Olive Higgins Prouty

Olive Higgins Prouty


Born: January 10, 1882
Died: March 24, 1974

Biography

Though Olive Higgins Prouty is primarily remembered as a romance novelist, she was also a poet, writing her poetry whenever and wherever she could. Her poems were never published during her lifetime, as they were much more intimate writings than the novels she wrote professionally. Perhaps because she could put more of herself into her poetry than in her novels, Prouty’s poems are powerful and emotional, revealing ideas radical for the time in which they were written. Her children, Richard Prouty and Jane Chapin, published her poems in a very limited release in 1997.

Prouty was born in Worcester in 1882 to Katherine Chapin and Milton Prince Higgins, who would raise one of Worcester’s most prominent, and one of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s most important, families. The Higgins family residence was at the corner of West Street and Salisbury Street, where WPI’s Goddard Hall now stands. Prouty spent most of her childhood deeply connected to WPI as her father was superintendent of the Washburn shops and supervised its very construction. Milton and Katherine Higgins had four children in total, all of whom would go on to make generous contributions to WPI, including Higgins Laboratories, Higgins House, Sanford Riley Hall, a scholarship, and a library fund. Milton Higgins was not only prominent in the development of WPI, but he was also an entrepreneur, buying the Norton Emery Wheel Co. with George Alden in 1885 and serving as its president until his death in 1912.

Prouty’s mother was also an active member of the growing Worcester community. Katherine was the superintendent of the Sunday school at the First Congregational Church and insisted upon Olive joining the church at age thirteen. Katherine was also the founder of the Parent Teachers Association, having spoken in many states for the PTA throughout her lifetime.

Prouty was close to her parents despite their busy professional lives, and speaks of her time in Worcester and at WPI with great fondness. Though she had an early interest in rhyme, Prouty did not have much early success at school, and the anxiety that resulted was a precursor to nervous troubles that would come later in her life.

Nevertheless, Olive Higgins graduated from Smith College in 1904 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature and returned to Worcester determined to start a writing career. Prouty feared that her marriage to Lewis Prouty would hinder her attempts to write professionally, but Lewis turned out to be supportive and introduced Olive to the editor who would publish her first stories. The Proutys moved to Brookline, Massachusetts soon after their marriage in June, 1907.

Prouty’s first novel Bobbie, General Manager was published in 1913. She tried to keep up with her writing, but by 1920 Prouty was feeling more and more torn between her writing and her duties to her family. As the Proutys were quite prosperous, Olive had trouble balancing the social obligations that came with prosperity with her family obligations and still having time to write. When her third daughter Anne died in 1919, she decided to devote herself to the care of her children.

Prouty’s youngest daughter Olivia was very dear to her, possibly more so than her other two surviving children. In both her published and unpublished works, she rarely mentioned Richard or Jane, but she wrote quite a bit about Olivia. Olivia’s death in 1923 of encephalitis devastated Prouty, and the nervous breakdown that resulted led her to spend some time at the Riggs Foundation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Austen Fox Riggs, encouraged her to treat her writing professionally, and Prouty was immeasurably grateful for the new freedom that afforded her.

Stella Dallas, one of Prouty’s most famous works, was published around this time. It was eventually made into a play in 1924, then a radio serial, and then its first movie incarnation in 1925. In 1937 it was remade with Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Midler starred in its most recent version, Stella, in 1990. Another of her novels, Now, Voyager, would be made into a feature film starring Bette Davis.

Throughout much of the 1930s and 1940s Prouty flourished as a writer, publishing prolifically and enjoying the success of her novels. She also took up philanthropy, donating much of the proceeds from her work as well as her time to charitable causes such as the Children’s Hospital in Boston. She also endowed a scholarship at Smith College, becoming friends with its recipient, poet Sylvia Plath. Their friendship was long and complex, and Prouty also paid the medical expenses for Plath’s attempted suicide in 1953. Plath and Prouty corresponded frequently, and Prouty was the basis for one of the characters in Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Throughout this period Prouty continued writing her poems, but because they were intimate and powerful, involving her personal thoughts about her family and her husband, she never published them. Many of her poems were about loving relationships but hinted at the desire for more freedom. She also wrote much about nature, and her own feelings about her life and her perceptions as she aged and grew. Her poems were short, not relying on flowery descriptions but on statements that left a huge impact on the reader, despite that she probably never intended the poems to actually have an audience.

Lewis Prouty died in November 1951, just after Prouty’s last novel, Fabia, was published. Though Prouty continued to write poetry, she wrote much less in other areas; her personal correspondence declined drastically after Lewis’ death.

Olive Higgins Prouty died in Brookline on March 24, 1974. At her bequest and helped by generous donations from her son Richard, the Olive Higgins Prouty Library Fund supports WPI’s collection in the humanities.

Richard and Jane knew of and possibly even shared their mother’s love of literature. They released Prouty’s poems for publication in 1997, and the Friends of the Goddard Library published her collection, Between the Barnacles and Bayberries: and Other Poems, at Clark University.

Though Prouty was never known for her poetry in her lifetime, she nevertheless remains as one of Worcester’s most noted authors, and an important piece of WPI and Worcester history.

Works

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Quotes

Most of her novels were written in an upstairs library at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts, at a drop-leaf table equipped with 8-by-10-inch manila copybooks and a mug of soft pencils. Her poetry, however, was written at different places -- on fishing trips and when she was travling alone or with Fater -- at odd moments and on various pieces of paper. My mother loved nature and people. Wherever she went she brought the tools of her trade and would find a place to sit and write
— Richard Prouty from the foreword of Between the Barnacles and Bayberries