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George Cram Cook


Nearly every examination of the life of George Cram Cook sooner or later labels him “enigmatic.”  One of the most complete studies of his life and work to date has been Susan C. Kemper’s dissertation “The Novels, Plays, and Poetry of George Cram Cook, Founder of the Provincetown Players” (1982) and her introduction is titled “George Cram Cook: Enigmatic Man of Vision.”  Such labels can sometimes lead to sweeping generalizations that trivialize and pigeonhole the subject; calling someone “enigmatic” may result from simply the inability to properly identify their subject.  Cook, while often difficult to pin down, had many patterns and traits that give a least a partial picture of this man of much energy, known most for his ability to inspire others, and yet who, ironically, seemed to remain unfulfilled himself.
Cook was a man constantly “in between,” multifaceted and intelligent, large and conflicted, looking at life through a spiritual and philosophical lens yet simultaneously trying to live in the reality of his humanity; these factors led to a complexity that seems to have been constant and at times turbulent.  All accounts view him as a man whose power of inspiration in dialogue and conversation far outweighed his abilities as a writer or in any other profession.  Kemper writes “the written words that he left . . . are pale beside the vivid quality of his conversation, or the charismatic nature of his personality.”(1)  His outsized personal presence seemed to cause response and often polarity amongst those with whom he came in contact throughout his life.  As the title of Hutchins Hapgood’s biography indicates, A Victorian in Modern World, Cook and his original group of friends in Provincetown (Vorse, O’Brien, Glaspell, Boyce, the Steeles: the “regulars”) were middle-aged when the era of the “new” and “free” began and, though they clearly participated fully in the “bohemian” experience, they were more conservative than those younger in the movement.  This made them seem “in-between,” embracing the ideas of the new while living lives more steeped in Victorian mores than even they might have been willing to admit.

As one reads biographical information about Cook’s first forty-two years, one is struck by the sense of his constant uneasiness and search for the vehicle through which his beliefs could be expressed and by which he could make his mark.  You see him make stops along the way and then move on to the next thing because they either don’t fulfill or become difficult: first as a University instructor of English (he never taught Greek as some accounts have reported(2)), then as a writer, quitting teaching to concentrate solely on that.  After his first marriage fails, he becomes a farmer, taking over his family’s farm, then, while escaping his second marriage and waiting for a divorce, he works as a journalist and critic writing for the Chicago Literary Review, and later continuing as their columnist in New York City until 1916. 

Born in Davenport, Iowa in 1873, Cook came from a prominent, wealthy family.  His father, a corporate lawyer known for his integrity, encouraged Cook’s education.  He was sent to Griswold College, a military prep school, and educated in the classics.  He began studying violin at the age of twelve, was well-traveled, and was raised going to church.  He became a student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1889.  Kemper, echoing Glaspell’s assessment, cites a “mystical” experience in the university library at the age of sixteen as “the most important single event” in Cook’s life, likening it to a similar experience that Tennyson had as a young man.(3)  While he was reading Plotinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism, Cook had a vision of what infinite space in a starry universe looked like and then, “like a flash,” had contact with “the conscious soul in the widespread world around him,” seeing God and himself as separate but one in this universe and reciprocally “felt himself beloved."(4)   Notes written by Cook when he was older and quoted by Glaspell look back on this time:

Remember planning to live as hermit half of each year.  Had wonderful pantheistic spiritual illuminations.  Thought of becoming a University president merely because that position would give influence to religious teaching whereby I expected to transform the souls of men.(5) 

The need to inspire seemed to be at the core of Cook, whether spawned by his own need for inspiration by outside sources or because his well was so full with ideals that it spilled over hoping to consume others in its flow. 

Cook’s early writings, particularly in his reviews and then his columns for the Friday Literary Review, consistently underscored the place arts should have in a working society, and his focus on theatre seems to strengthen in 1914 and 1915.  Glaspell writes that when they went to Broadway plays, they found them to be “patterned,” that “seldom did they open out to—where it surprised or thrilled your spirit to follow.  They didn’t ask much of you…” and that “your mind came out where it went in, only tireder.”  Cook felt that an audience had “imagination” and that Broadway plays made life “dull.”  He attended a production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes and writes of crying from the second balcony with a deep sadness.  He tries to explain this sadness in a letter to Glaspell (who was in Davenport for the holidays) as:

. . . something which was in Greek life and is not in ours—something we are terribly in need of.  One thing we’re in need of is the freedom to deal with life in literature as frankly as Aristophanes.  We need a public like his, which itself has the habit of thinking and talking frankly of life.  We need the sympathy of such a public, the fundamental oneness with the public, which Aristophanes had.  We are hurt by the feeling of a great mass of people hostile to the work we want to do.  We can write about taboos.  If we do it just right, it will go . . . I’ve been thinking how a people reflects itself in literature, regardless of what such-and-such writers want to write.  It’s interesting.(6)

[under construction...to be continued]

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Kemper 16.

(2) Kemper did extensive research to find the courses that Cook taught at the two universities he worked at and there is no evidence that he taught Greek at either, instead teaching English at both.  Many probably assumed he taught Greek because of his constant affinity and discussion of all things Greek.  See Kemper 12.

(3) Kemper 26.

(4) Glaspell, Road 35-36.

(5) Glaspell, Road 37.

(6) Glaspell, Road 249-250.