Ohioana Literary Trail: Helen Hooven Santmyer, one of the first Rhodes Scholars

Part 5 of a 5-part series on remarkable Ohio writers

This week, we wrap up our tour of stops in the greater Dayton area on the Ohioana Literary Trail in Xenia, at the marker for Helen Hooven Santmyer.

Santmyer is best known for her novel, “…And Ladies of the Club,” which was 1,344 pages long and the best-selling novel of 1984. The novel, published when she was 88, won her both critical acclaim and national recognition. The novel is about a group of women in fictional Waynesboro, Ohio and tracks their lives between 1868 and 1932.

Her marker in Xenia is located at 113 W. Third St. in Xenia, and is sponsored by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, The Cincinnati Foundation, and the Ohio History Connection.

Born in Cincinnati in 1895, Santmyer moved with her family to Xenia when she was 5, and graduated from Wellesley College in 1918. She wrote and published poetry, and was active in fighting for women’s rights.

In New York, she took a job as an editorial secretary with Scribner’s. After two years, she returned to Xenia and taught locally as well as at Wellesley College, and wrote her first novel “Herbs and Apples,” based on her life thus far and published in 1925.

As one of the first Rhodes Scholars, she attended Oxford University in England, and again return to Xenia. According to Santmyer’s entry on Wikipedia, she befriended a librarian, Mildred Sandoe, who became her literary assistant and then her life partner for almost 50 years until Sandoe’s death.

Santmyer wrote her second novel, “The Fierce Dispute,” published in 1929, and then published her third novel, “Farewell, Summer,” which was published posthumously in 1988.

In 1935, she became Dean of Women and the head of the English Department at Cedarville College, which was then chartered as a Reformed Presbyterian college. Though Santmyer continued writing, it was slowly and with some difficulty due to health issues. In 1953, Santmyer resigned from the college after it was purchased by a Baptist association. She then worked at the Dayton Public Library as a research librarian until 1959.

After retiring, Santmyer wrote full time, publishing “Ohio Town” with the Ohio State University Press in 1962. Her next novel, “…And Ladies of the Club” took her many years to write. She had several stays in Hospitality Home East in Xenia, where she completed revisions of the novel, which was also published by Ohio State University Press. The initial publication was of just 1,500 copies. The novel won the Ohioana Book Award in 1983 in the category of fiction.

The novel was republished in 1984 by Putnam, and became a major success. In addition to becoming a best-seller, it was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Its paperback edition sold more than 2 million copies in three months in 1985, vaulting it to best-selling paperback in history at the time. Santmyer herself had been a member of the Xenia Woman’s Club. She died in 1986 at age 90.

Upcoming literary events:

· Wednesday, May 26, 6:30-8 p.m. — Word’s Worth Writing Connections presents “Embrace Your Literary Mama” led by Christina Consolino, one of the senior editors of the online magazine “Literary Mama,” to help writers create and shape pieces about motherhood in all its aspects. You do not need to have a work-in-progress to attend or benefit from this class. This is an online class held via Zoom. Learn more and register at www.wordsworthdayton.com.

· Tuesday June 15, 7-8:30 p.m. — Wright Memorial Library hosts Virtual Wright Library Poets, a library sponsored writing group for adults to share their work in a support setting. The group, which is open to poets from beginners to more advanced, currently meets virtually. For more information and the meeting link, contact Elizabeth Schmidt: schmidt@wrightlibrary.org, 937-294-7171.

· Tuesday June 16, 7-8:30 p.m. — Wright Memorial Library will host “Discover the Ohio Literary Trail,” a tour of the Ohio Literary Trail’s stops at homes, museums, library collections, historical markers and more. This virtual presentation will focus on stops in southwest Ohio, and will be presented by David Weaver, executive director of the Ohioana Library Association, and David Siders, who serves on the Board of Trustees for Ohioana Library Association. This program will be presented as a webinar. For more information and to register go to https://www.wrightlibrary.org/ohioliterarytrail

· Tuesday, June 22, 7-8 p.m. — Washington-Centerville Public Library presents an author program with Nita Leland, an artist who will discuss her memoir “Born Creative: A Memoir of Paint, Passion & Purpose.” This event will be offered in person with limited seating, requiring face coverings, and following other COVID-19 protocols. For more information and to register, visit www.wclibrary.org.info and click on Programs, then “Authors & Writers,” or contact Debe Dockins at 937-610-4429 or ddockins@wcpl.lib.us

About the Author