PORT ALLEGANY - Grace Sartwell Mason - is she Port Allegany's forgotten author?
According to Dr. Diane Wellins Moul, professor, lecturer and literary historian, the late writer of short stories, screen plays and novels should not be forgotten. And if Moul (rhymes with owl) has anything to say about it, Mason will not only be remembered, but also will be given more of the recognition she deserves.
A few decades after her death, most of Mason's novels are out of print, and it is hard indeed to find her magazine articles. Yet, she was a highly successful writer in her time.
Moul has appointed herself Mason's literary biographer. "You are looking at the only Grace Sartwell Mason scholar on the planet," she declares with a smile. Having read everything she can find by Mason, Moul seeks to find and read everything extant about her subject.
This month, that quest brought Moul to Port Allegany, Mason's birthplace and home for 20-odd growing-up years. Moul used The Inn on Maple Street as her base, and scoured the area for newspaper mentions, photographs and other documentary material relating to Grace Sartwell Mason.
There were trips to the cemetery in the center of town, where Mason in buried between two relatives and a few plots away from others.
Another side trip took Moul to the McKean County Museum in Smethport. She lunched at the Port Allegany Senior Center and told fellow diners about her project. Some had bits of information to offer, and suggestions of other sources.
Moul traces her near-obsession to when she found some of Mason's work in connection with a course she was taking. A textbook contained a story by Mason, and that was the item Moul used for a presentation. "Then I decided to do my term paper on her.
"I got completely engrossed," Moul recalls. "I started reading all her stories. I was blown away by her relevance."
Since then, Moul has written more about Mason, having provided an article on her for "Narratives of Community: Women's Short Story Sequences," edited by Roxanne Harde and published in 2006 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Other writings about Mason found Moul focusing on the Port Allegany native in her doctoral program, and supplying material for at least one other anthology.
Moul's doctoral dissertation is "A Certain Something: Reclaiming Grace Sartwell Mason," published by the University of Rhode Island.
The abstract of "A Certain Something" says, "Grace Sartwell Mason (1877-?), author of more than eighty short stories and at least eight novels and story collections, should be among American writers still studied and written about. The astonishing originality and thematic range of her work, and its grounding in the events and observations of her instructive and passionate life are indicative of the impoverishment that occurs when good writers are allowed to become unknown and unavailable to readers."
The abstract said she lived and worked during the creative renaissance leading up to and following World War I. Between 1906 and 1949, her stories appeared in all of the most widely-read magazines. Yet today, her stories survive only in the decaying periodical archives of a few large-city public libraries.
"Viewed from the distance of more than half a century, it becomes clear that her work must be retrieved - her stories are passionate, deeply human, evocative of time and place, and eminently readable."
Moul considers Mason's short stories to be better than the novels. As for the relevance to today, Moul points out that the themes are timeless: the give and take in marriage, the dynamics of relationships, personal development especially by women, women's roles in society.
Mason's stories appeared in Saturday Evening Post, Harpers, McCalls, Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, The Delineator, Every Week, Red Book, Cosmopolitan, and possibly other publications.
"What I need to find - and I've just got a huge step closer here in Port Allegany - is her will, and who her literary heirs were," Moul said. She would like to find, to see and obtain if possible, "journals, diaries, letters, photographs."
There is some urgency in such a search, Moul points out. "Every year that goes by, the chances of finding (such memorabilia and documents) diminish."
Mason's unpublished writings would be of great interest to Moul, and, she believes, to others as interest in Mason is revived - an end Moul is determined to see accomplished.
Mason was born in or near Port Allegany and was a resident of the community until she was about 23. She may have been away at school part of that time. Between her formative years in Port Allegany and being laid to rest here, Grace Sartwell had a 15-year marriage to James "Redfern" Mason, and a liaison and marriage to Ralph Holt Howes.
Moul says that from 1942 on, "the quality goes way down," in Mason's writing. From 1949 on she produced only one story, so far as Moul knows.
While in the Port Allegany area, Moul spoke with a good number of community residents, searched public records and news files and followed up on referrals. She looked into some family connections linked to the Sartwell and Otto lines.
Anyone with information or leads to offer is encouraged to contact Moul.