Friday, July 31, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson

(News-Herald, July 30) Hildegarde Dolson would have been 101 this August; I’m ashamed to have missed her centenary. I’ll be correcting that oversight.
Dolson, born and raised in Franklin, graduated from FHS in 1926, then attended Allegheny College. She never finished there; instead, she embarked for New York City. She wrote that she arrived on October 24, 1929 (Black Thursday). Whether this is precisely true or not, her timing was certainly imperfect.
She worked as a copywriter for several big stores, lived in Greenwich village, and began scoring freelance writing sales to bigtime magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and the New Yorker. Then, fewer than fifteen years after her big move, Dolson published We Shook the Family Tree. The book chronicles her youth in Franklin, and it became her most enduring hit; picked up by Scholastic Book Publishers, it stayed in print for over three decades, and generations of school children grabbed it as a TAB paperback.
I set out to meet her, figuratively, and decided I’d try to do it through her writing.
This seems appropriate because Dolson was such a personal writer. She was primarily a humorist, a story-teller who worked from her own life. She sometimes found herself in odd situations (e.g. hanging around the dressing room of a 17-year-old stripper), but events as simple as a trip to the store, a visit from a political canvasser, or reading a book could trigger a few hundred words of Dolson’s wry, observational wit. Her stories about interviewing Emily Post and Doctor Spock are more fun than the interviews themselves.
Dolson never left Franklin far behind. In addition to Family Tree other pieces covered topics as diverse closing up the family home after her parents’ death and finding herself rendered in egg (next to an eggy John Wilkes Booth) in a store window. She always and often referred to her home town by name. Never “a little burg I come from” but “my home town, Franklin, Pennsylvania.”
Her writing suggests that she was pleased to be from Franklin, but happy to live in the Big City. In her early comic novel The Runaway Husband, the main character runs away from his home in Bracklin, PA (a town near Oilburg and Titusdale) and ends up in Greenwich Village working for a major department store. “Bracklin” is portrayed kindly, but at the end of the novel, the husband has no epiphany that he needs to get away from the big city and return to his roots. Her later novels are set in a wealthy but small Connecticut much like the one where she settled with her husband, writer Richard Lockridge. In all of these settings, Dolson seems to find charm and humor.
Dolson stayed single for much of her adult life, a self-described spinster, yet a steady stream of men move through her writing. Her voice is an odd hybrid, a sort of discretely frank Presbyterian Bohemian. While there is never a hint of lewdness in Dolson’s writing, her characters are well aware of sex and occasionally have some, and not necessarily with the benefit of marriage. The heroine of Open the Door is a middle-aged book editor who has just ended a bad affair and is falling for a writer.
Dolson’s own singlehood was deliberate. She chose writing as a profession early in life and felt that the solitary, focused life of a writer left no room for looking after a husband. She reports her four-year-old nephew’s analysis: “I know why you don’t want to get married…It’s because a husband would talk to you and interrupt you when you wanted to think.”
Children appear in Dolson’s novels as agents of change. She manages to write about them as all her characters, without patronizing or idealizing them. I suspect that Dolson made an excellent aunt.
Her high school yearbook photo shows a young woman who’s not physically imposing (she described her hair color as “drab” and never gave a weight greater than 95 pounds). Her hair is cut in a stylishly wild bob, and she looks through her bangs with an unaggressive intelligence (reminiscent, somehow, of Breakfast Club Ally Sheedy). Her grown-up book photos show that same intent gaze with a hint of smile.
Dolson had the essential writer’s gift—a distinct and pronounced voice. She was the quintessential big city woman with small town girl roots. She was sophisticated and witty without becoming cynical or dismissive; she was able to see the ridiculousness of people and places without losing her love for them. Next week: Dolson reading recommendations.

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