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American author Gertrude Atherton was a firecracker in life, and her work has been celebrated for its scrutiny of social issues. She was a prolific writer and won many awards. This lesson discusses her life and her thoughts on the world.

Introducing Gertrude Atherton

Gertrude Atherton

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Gertrude Atherton was a staunch feminist and active voice in American society in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Her work, both fiction and nonfiction, often touched on inequality between the sexes. She wrote under several pseudonyms, including Asmodeus and Frank Lin, to avoid the public scrutiny that women authors often received during that time. She wrote well-known books including the novel Black Oxen and The Splendid Idle Forties, a short story collection. Most of her stories were based in California. This lesson looks at Gertrude Atherton’s life and several quotes that demonstrate the type of woman she was.


On October 30, 1857, Gertrude Atherton was born in San Francisco as Gertrude Franklin Horn.

At just two years old, her parents split up and she was sent to live with her grandpa, Stephen Franklin. While it seems sad, it was the best thing that ever happened to her; he gave her a solid education and insisted that she devour books.After attending private school in Kentucky, she returned home. During this time, she met a man named Jorge Atherton. Oddly enough, Atherton was attempting to woo Gertrude’s mother before he decided to pursue her. The two fell in love and married on Valentine’s Day in 1876. They then moved to Jorge’s estate in Fair Oaks, California, where his mother lived.

Atherton hated the living situation, and later commented that, ”the final result of too much routine is death in life.” Gertrude Atherton didn’t enjoy the everyday life of a wealthy, stay-at-home woman.


Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
atherton book

Atherton began writing to escape her everyday life.

She said, ”Writing was my real life and I was more at home with the people of my imagination than with the best I met in the objective world.” Writing was the only way she could tolerate living as a married woman who was expected to follow societal rules for wives during the time. It was clear through her characters, which were often strong women without ties to a family, that she detested the life she was living.

In 1882, Atherton published The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance in the March edition of the literary magazine Argonauts. She published the piece under the name Asmodeus. Inspired by a local scandal, the story caused quite the uproar.

As people began reacting to it, Atherton admitted to her close family that she was the one who wrote it; they were so embarrassed by her actions that they shunned her.After this, she continued writing, but in secret. Her husband died in 1887, and she felt liberated, but she also felt pressured to support her young girl, Muriel. In 1888, she published What Dreams May Come, her first novel, which came out in the same year that she traveled abroad to London.

The novel was published under the name Frank Lin. She also traveled to Paris. During this time, she started receiving interest from publishers and journalists.Atherton came back to California when her grandpa died in 1890.

To make money, she worked for the San Francisco Examiner. She continued to write books, with many being published in literary journals before getting picked up by a publisher for full-scale book publication. During this time, she became close friends with Ambrose Bierce. They corresponded frequently throughout their lives.


Her book The Doomswoman was published 1893.

At this time, she wasn’t satisfied living in California, so she relocated her family to New York City. There, she penned Before the Gringo Came in 1894. She eventually moved back to the United Kingdom after U.S. publishers said her manuscript for Patience Sparhawk and Her Times was too risky. It was eventually published in 1897 by The Bodley Head, a British publishing house.

Atherton spent the next two years traveling and writing in Europe. This time was very productive for her, as she published three major novels before returning to the U.S. in 1890. She also wrote articles for publications such as Vanity Fair.

Between 1900 and 1925, Atherton produced twenty-five novels and short story collections. Her book series, which includes The Splendid, Idle Forties, The Conqueror, and Black Oxen’, became a raving success, in both life and death. During this time, Atherton joined forces with movie producer Sam Goldwyn to have her stories brought to life on-screen.

Late Life and Death

Atherton wrote up until her old age.

Gertrude Atherton died on June 14, 1948, due to complications of a stroke she had earlier in the year.

Gertrude Had a Few Things to Say

The Splendid Idle Forties by Gertrude Atherton
splendid idle forties

Through her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, Gertrude had quite a few things to say.

Let’s look at some of her quotes.

On Being Social

Gertrude didn’t have many friends, and the friends she did have were writers. On making new friends, she said, ”We never care to know new people unless we are sure we shall like them.”

On Motherhood

Gertrude was a mother, but she makes it pretty clear that motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

She says, ”The students of history know that while many mothers of great men have been virtuous, none have been commonplace, and few have been happy.” Mothers aren’t very happy when they have to do everything for everybody.

On Writing

Gertrude was a prolific writer; she had fifty novels published in her lifetime. She believed a strict writing schedule was important: ”Here is a simple recipe to begin with. Get up every morning with the set intention of writing and go to your desk and sit there for three hours, whether you accomplish anything or not. Before long you will find that you are writing madly, not waiting for inspiration.”

Lesson Summary

Gertrude Atherton was an American author who wrote furiously throughout her lifetime.

Atherton grew up with her grandpa and later married Jorge Atherton. She quickly realized that society wasn’t very kind to women, and many of her stories revolve around strong, independent female characters.Atherton published over fifty books including What Dreams May Come, Patience Sparhawk and Her Times, The Splendid, Idle Forties, The Conqueror, and Black Oxen. To support her family, she wrote for newspapers in San Francisco and other places around the world. Atherton’s career was most prominent from the late 1800s through the early 1930s.

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