Zona Gale Papers, 1838-1970


Novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Zona Gale successfully used her background and experiences in small town Wisconsin to gain national acclaim. Gale was one of few fiction writers of her time to write contemporary stories emphasizing local color, customs, and the depiction of ordinary people. No matter if she called it Friendship Village, Prospect, or something else, Portage, Wisconsin, her hometown, was the setting and inspiration for nearly all of her work.

Zona Gale was born in Portage, Wisconsin, on August 26, 1874, and, with the exception of a brief time in Minnesota, lived there until she entered the University of Wisconsin. After receiving her A.B. degree in 1895, she worked as a Milwaukee newspaper reporter for the Evening Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Journal, while receiving her master's degree in literature from the University in 1899.

In 1901, she moved to New York. There she also did newspaper work, and in 1906 published her first novel, Romance Island. A visit to Portage in 1903 proved a turning point in her literary life, as seeing the sights and sounds of town life led her to comment that her “old world was full of new possibilities.”

In 1911, after receiving the two thousand dollar first prize in a short story contest conducted by the Delineator, she returned to Portage. There she spent the rest of her life except for annual trips to New York and, after her marriage to William Llewelyn Breese in 1928, a trip to Hawaii and Japan.

Gale first won attention for her short stories set in the fictional town of Friendship Village. Published in 1908, Friendship Village proved very popular and she went on to write a series of story collections set in the town. Gale is perhaps best known for her novel Miss Lulu Bett, which was published to wide acclaim in 1920. Her adaptation of the novel was equally successful and brought Gale in 1921 the first Pulitzer Prize for best drama to be won by a woman.

After the realism of Miss Lulu Bett, Gale's novels became more spiritual, creating a world where social ills could be solved through a kind of transcendentalist enlightenment.

Although she is best known as a novelist and dramatist, her interests outside the field of literature were many and varied. She wrote in behalf of such causes as woman's suffrage, pacifism end world peace, prohibition, civil liberties, racial equality, old-age security, and vegetarianism. She spoke out against literary censorship, capital punishment, and the trapping of animals. She was an active member of the National Woman's Party and she lobbied extensively for the 1921 Wisconsin Equal Rights Law. Gale's activism on behalf of women was her way to solve politically a problem she returned to repeatedly in her novels: women's frustration at their lack of opportunities.

Although at first indifferent to the reforms espoused by Robert M. La Follette, she soon became a staunch supporter of the La Follettes and at various times materially aided the Progressive Party, notably in 1924 when the senior La Follette was a candidate for the Presidency. This loyalty to the La Follettes survived even the dismissal from the presidency of the University of Wisconsin of Glenn Frank, whom she had been largely instrumental in bringing to the University. She served as a member of the University's Board of Regents from 1923 to 1929 and later of its Board of Visitors.

Showing from an early age a decidedly mystical strain, after the death of her mother in 1923 Gale became more end more interested in mystical end psychic phenomena and for a time gave her approval, if not her active support, to a group which established on a farm near Portage a community modeled after Gurdjieff's “Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man” at Fontainbleu.

Gale continued writing and publishing until her death in December of 1938.