Friday, August 14, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson: Final Thoughts

(News-Herald, August 13) I don’t often spend three weeks on one subject, but this month is the 101 anniversary of the birth of Hildegarde Dolson, hometown girl who made good, and I think she deserves the attention.
There are plenty of things to learn from her story, including the most obvious. Here’s a young woman who left the region, went to New York City with nothing but her wits and talent, arrived at the worst possible time, and managed to create a lifelong career as a successful writer.
It’s worth noting that her small town origins weren’t an obstacle to her success, but integral to it. Her small town girl in the big city voice was part of what created her success.
She appears as a character is most of her work, remarkably consistent in her self-view. A small, mousy woman, not physically exceptional (though she credited the character with nice legs), not always at ease, sometimes self-centered and frequently naïve.
Beyond the autobiographical character, certain other characters reappear. There’s the male artist, gifted and selfish, talented and undependable as a friend. And there’s the flashy woman—outgoing, elegant, drawing men like moths to a flame, but callously using and discarding them.
Flashy Woman is the closest thing to a Dolson villain, often stealing the man from the Hildegarde character. FW wants attention and victory in the field of amorous battle, suckering men who lack the insight to see the more sincere and heartfelt affection offered by the Hildegarde character.
But I oversimplify, and Dolson doesn’t. While Dolson can draw characters with brutal honesty and scathing detail, she also understands what drives them and what admirable qualities they possess. There are no truly evil people in Dolson’s world, not even in her murder mysteries; even when a character is not very nice, Dolson understands why friends and family still love that character.
I admire Dolson as a writer, combining the clear sharp prose of a journalist with the keen conception of a fiction writer and, as a bonus, an apparent fearlessness about mining her own life for material. But I admire Dolson the woman for her clear-eyed positive view of the world and the people in it. She did not ignore the flaws, and even saw pettiness and self-centeredness in herself. But somehow the flaws were not as important as other things.
Her resistance to marriage lasted most of her adult life (she once wrote an article entitled “Why I’d Make an Awful Wife”). It wasn’t that she didn’t like men; it’s clear that she did. But she was busy. She had work to do. She didn’t exactly reject the role of a wife—she had some clear ideas of what a wife was supposed to do and she knew she lacked time and, perhaps, aptitude for the role. She didn’t want to renegotiate the role; she just didn’t want to quit her job as a writer to take a job as a wife.
When she did finally marry, she was fifty-seven years old. She married author Richard Lockridge, a widower who was well-established mystery writer.
Lockridge wrote a must-read for Dolson fans. In One Lady, Two Cats he tells the story of convincing Dolson to marry him. Neither Lockridge nor Dolson offer in their writings a clear picture of how they fell in love, though it’s clear that it was somewhat unexpected and the onset was quick—two people who had known each other but suddenly found themselves in love. When they had to attend to separate business in separate places, she told him that had never known it was humanly possible to miss somebody so much.
In Lockridge’s book their wedding is a small formality in the midst of the story of an independent minded woman very much in love learning how to adjust to a man and his cats. Yes, he’s a man in love, but it’s hard not to feel what he feels, to be struck by how smart and understanding she is, how kind without being mush-headed she is.
Dolson died in January of 1981; she was only 72. It’s on my “if only” list—if only I’d discovered her back then, I would have written to her, asked to meet her. A reminder in the present to be alert for things today that could become “if only’s” tomorrow. Dolson seems to have avoided “if only” in her full and successful, if unconventional, life. She remains on the page, another fine Venangoland success story.


Dittman said...

A very enjoyable series.

jgroves7 said...

Not only enjoyable, but reminding me of the wealth of talents in the people from our regiona... talents that are better and different from today's acceptable "standards" that are so boring and common place.

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