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Nancy Hale papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00251

Scope and Contents

The Nancy Hale Papers consist of 33 linear feet of biographical material; correspondence; diaries; photographs; subject files; and extensive notes, drafts, typescripts, publicity, and reviews of many of her speeches and writings. The materials date from 1908 to 1989, with the bulk dating from the 1950s through Hale's death in 1988. Though the papers contain some important earlier materials, Hale seems to have more consciously saved things after she became connected with the Sophia Smith Collection in the early 1960s. The papers provide significant information about Hale's life and work; her family relationships; the relationships between writers and their agents and editors; the life of a modern professional woman writer; as well as many of the topics that interested Hale, such as creativity, human psychology, the New England character, and faculty politics in educational institutions.

The main subject of the Papers is Hale's writing. The Writings series comprises more than half of the total bulk of the papers. Contained within it are manuscript and published versions of many of Hale's works along with research materials and notes which document the evolution of the pieces and the ideas motivating their creation. The notebooks in SERIES II. CORRESPONDENCE often contain similar documentation of Hale's creative process, mixed with notes on a variety of topics. The drafts and notes are full of introspective explorations which are an unexpectedly revealing source of information about their author and about a variety of subjects of interest to her. Where available, the extensive drafts also show clearly the care Hale took in constructing her works.

The role of editors and agents in the writing process is well documented in SERIES VII. WRITINGS, particularly through the correspondence between Hale and her agent Elizabeth Nowell. In addition, the correspondence with writer and editor friends filed in the General correspondence in SERIES II, is also revealing. Of particular interest is the correspondence with William Maxwell as well as that with other New Yorker colleagues and a plethora of other writers.

Essentially a part of the larger Hale Family Papers in the Sophia Smith Collection, Nancy Hale's Papers augment the rich documentation of that distinguished New England family, primarily through the Family correspondence in SERIES II, but also through her writings, especially those about her parents (A New England Girlhood, and The Life in the Studio) and her great uncle Charles Hale (Charlieshope) in SERIES VII. Hale's complex and difficult personal life make her early adulthood correspondence with her mother particularly interesting.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1908 - 1989


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to unpublished works of Nancy Hale. Copyright to materials created by others may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission must be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Biographical / Historical

Nancy Hale was born Anna Westcott Hale on May 6, 1908, in Boston, Massachusetts, the only child of painters Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Clark Westcott. Descended from a distinguished New England family, Nancy Hale's grandfather was the orator, author, and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale, and two of her great-aunts were the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lucretia Peabody Hale. Philip L. Hale achieved some success as a neo-impressionist painter of the Boston School, but probably had a greater influence as an instructor at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and as an art critic for Boston newspapers. Lilian W. Hale, the more talented artist of the pair, was well known for her portraits and landscapes in oil, pastel, and charcoal.

Nancy Hale began writing at an early age, producing a family newspaper, the Society Cat, at age eight, and publishing her first story, "The Key Glorious," in the Boston Herald, at age eleven. She also devoted considerable energy to the study of art under her parents' tutelage and, after she was graduated from the Winsor School in 1926, at the Boston Museum School (1926-28).

In 1928, she married aspiring writer Taylor Scott Hardin and moved with him to New York City where she was hired to work in the art department at Vogue. She was, however, almost immediately put to work as an assistant editor and writer instead. Under the pen name Anne Leslie, she wrote "chatty news" items, fashion news, and editorials.

Hale's true ambition was to write fiction. Jobs at Vogue and later Vantiy Fair provided financial support while she built her reputation as a fiction writer. While working full time she was also writing pieces on commission for a variety of magazines as well as free-lance fiction. Her first son, Mark Hardin, was born in 1930.

Hale's first novel, The Young Die Good (1932), was a chronicle of the shallow lives of the post-flapper "smart set" in New York. In 1933, one of her stories,"To the Invader," won the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize. A second novel, Never Any More, was published in 1934.

Hale was hired by the New York Times as its first woman straight news reporter in the spring of 1934, a job which she left after an exhausting six months. By then, she and her husband had been living apart for some time. They were divorced late in 1934.

In October of 1935, Hale entered into a troubled second marriage with author and journalist Charles Christian Wertenbaker. They settled in Charlottesville, VA, in 1936. Her next book, The Earliest Dreams (1936), was a selection made from the already substantial body of short stories published by Hale in such magazines as the New Yorker, Harper's, Redbook, and Ladies Home Journal. Writing was now her primary means of financial support.

Hale's second son, William Wertenbaker, was born in the spring of 1938. After several separations, she was divorced from Charles Wertenbaker in 1941. In 1942, Hale married Fredson Thayer Bowers an English professor on the faculty of the University of Virginia.

Her third and best known novel, The Prodigal Women, was published later that year. It is an immense book (over 700 pages) which, in the words of writer Anne Hobson Freeman, "dramatized, with unflinching candor, the psychological cost of being a woman at that time." It is the story of three women, each in her own way taking advantage of the freedoms offered by the post World War I rejection of Victorian social mores.

Throughout this period Hale was plagued by a series of physical ailments and bouts of anxiety severe enough to result in 1938 and again in 1943 in what was called a "nervous breakdown." Always intensely self-critical, Hale worried that she had squandered a promising career and sold- out artistically by writing to make money. She was fortunate in 1943 to find a psychoanalyst, Beatrice Hinkle, who helped her begin to solve what Hale called "this problem of who to be."

