Pencil shavings: Memoirs

A book review by Louise Gleason, WWHP Steering Committee member

Olive Higgins, who was born and raised in Worcester, MA was a 1904 graduate of Smith College and after she married Louis Prouty in 1907, they moved to Brookline, MA in 1908. Olive married Lewis Prouty in 1907; they had four children, two of whom predeceased their mother. Her children included Olivia, Richard and Jane. Prouty wrote her last novel in 1951, the year of her husband's death. For the rest of her life she lived quietly in the house in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she had moved in 1913. In old age she found comfort in her friendships, her charitable work, and the Unitarian church, First Parish in Brookline, which the Proutys had joined in the early 1920s. From Wikipedia

I found this book at the WWHP library. The title intrigued me. Who was Olive Higgins Prouty and what could Pencil Shavings: Memoirs be about?

Olive Higgins Prouty, a Worcesterite, was a celebrated author of the twentieth century. She wrote in the “pulp fiction” genre. (Pulp fiction was the term given to creative writing of the early 1900s. It came from the low quality paper that was used in publishing these writings. The books had very artistic colorful covers and were inexpensive, usually costing 10 cents.) Two of Olive’s most famous novels are Now, Voyager (1941) and Stella Dallas (1922). Both became hit movies with remakes. Stella Dallas, although Olive never authorized its use as a radio program, became a very popular “soap opera.”

Pencil shavings: Memoirs is described as a “remarkable document which chronicles the struggle of one of the first women who ‘tried to do it all’ — combining a successful literary career and a ‘normal’ married woman active in her community. It is a memoir.” So as memoirs go, some part is fact (and Olive meticulously researched her facts) and some of it is the influence of time on memory.

The chapters of her childhood are rich with historical information of the lives of one of the leading families of Worcester, the Higgins. She writes about who they were, how they shaped Worcester and most importantly and interestingly how they interacted with each other. Life was not ordinary. Milton Prince Higgins, her father and a New Hampshire farmer’s son, had a close relationship with Ichabod Washburn, a Worcester industrialist and founder of WPI. Their quest to establish Worcester as a leading manufacturing and education center consumed their lives and greatly influenced the Higgins family. As a result, little attention was given to frivolity. By the age of sixteen, Olive had never had a birthday party nor had the family had a Christmas tree. However, there was true warmth and love of the Higgins children —Aldus, John, Katherine and Olive. Milton and Katherine (Olive’s mother) were deeply interested in their children’s well-being and achievements.

Olive attended Worcester schools and went on to Smith College. At Smith she chose not to take the “scholarly” courses –-math, history. Her love of literature and writing bloomed. She had a few friends and loved the solitude of “a room of her own.” A few years after graduation, she married Lewis Prouty. The Proutys were a prominent shoe manufacturing family from Spencer, Massachusetts. In fact, they were the leading manufacturer of shoes in the world.

Olive’s struggle develops after her marriage and after she became a mother. Her “New England conscience” as described by Dr. Austen Riggs pressured her “to do it all”, and if not, she would be a failure. This mind set coupled with the death of two of her children precipitated her depression which lasted two long years. Yet with the help of Dr. Riggs, she triumphed with a new respect of “self.”

This was a wonderful book not only because of its rich family and Worcester history but also for the life story of Olive Higgins Prouty.

Note: Now Voyager and Stella Dallas are excellent examples of Olive’s literary ability and style. The stories are set and written in another era. Both novels deal with the universal theme — the mother or mother figure and daughter relationship.

Published Date: 
February 14, 2012