Lawrence ca1936

Adult Novels

Despite her success with juvenile series, Lawrence was primarily interested in writing adult fiction, later telling an interviewer, "Once one starts to write children's books, one is expected to continue writing children's books to the end of the chapter. I don't wish to write children's books all my life....I realize that my children's books have been kind to me but I want to gamble a bit." Although friends advised against changing fields, Lawrence nonetheless began work on an adult novel, spending seven months on the manuscript. She submitted it to Aventine Press under the pseudonym Lynette Elaine West, since she felt her own name was already associated with juvenile fiction. Only after it was accepted did she reveal her true identity.[1a]

The novel, Head of the Family, was published in 1932 and met with limited success, at best. Her next novel, however, brought Lawrence's name to prominence. Years Are So Long (1934) not only received favorable reviews and attained best-seller status, but was also named a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and later made into a highly-acclaimed movie, "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937), chosen one of the year's ten best by the New York Times .

If I Have Lawrence's third novel, If I Have Four Apples (1935), was also a BOMC selection, making her only the fifth author that had been so honored (the other four included Pearl Buck, John Galsworthy, and Thornton Wilder) [1] and the first American author to have two successive works chosen as BOMC selections. [2] Like Years (which had dealt with elderly parents no longer able to support themselves and adult children reluctant or unable to help them satisfactorily), Apples addressed another contemporary problem connected with family life, that of individuals living beyond their means, determined to pretend their limited income will somehow stretch to cover whatever purchases they deem important. (Or, as one character puts it, "Can you teach that two and two make four to people who are firmly resolved to believe it makes eight?")

By 1937, Lawrence had built a solid audience and reputation for her fiction. American Mercury highlighted her fourth adult work, Sound of Running Feet (1937), in its December 1936 "Book Preview," a feature devoted to "an advance excerpt from an important forthcoming book," and The Saturday Review of Literature published a favorable review. In 1938, her fifth novel, Bow Down to Wood and Stone, was praised by Sinclair Lewis, who devoted a column in Newsweek to Lawrence's work,calling her "an exceedingly important and interesting young novelist." [3] Lewis wrote:

"This world of [Lawrence's] is America, superlatively; industrial, urban, yet not sterile from having forgotten its rustic origins. And of this life, these touching, gently tragic people, Miss Lawrence has written four first-rate novels...
"As important as her striking into human motives in middle-class America is Miss Lawrence's truly unusual power of seeing and remembering the details of dailiy living, each petty, yet all of them together making up the picture of an immortal human being..."

Lawrence continued to explore various social dilemmas in her novels. A Good Home with Nice People (1939) "took up the servant problem, looking at it from two opposite points of view," while But You Are Young (1940) "concerned . . . the right of [a] young heroine to marry and lead her own life, however much family duty gets in the way." [5] In the 1940s and thereafter, however, her books seem to have garnered less attention and, at times, less favorable reviews, although she still usually managed to turn out one book per year.

Web of Time In 1949, The English Journal ran an essay about her works, "Josephine Lawrence: The Voice of the People," by Kelsey Guilfoil (associate editor of the Chicago Tribune's Sunday book supplement). Guilfoil described Lawrence as "the chronicler of the commonplace, the recorder of the ordinary, and the mirror of the common people. . . . her novels are filled with details of daily living, the little (yet not so little to them) problems of little people and the complications and complexities of living together," then surveyed the body of her work through My Heart Shall Not Fear (1949), concluding that "Few novelists have ranged so far in showing us that the masses of humanity are endowed with an immense courage and that ... heroism of a quiet and unspectacular nature is the norm of human existence."

