Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Capstone Lite: The Paper that Allowed Me to Graduate, Abridged

In a perfect world, this post would have gone up sometime shortly after the last day of my Capstone class... sometime around the 9th. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect - my bookshelves never have enough room and Trader Joe's meringue cookies don't automatically reappear in my pantry when I empty the box - and most of the time since I've officially graduate on the 11th has been spent attempting to reclaim some semblance of the sanity I completely lost during Spring Quarter!

However, I worked way too hard on my 15-page graduation-earning research paper and got way too good of a score not to brag about it here, especially because the topic I was taking on grew to be way too dear to my heart. No one in my entire class had ever heard of Thyra Samter Winslow - including my professor! - before I started my literary explorations, and yet I fell head-over-heels for her through weeks of research, and I already know that its only the beginning of a continuing obsession.

Of course, I'm never one to be selfish, so I'm sharing all this beautiful and interesting information with you!

tracking T.S.W. 

So, who, exactly, is Thyra Samter Winslow? She was a prolific magazine author, who wrote for numerous New York magazines between the years of 1915 to 1955, with more than 200 titles under her name. She wrote screenplays during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and television scripts at the time when the medium was only first starting to be developed, and on top of all that, managed to publish several books, as well.

However, not a lot of that information is available online, unless you know how to look for it: Thyra Samter Winslow, despite the amounts of work she wrote for a diverse range of mediums, does not have a Wikipedia page. What she does have, are a spot in the Jewish Women's Archive, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, and, thankfully, a firm foothold in the online Modernist Journals Project.

modernist matron of the magazines

The Modernist Journals Project is a joint project of Brown University and the University of Tulsa, and was the main focus of my research in the past year. What you'll find on the website are thousands of magazines printed during the modernist era, scanned and uploaded for your reading pleasure, and boy, was I pleased with it. By far, my favorite magazine was The Smart Set - a satirical skewering of the social sets of New York, written by some of the time period's best, and published monthly - and it was by exploring that work specifically that I stumbled upon T.S.W. completely by accident. 

It was really only a matter of time before I found her, as she published a total of 59 articles in the nine years of that magazine that are chronicled in the database. As it turns out, the objectives of the magazine and her own writing style enmeshed almost completely, and she was easily able to fill the bill of humorous poems, vignettes, short stories, and novellas humorously centering around the lives of society's boldest and brightest. 

However, what I appreciated most about her writing, was how she always made sure to center her stories around the characters she wrote best: young women working in the big city, as showgirls, secretaries, stenographers, and socialites. Her perspectives on the status of the modernist New Woman - independent, sexually active, and ambitious for a better life - are among the best I've ever read, and it was her marriage of rib-tickling satire with bigger social ideas that made her such a benefit to the magazine. 

T.S.W. recommended reading

It would be horrendous of me to talk so glowingly of an author's work, without providing you with the opportunity to explore some of it for yourself, as well, so here are a couple of my favorites:  

"The Best," a novella - Sylvia flees the claustrophobia of a small town for the showgirl lifestyle in New York, only to get married to a rich man and move back to a life in the suburbs. Feeling cramped again in her new environment, she is forced to consider where she really had "the best" years of her life: free and in New York, or secure in a small town? 

  • Why you should read it: the basis for the entire line of inquiry in my Capstone, this story highlights several of T.S.W.'s favorite themes, including the disparities between small town and big city life, the status of the working girl, and factors in her trademark ambiguous ending, where the reader is prompted to consider the moral dilemma at hand without a truly happy outcome.

"Little Emma," a short story - Emma escapes small town life for Chicago, and is desperate to remain in the city for as long as possible. Attempting to use her backstory to find a job - and a rich boss to seduce - she quickly realizes that she is too modern to play the part well, prompting an epic make-under, and a secured position as a secretary. However, her ploys work too well, and force the moral question of continuing the fabrication she's succeeding with, or going back to the modern persona she'd strived so long for? 

  • Why you should read it: providing yet more examples of the same themes we'd seen in "The Best," this story satirically profiles the idea of a "country girl" peddled by the 15 cent magazine story en vogue at the time, and how she can inevitably find success in the city. It's incredibly funny, but also provides my favorite ambiguous ending out of Winslow's entire body of work. 

"The Proper Thing," a short story - The social set of a Floridian winter resort for the wealthy and elite is turned upside down with the arrival of a new girl, perfect and proper in every way. Initially welcoming and curious, they are inevitably put off by her complete perfection, and the only gentlemen at the resort worthy enough of earning her favor is yet another completely, off-puttingly perfect person, a gentlemen who is similarly inscrutable. Together, this infuriatingly ideal couple seems to have come straight out of a romance novel... and it turns out, they have! 

  • Why you should read it: out of the entirety of Winslow's canon that I managed to cover during my short time with research, this was my absolute favorite! It breaks from some of her favorite themes and topics, in order to more accurately skewer the rich and frivolous, providing one of my all-time favorite excerpts from her work: an explanation of the inverse relationship between how well you play tennis and how well you dress for tennis, as being an indicator of whether you were Old or New Money. 

why this all matters so much to modernist literature  (& me!) 

So, as you might have been able to tell from the above explanations, Thyra Samter Winslow was not only a very accomplished author, but a very under-represented one, especially when it comes to what we read from the era nowadays. She should be sharing shelf-space with the like-minded reprints of Dorothy Parker and Anita Loos, but to be perfectly honest, I think her writing has a lot more in common with some of the romance and chick lit authors who came so many years later, as well.

I made my professor laugh when, during a presentation, I referred to her as "a Modernist Nora Ephron," but I stand by my comparison: T.S.W. wrote fearlessly about women - women's issues, women's places in social circles and career fields, women's relationships with men and sisterhoods with other women - at a time when that was only recently becoming an acceptable thing to focus on, and she did so in a way that was compelling, engaging, and more than anything, while still being funny and relatable.

the outcome

And so, with a lot of hard work and late-night synthesizing sessions, my paper was completed and turned in, earning itself a very cool 3.9! (I lost points for getting a little too excited about the topic to provide a comprehensive sense of organization, as well as going a page over limit.) I couldn't be happier with how I did in the class, and am proud to have
earned not just that grade, but also a new favorite author to collect in the future!

Had you ever heard of Thyra Samter Winslow? What bookish topics and genres do you like exploring? Let me know, in the comments below!

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