Novelist Frances Newman challenged the confining traditions of “southern womanhood” and fearlessly portrayed Atlanta’s privileged white society in the 1920s. A debutante-cum-librarian whose sophisticated, trenchant writing made her a sought-after Atlanta columnist and East Coast critic, Newman is best remembered for her avant-garde stories of women's inner lives.
Frances Alexander Newman was born on Forest (later Forrest) Avenue in Atlanta, the youngest daughter of six children. Her parents, Fanny Percy Alexander and William Truslow Newman, were prominent Tennesseans recently settled in Georgia. Her father, a Civil War veteran, had lost an arm at Jonesboro in 1864, and when she was born, he was Atlanta’s city attorney, to become a federal judge.
Newman attended Calhoun Street Grammar school and Atlanta Girls High School, and graduated in 1900 from the private Washington Seminary school. After a year of college at Agnes Scott Institute in Decatur, she went to “finishing schools” in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
The Atlanta Constitution society page covered Newman’s debut in 1903, then her presence at teas, receptions and debutante parties, as it had for her three sisters. Meanwhile she extended her education at home by reading from her father’s library and listening to her childhood “mammy,” Susan Long, a lifelong companion to whom Newman would credit her lack of “a southern lady’s traditional illusions.”
“If you grow up hearing of mistress’s sons who set dogs on a little girl three years old to see her run, who beat the slaves, and who didn’t tell them they were free, you can’t admire the antebellum South completely,” Newman would write to an acquaintance.[i]
Newman passed Atlanta Carnegie Library School’s admission exam in 1907, but illness and family matters delayed her entry. In 1911, she studied Greek and Italian at the “Summer School of the South” in Knoxville, Tennessee, then entered library school and graduated the following year. She worked for a year at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, and then returned to Atlanta to work at the Carnegie Library. She was the library’s head of lending for eight years, taught library school classes and, for three years, the head of circulation, until her resignation in 1922.
With Newman’s library career began her writing career. She wrote sophisticated literary reviews for the Carnegie Library Bulletin, and her trenchant opinions soon spread beyond the library. The Atlanta Constitution in 1919 began a weekly “Library Notes” column--unsigned, but mostly by Newman. By 1920, “Carnegie Library Notes” by “Frances Newman, Head of the Lending Department” appeared weekly in the South’s most widely read newspaper, drawing the attention of prominent literary figures like James Branch Cabell and H.L. Mencken. They introduced her to The Reviewer, an iconoclastic new southern journal, and Newman soon became a regular contributor, paid regularly for clever essays like one she would write about the city of Atlanta:
"Atlanta, then, is a self-made town: it has only one God-given advantage and that is its peerless climate. Its inhabitants perish neither of heat nor of cold, they never have malaria, they are untroubled by earthquakes, floods and cyclones. Slow moving persons from Montgomery, Alabama, and from Macon, Georgia--who sometimes weary of their annual struggles to move the capital to Macon and move themselves to the capital--are commonly believed to walk faster when they have lived one short week in Atlanta, whose population is vastly increased by rejuvenated Carolinians and Alabamians and by those Tennesseans who came down in 1865 when they were rather indiscriminately hanging men and women there. Even Virginians, and Virginians bearing the most honored names, live cheerfully among a people who are wonderfully little concerned with armorial quarterings: only Charlestonians are forever unassimilable."[ii]
Encouraged by Cabell, in 1921 Newman finished a novel (The Gold-Fish Bowl), a comedy of manners about a young woman librarian in a fictional southern city. Yet Newman was dissatisfied with the story and, after half-heartedly submitting it to only two publishers, she abandoned it for a new project.
In 1923, Newman left the Atlanta library and quit writing for the Constitution, but by then she was writing regularly for The Reviewer and New York periodicals. After a trip overseas to study in Paris and travel, she returned to Atlanta and worked on what would become her first published book, The Short Story’s Mutations: from Petronius to Paul Morand. Newman’s analysis of the short story’s evolution, with both English stories and translations she made herself from French, Greek, Latin Italian and Danish, appeared in 1924, to complimentary reviews and astonishingly good sales. Writer Erskine Caldwell would recall later how, as a young writer trying to master the short story form himself, he had been “deeply impressed” by Newman’s book.[iii]
Newman had also begun writing book reviews for The Atlanta Journal Magazine in 1923, and she would occasionally write feature articles with a literary “hook.” In 1924, she also launched the magazine’s “Elizabeth Bennet’s Gossip” column, which she filled with witty briefs about Atlanta’s smart upper class socializing at The Piedmont Driving Club, Atlanta’s Biltmore Hotel, St. Simon’s Island, or in New York City. “Miss Bennet” described the changes affecting the local aristocracy as its younger generation branched out and took careers beyond Atlanta. When Newman stopped being “Elizabeth Bennet” in 1926, editors turned the column over to Atlanta Journal writer Margaret Mitchell.
