Black Oxen - The Bestseller of 1923
Publisher: Bestseller Publishing
Gertrude Franklin Horn was born on October 30th, 1857, in San Francisco, California. Her parents separated in 1860 when she was two years old, and she was raised by her maternal grandfather, Stephen Franklin, a devout Presbyterian. He insisted she be well read, and was a great influence on her.
She attended St. Mary's Hall high school in Benicia, California, and, briefly, the Sayre School in Lexington, Kentucky.
In Kentucky, the rebellious Gertrude met George H.B. Atherton, who was courting her mother. His attentions wandered to Gertrude and, after she accepted his sixth proposal, they eloped on February 15th, 1876.
She went to live with him and his domineering Chilean mother. Gertrude found life stultifying. As a result of her disappointment she began to develop an independent life. But two tragedies changed her life dramatically: her son George died of diphtheria, and her husband died at sea. She was left with their daughter Muriel but and needed to support herself. Her mother-in-law agreed to raise Muriel.
Her first publication was ‘The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance’, and serialised in The Argonaut in 1882. When she told her family, she was ostracized.
Gertrude’s first novel, ‘What Dreams May Come’, was published in 1888 under the pseudonym Frank Lin.
With the death of her grandfather and her mother-in-law she returned to California to resume care of Muriel. In 1891, while writing a weekly column for The San Francisco Examiner, she met Ambrose Bierce, with whom she carried on a love-hate relationship.
She wrote ‘Doomswoman’ in 1892, it was published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine and as a book in 1893. The story focuses on Chonita Moncada y Iturbi and her love of Diego Estenega, as he dreams of modernizing California.
In 1892, Atherton left for New York to write for the New York World. She wrote letters to Bierce, confiding her loneliness, her dismay at freelance writing and her dislike of eastern literary circles. Whilst there though she published another California novel, ‘Before the Gringo Came’ (1894).
Following this was ‘Patience Sparhawk and Her Times’ (1897), but it proved to be controversial. Its rejection encouraged her to leave for London.
In 1898, she completed ‘The Californians’, her first novel set in the post-Spanish era. Critics received this much more positively: The Spectator said "The novel fairly establishes her claim to be considered as one of the most vivid and entertaining interpreters of the complex characters of emancipated American womanhood."
Further works followed, many from her Califorina series dealing with the social history of California.
These included ‘The Splendid, Idle Forties’ (1902), ‘The Conqueror’ (1902), a fictionalised biography of Alexander Hamilton; and her sensational, semi-autobiographical novel ‘Black Oxen’ (1923), about an aging woman who miraculously becomes young again after glandular therapy. ‘Black Oxen’ was an out and out success and the best-selling book of 1923.
Gertrude wrote several stories of supernatural horror, including ‘Death and the Woman’, and ‘Crowned with One Crest’, as well as ‘The Foghorn’, and the much anthologised ‘The Striding Place’.
She was an early feminist well acquainted with the plight of women although she spoke against its militancy. Add to this her strong-will, independent-mind, and sometimes her oversteps into controversy, especially over anti-communism and its easy to identify why her novels had such sharp and strong characters.
Gertrude Atherton died on June 14th, 1948. She is buried in Cypress Lawn cemetery in Colma, California.