Harriet Hassell (1911-1970) produced during her brief career two of the landmark classics of Alabama fiction in the first half of this century. Her 1937 short story, “History of the South,” published by Story magazine, quickly found the national spotlight as winner of that year’s National College Short Story Contest. This success was followed by publication in 1938 of her novel, Rachel’s Children, widely praised by reviewers and critics and considered to this day one of the most sensitive and accurate depictions by a young writer of family life in the early twentieth-century American South.
Hassell was born to John Dodson Hassell and Mabel Clements Stewart on a farm near Northport, Tuscaloosa County, on September 27, 1911, one of six children. At age 15, she entered the University of Alabama, where she was inspired to become a writer. She left the school without completing a degree and spent the next seven years on her parents’ farm developing her writing skills and style.
More confident in her abilities, she returned to the university and entered English professor Hudson Strode’s popular course in short-story writing. Hassell flourished and soon became the first of many of Strode’s successful protégés with the publication of her short story “History of the South” in 1937. The work won the first-place prize in Story magazine’s National College Short Story Contest and in 1944 was included in Strode’s anthology of his students’ work, Spring Harvest.
In 1938, Hassell published her only novel, Rachel’s Children, which tells the story of matriarch Rachel Ibsell and her attempts to control and manipulate her children. Referred to by reviewers of the day as an Alabama Queen Lear, Rachel engages in petty cruelties and sabotages the relationships of her children, eventually sinking into madness and being committed to an insane asylum, dying there surrounded by her children. The book garnered praise from critics and earned Hassell a scholarship to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.
Despite all this promise, however, Rachel’s Children would be Hassell’s last published work. Rumors of another novel proved unfounded, but other rumors of estrangement from her family over the characterizations in her novel seem more likely, as Hassell married attorney Ralph Gross and moved with him to Port Washington, New York. She died there on October 19, 1970, and was buried in Port Washington.
Works by Harriet Hassell
“History of the South” (1937)
Rachel’s Children (1938)
Beidler, Philip D. The Art of Fiction in the Heart of Dixie: An Anthology of Alabama Writers. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
———. Introduction to Rachel’s Children. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.