Newman’s expanding career had launched in yet another direction in 1924, when her very first short story, in Mencken’s American Mercury, won an O. Henry Memorial prize as one of North America’s best stories. “Rachel and Her Children” tells the ironic tale of an elderly southern woman’s grief for her own frustrated life at the funeral of her daughter. Newman would finish only one other short story, “Atlanta Biltmore,” which shone a light on Atlanta class bias and racial prejudices through a tale of a dinner party of upper-class Jewish families at the Biltmore Hotel. Reportedly, Mencken declined to publish “Atlanta Biltmore” because he believed Newman’s portrait of anti-Semitism to be too inflammatory.[iv]
Newman was appointed librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology in late 1924, but her tenure would be less than two years, including a year’s leave of absence, as her writing career continued its ascent. "Three Episodes from The Hard-Boiled Virgin" appeared in The Reviewer in October 1924, resulting in a contract for her novel-in-progress, and the next month, The Short Story’s Mutations sold out in its first printing.
In 1926, awarded a fellowship to the MacDowell artists’ colony in New Hampshire, Newman finished The Hard-Boiled Virgin that summer while in residence there.
The Hard-Boiled Virgin follows a young Atlanta woman from childhood in the 1890s into her thirties. Newman uses a stylized version of a stream-of-consciousness narrative to explore Katharine Faraday’s awakening as a woman and her struggles to find her identity in various relationships with men. She confronts the illusions that the customs and education of “southern womanhood” have inculcated in her, and she ultimately renounces marriage and motherhood for sexual independence and a writing career.
“I discovered that I was going to write a novel about a girl who began by believing everything that her family and her teachers said to her, and who ended by disbelieving most of those things, but by finding that she couldn’t keep herself from behaving as if she believed them—about a girl who was born and bred to be a southern lady, and whose mind never could triumph over the ideas she was presumably born with, and the ideas she was undoubtedly taught.”[v]
The Hard-Boiled Virgin appeared in November 1926 to generally good reviews and went through eight printings in six months, more than twenty thousand copies sold, a remarkable feat for a first novel. Newman’s avant-garde writing style and her heroine’s sexual and physical awareness ruffled some critics: Boston banned the novel for “indecency” and the representation of Atlanta created trouble for her at home.
“The idea which pleased me more than any other idea in The Hard-Boiled Virgin,” Newman wrote a friend, was “the idea that all of Katharine Faraday's masculine admirers were only actors playing in different acts of the same drama she was writing for herself by living her own life.”
"Lots of people apparently think I've done everything in it, and although I point out that Hawthorne was never the mother of an illegitimate daughter and that Dreiser has never been electrocuted and that Kipling wasn't brought up by an elephant--it doesn't do any good. However, all of it sells the book, I gather, so I try to bear up."[vi]
In 1927, Newman toured Europe, continued writing reviews for the Journal as well as The New York Evening Post and The Bookman, and she began what would become her final novel, Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers, which she worked on that summer at the MacDowell Colony and later completed in Atlanta.
Another revealing exploration of the inner life of southern women in the 1920s, Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers tells the story of a Richmond-bred, aristocratic wife and an Atlanta librarian--the “other woman”—who are in love with the same man, a southern railroad executive. Written in a more conventional style than her first novel, Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers is told in the alternating points of view of the two women, whose lives are being frustrated in different, yet equally devastating ways by a male-dictated society. Newman said she conceived the story as a combination of two ideas she had found compelling:
"The idea that a woman may be so much in love with her husband, that when he is dead she may be unconsciously relieved that he is a safe and beautiful memory … [and] the idea of some modern American men, who mean to go calmly along with their well-settled wives and homes and affairs, but who also want to enliven their existences with the interest of some girl, to whom they do not give anything except the scraps from their real lives."[vii]
As Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers went on sale in the spring of 1928, Newman traveled to France to research the 19th-century writer Jules Laforgue for her next book, a translation of his Moralités légendaires. She developed a painful eye affliction that European doctors were unable to diagnose or successfully treat, and she returned to the United States for medical attention. Back in Atlanta, unable to read, Newman completed her translations by dictation, but her malady continued to afflict her. It would frustrate doctors in Atlanta, Philadelphia and, ultimately, New York City, where she visited a neurologist in October and signed her contract for Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue. On October 19, after she failed to meet a friend at Carnegie Hall, Newman was found unconscious in her hotel room. Hospitalized, she never regained consciousness and died three days later.