Personal life
Despite her success, Lawrence remained an intensely private person, keeping to a strict work schedule and a quiet life. In response to a questionnaire from the publicity department of one of her publishers, she offered the following biographical information in 1939:

"Have no immediate family now. Live alone in a small apartment, so that I can write nights. People assume automatically that working all day and writing three hours every night must exhaust me -- but I view with awe and alarm [those] who work all day, dance or play bridge or night-club ... for half the night and then climb mountains, ride and play tennis Sundays! I do none of these things. Only rule for exercise is never, never to ride when I can walk.
"Recreation is the theatre . . . Usually try to keep my mind from going to seed with at least one lecture course a year. New School is easy to reach from Newark and always stimulating --the audiences have such remarkably keen minds and such remarkably bad manners.
"Mad about cats and dogs, with the accent on cats. Would like to live in New York, or on a very small farm, but stick to Newark because I can walk to work.
"Reactionary to the extent that I feel employers, as well as employees, have definite rights-- believe in the value of individual independence, integrity and intelligence--have concluded that dishonest thinking is the root of all evil."

Double Wedding Marriage
Ironically, only a year after writing this account, Lawrence did change the patterns of her life, at least somewhat. On October 19, 1940, she married Artur Platz, a soloist in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; the two had become acquainted after Platz had read one of her books and contrived to meet her. After her marriage, Lawrence moved to an apartment in Manhattan with her husband. Even then, however, she maintained a strict writing schedule, three hours per weekday night, and continued her daily commute to the Newark Sunday Call.

In 1942, in
"Lend Them Your Ears," an article for The Writer, Lawrence discussed her writing philosophy and provided an occasional revealing glimpse of her personality as well. The article began "Writers, I think, by instinct like solitude," then went on to encourage prospective writers to listen to the people around them, explaining that such conversation provided ample material for fiction. Lawrence also, uncharacteristically, described her writing methods to an interviewer with the Newark Sunday Call a few years later; the resulting article contained this brief synopsis of her approach to a novel: "A preliminary 5,000-word draft in which she puts down all the story, is broken up into chapters and the highlights selected before she begins on the next draft, and it requires still one more before her literary agent sees it." She apparently preferred not to discuss books while she was writing them; the interviewer remarked that "even her husband didn't read her latest novel until it was in print." [6] Lawrence, ca1970

When the Call folded in 1946, Lawrence moved to the Newark Sunday News, where she became book editor and, in later years, also contributed a weekly column, "Bookmarks." Artur Platz died in March, 1963, [7] but Lawrence remained in New York and continued working at the Newark Sunday News until her retirement circa 1970. Her novel for 1971, Remember When We Had a Doorman, about life in an "old luxury highrise in Greenwich Village," had several autobiographical touches: like Lawrence, the protagonist lived in a Greenwich Village apartment, and the poodle on the cover was actually her own pet, March 1 (so named because he arrived on that date). [8] Doorman (dog)

Lawrence died in New York City on February 22, 1978. Services were held at the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village. Her papers (all pertaining to her adult fiction) are at Boston University; correspondence relating to her Stratemeyer Syndicate juvenile fiction is in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records at New York Public Library.

[1a]"Household Editor of Sunday Call Writes First Novel in Spare Time," Newark Sunday Call, 27 March 1932

[1] This was not the only time Lawrence was linked with prominent literary figures. In 1937, The Saturday Review of Literature published an article, "English Ebb, American Flow," comparing British and American literature, and illustrated it with photos of six authors, among them Josephine Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, and John Steinbeck (April 3, 1937).

[2] "Josephine Lawrence," Wilson Library Bulletin, March 1936.

[3] Sinclair Lewis, "Vie de Newark," Newsweek, 7 March 1938.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Family Goat." [Review of But You Are Young.] Saturday Review of Literature, 6 January 1940.

[6]"Books and the Arts," Newark Sunday Call, 8 September 1946.

[7] The SSDI and a draft of an obituary for Lawrence from the Newark News both give the date as 1963; the New York Times obituary for Lawrence incorrectly shows Platz's death date as 1965.

[8]"Life Among the Cliff Dwellers." [Review of Remember When We Had a Doorman.] Newark News, 28 March 1971.

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Copyright 1999 - Deidre Johnson