Always extremely hard-working, Hale published a collection of stories, the first of two much-loved volumes of "autobiographical fiction," A New England Girlhood (1958), and three novels in the 1950s. Hale singled out a favorite among these, Heaven and Hardpan Farm (1957). A humorous and humane novel about a group of "neurotic" women and their Jungian doctor at a small country sanitarium, Hale felt it was her most successful effort at writing about the experience of psychoanalysis.

In 1958, the University of Illinois awarded Hale a Benjamin Franklin Magazine citation for excellence in short story writing.

In 1961 Hale sold more stories (12) to the New Yorker than any other writer in the magazine's history. Also, in that year, she put together The Realities of Fiction, a volume of lectures on writing primarily given at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1959-60. Another novel, a collection of stories, and an anthology of writings by New England authors followed in the 1960s. In 1968, Hale received the Henry H. Bellamann Foundation Award for her significant contribution to the arts. One of Hale's best-loved books, The Life in the Studio, was published in 1969. "My mother died and I felt more than I could stand without expressing it," Hale told a newspaper reporter in 1969. Advertised as "an affectionate recollection of some singular parents," The Life in the Studio is as much about coming to terms with their memory and their loss. Hale blurred the boundaries of fiction and fact to discover for herself "the meaning of the past," but also "to awaken an echo in other lives; to arouse a consciousness where perhaps formerly there was none."

It is clear that Hale shared her parents' artistic philosophy as described in The Life in the Studio. The artist's role is to create a subtle marriage of objectivity and subjectivity, to use "the interplay of the painter's subjective view with the way the light actually falls upon the object" to "render" its essence and its meaning. In Mary Cassatt (1975), a biography of the American artist commissioned by Doubleday and Co. after the success of The Life in the Studio, Hale was clearly aiming for "the special marriage of subject and object." Written with an authority quite different from that conferred by scholarly credentials, Hale combined personal knowledge of Mary Cassatt's social and artistic milieu with the style developed in her "autobiographical fiction" to produce a biography that seems, in many ways, ahead of its time.

Hale next turned her attention to stories for children, publishing The Night of the Hurricane in 1978 and, in the mid 1980s, writing a collection of stories for young dyslexic readers. She died in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 24, 1988.

It is difficult to neatly characterize such a large and varied output. Hale is probably best known for her short stories whose impact can be stunning. "...[W]hat I look for in a short story," wrote Hale in The Realities of Fiction, "is the reverberation of significance beyond the matters immediately under observation. I want to be able to look up from the end of the story and then, slowly, as what I have read sifts down, to have the flower of relevance open for me."

Her protagonists are most often women, usually rather well-to-do. As they go about their daily lives, skillfully drawn through careful attention to the minutest of details, these women come to an epiphany. Their moments of illumination bring better understanding of the patterns of their lives, but Hale's epiphanies confer what Hale's friend and sometime editor William Maxwell called "a sad wisdom." They are, in the words of Anne Hobson Freeman, "penetrating portraits of women who may seem calm, and even satisfied, but beneath the surface are struggling to retain their self-esteem and individuality."

In interviews throughout her life, Hale expressed amazement that the writing she felt was most private and personal evoked the strongest response in others. "I seem to do better by the world when I am acting for what is most inwardly myself."

Hale was described as elegant, regal, distinguished, and formidable, but with a disarming frankness and deep understanding. What writer Mary Gray Hughes called "a sense of risk along with the beautiful manners." Her writing reflects this complexity. Often described as "poetic," with what one writer called a "delicate balance of understatement and passion," Hale's "subtle and unsparing" work "depicts the quiet horror of life with a directness that is positively unnerving." Whether writing fiction, autobiography, or biography, Hale strove not so much for the literal, factual truth as for the emotional truth that lies beneath the surface. In a 1958 interview, Hale described most of her work as psychological. "I'm never writing about what I appear to be writing about. Anything that is worth conveying cannot be said directly."

See also "Nancy Hale: A Bibliography," by Norah Lind (2008)


29.001 linear feet (70 containers)


Author. Hale is perhaps best known for her short stories many of which were published in the New Yorker and in collected works. Hale's papers, provide significant information about her life and work; the relationships between writers and their agents and editors; the life of a modern professional woman writer; as well as topics such as creativity, human psychology, the New England character, and faculty politics in educational institutions. Material includes writings, diaries, photographs, speeches and correspondence with family and numerous 20th century writers.


This collection is organized into seven series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Diaries, Calendars, and Notebooks
  4. IV. Photographs
  5. V. Speeches
  6. VI. Subject Files
  7. VII. Writings

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Nancy Hale Papers were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection from 1960 to 1997 primarily by Nancy Hale and Fredson Bowers with additional materials given by Eunice Blake Bohanon, Avis DeVoto, Harriet McKissock, and Craig Tenney of Harold Ober and Associates. Elizabeth Nowell's files were purchased from Nowell's daughter Clara Perkins Stites in 1990.

Additional materials were donated by Holly Sawyer in 2009 and Norah Hardin Lind in 2010.

Related Material

Related material in the Hale Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection. Additional Nancy Hale Papers are in Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

Processing Information

Processed by Maida Goodwin, 2000.



Nancy Hale papers
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  • 2022-03-03: Integrated description of oversized materials

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063