Tabloids latched onto Newman's sudden death, claiming the "spinster" had killed herself with a drug overdose, a charge based on conflicting doctors' reports and one which Newman's friends and family dismissed as groundless and absurd. Officially the cause of her death was recorded as pneumonia following a cerebral hemorrhage.
Newman would make her final journey home to Atlanta in a violet casket—her favorite color--and she was buried October 24 in the Newman family plot at Westview Cemetery.
Newman's Laforgue translation was published soon afterward, but her death had interrupted ambitious plans. When she died, Newman had several projects in mind, including new short stories and novels, a play, a book of criticism, a possible collection of love stories and a volume of biographical essays on historical figures.
A year after her death, Newman’s correspondence was published and well received by critics. Yet, as recent scholars have commented, Newman seems to have been all but entirely ignored by the largely male proponents of an American literary canon that in the 1930s celebrated a "Southern Literary Renaissance"--ironically, a phrase Newman may have been the first to use.
"Thanks to white male reviewers like Donald Davidson, who saw them for the tradition-breaking pioneers they were, rebels like Newman and [Evelyn] Scott were largely barred from entering the white gentle-men's club of southern literature self-consciously constructed… in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Accordingly, despite critical acclaim and best-selling status achieved in the 1920s, both Newman and Scott were largely forgotten figures in the 1960s and early 1970s."[viii]
After the rebellious 1960s and during a "second wave" of American feminism, however, scholars took Newman up again. In 1977, both The Hard-Boiled Virgin and Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers were featured in the “Rediscovered Fiction by American Women" literary series. Then in 1980, the University of Georgia Press reprinted The Hard-Boiled Virgin in an edition that proved popular enough to be reissued again in the 1990s, along with a new edition of Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers.
--Portrait of Frances Newman from an original by Thurston Hatcher, courtesy of Betsy Poist.
[i] Frances Newman to Hudson Strode, Sept. 2, 1927. Frances Newman’s Letters, Ed. by Hansell Baugh. New York: Horace Liveright, 1929.
[ii] “Atlanta.” Frances Newman. The Reviewer, January 1923.
[iii] Erskine Caldwell, Call It Experience, New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1951.
[iv] “'Folks Gwine Talk Sumpin' Scan'lous': Margaret Mitchell, Frances Newman, and the Art of Gossip.” Reginald Abbott, Southern Quarterly, Spring/Summer 1999.
[v] “Frances Newman Tells How She Writes.” Atlanta Journal, April 1, 1928.
[vi] Frances Newman to Mrs. Oscar Gieberich, November 30, 1926. Frances Newman’s Letters.
[vii] “Frances Newman Tells How She Writes.” Atlanta Journal, April 1, 1928.
[viii] “The Woman Writer as Rebel.” Susan V. Donaldson. The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1998.
The following books of Frances Newman’s writings are held by the UGA Special Collections Libraries:
The Short Story’s Mutations: From Petronius to Paul Morand. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924.
The Hard-Boiled Virgin. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926.
The Hard-Boiled Virgin. London: Martin Secker, 1927.
Dead Loves are Faithful Lovers. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928.
Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers. London: Martin Secker, 1928.
Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue. New York: Horace Liveright, 1928.
Frances Newman’s Letters. Edited by Hansell Baugh. New York: Horace Liveright, 1929.
The Hard-Boiled Virgin. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers. Athens: University of Georgia Press,1994.
The Georgia Tech Special Collections and Archives holds a collection of papers of Frances Newman covering the period 1920-1981, incuding correspondence and newspaper clippings dealing with her untimely death, as well as typescripts of some of her published and unpublished works, photographs and artifacts
Emory University's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library holds a collection of papers of Frances Newman covering the period 1924-1928, including correspondence, literary manuscripts, articles, a diary, and notebook. The collection also holds materials accumulated by Hansell Baugh, editor of Frances Newman's Letters. Emory also holds materials from Newman's library-school days in their Atlanta Carnegie Library collection.