efficient, the attended their affairs strictly. Their work was always done on time, their place in order, their deposits at the bank frequent" (292). Polly soon dies in childbirth, after reuniting with her mother, and the new baby, also called Polly, is able to be raised up by Kate just like a Bates. Before this can be successful, Kate spends a lot of time getting the baby healthy, for as she explains to Adam "the baby is full of poison which can be eliminated only slowly" (299). The implication is that the baby would have died in the hands of a lesser family; this happy resolution is only possible through the first Polly's death.
Stratton-Porter wrote generally of her work that its purpose was to uplift her popular audience, that she cared little for what critics considered art but believed that "the greatest service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to force him to lay it down with a higher ideal of life than when he took it up" (quoted in Meehan 304). Critics have stated that enduring books like A Girl of the Limberlost, besides their appeal through nature, "ring with the universal song of hope" (Long 187), which keeps readers coming back for more. But it seems that what critics praised as terse, realistic and even dark in A Daughter of the Land was less appealing to Stratton-Porter's fans: Kate's difficult life with an alcoholic husband, her young daughter's death, Mrs. Bates' rebellion against her dead husband and her lifetime of regrets may have been too much for reader's wanting escapist fiction. Today, though these elements are of interest, the pleasure of their complexity is decreased through what contemporary readers may have seen as ordinary but the modern reader interprets as dark and confusing: Kate's prejudices, Nancy Ellen's failure as a wife and death, and Kate's inexplicable choice of an alcoholic husband over another wealthy suitor (the rejected industrialist). These and other elements show social anxieties also revealed in similar bestsellers, but they do not make for light reading.
Cooper, Frederic Taber. "The Popularity of Gene Stratton Porter." The Bookman; a Review of Books and Life August 1915. ProQuest American Periodicals Series Online.
Long, Judith Reick. Gene Stratton-Porter: Novelist and Naturalist. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society 1990.
Meehan, Jeannette Porter. The Lady of the Limberlost: the Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928.
Overton, Grant. "Naturalist vs. Novelist: Gene Stratton-Porter." American Nights Entertainment. New York: Appleton, Doran, Doubleday, and Scribner, 1923.
Richards, Bertrand F. Gene Stratton Porter. Ed. Kenneth E. Eble. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Stratton-Porter, Gene. A Daughter of the Land. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.