Beyond the Valley of The Dollmaker: The Curious Reception of Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Weedkiller’s Daughter

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Readers of Harriette Simpson Arnow’s most well-loved novel The Dollmaker had to wait sixteen years for her next work, The Weedkiller’s Daughter (1970). Clearly, the book was no quick cash-in. By the time Arnow was in her fourth decade of writing, the literary landscape had changed radically. The reviews for The Weedkiller’s Daughter reflect this shift. While many reviews of this contemporary account of a daydreaming teenage girl’s life in suburban Michigan praised Arnow’s sensitivity in portraying adolescents, a vocal minority took Arnow to task for the book’s anachronisms in post-Woodstock America. One review attacked the main character for being a “dull little frump.” Another snidely recommended the novel to “a few middle-aged virgins in Nebraska.”

It would be grossly misstating the facts to claim that the mixed reception of The Weedkiller’s Daughter alone drove Arnow to write history and historical fiction subsequently. But one cannot ignore the fact that Arnow shunned the writing of contemporary fiction after 1970. Arguably, her choice to compartmentalize her rural Kentucky past from her suburban Michigan present cost her readers.

This paper presentation is based on my own work with the Arnow Collection at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections, both as an assistant archivist and as a researcher-scholar. I conclude from studying manuscripts and reviews of the novel that Arnow was unfairly pigeonholed as a regionalist writer, charged with writing barely fictionalized social commentary, when The Weedkiller’s Daughter was created as a reimagining, rather than a recapitulation, of themes found in The Dollmaker.


Asheville, NC

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