George Cram Cook

"George Cram Cook . . .was a brave enthusiast, whose experimental eagerness helped break new paths for the American theatre and drama. He was a playwright and novelist but, beyond these things, he was extraordinarily a person, exerting an incalculable personal force and influence. That influence is itself not easy to describe, except as a civilizing influence, or perhaps a Utopian influence; he made people ashamed of surrender to an ignoble world, he made them try to do the beautiful and impossible things of which they dreamed - and that attempt, which is often enough ridiculous, is the best the world has yet been able to offer in the way of civilization anywhere." (The Nation, January 23, 1924)

George Cram Cook, "Jig" to his friends, was born in Davenport on October 7, 1873 to Edward and Ellen Cook. The Cooks were a prominent family; Jig's great-great grandfather was Captain Ebeneezer Cook, a pioneer settler, and his great-uncle, also an Ebeneezer, co-founded Cook & Sargent's, the first bank in Davenport.

Edward Cook was a believer in formal education and sent his son not only to Harvard, but to also to universities in Heidelberg and Geneva. It was assumed by the family that Jig would be a banker or a lawyer.

To their dismay, he had other ideas. He wanted to be a novelist.

He taught English literature at the University of Iowa until the Spanish-American War. He quit his job and enlisted in Company B of the 50th Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry. After the war, he decided to write for a living. He wrote small pieces, collaborated with other authors on plays and books, and finished his own novel---the experience was priceless, but he wasn't making much money.

In 1902, he married Sarah Hern Swain in Chicago, and began teaching at Stanford. After one year, he decided that teaching used up the energy he needed for writing and retired from academia. Returning to Iowa, he bought a small truck farm---so called because it delivered fruits and vegetables to market---outside of Buffalo. His first novel, Roderick Tliaferro, was published soon after. A rollicking adventure novel, it related the Mexican adventures of the near-perfect titular hero, though it was the enthusiasm that Jig injected into the story that was most noted by the critics.

Jig brought this same enthusiasm to the social philosophies that were beginning to have an impact even in Iowa. He attended several meetings of socialists and Nietscheans, and made the acquaintance of a seventeen-year old named Floyd Dell. Floyd was a staunch socialist and thought the older man a "romantic-philosophical novelist with reactionary Nietzschean-aristocratic conceptions of an ideal society founded upon a pseudo-Greek slavery." Despite this, they established a firm, if argumentative, friendship.

Jig hired Floyd to work at the farm and the other freethinkers of the area began to visit. Soon, Jig's place became a center of philosophical thought, especially over the weekends, when Jig hosted his infamous parties. There, he met a freethinking journalist named Mollie Price, who didn't seem to care that he was married. Soon enough, he wasn't and became engaged to Mollie.

Shortly after that, he met a young woman named Susan Glaspell. Although he thought her world view was far too "medieval-romantic," he admired her energy and talent. They became good friends---so good, as rumor had it, that Susan left Davenport, where the struggle between soulmate and social mores became too difficult.

Jig married Mollie in 1908. She gave him two children, Nilla and Hurl. Unfortunately for their marriage, Susan came back from New York in 1910. Jig and Mollie divorced in 1911. His new novel, The Chasm, was published that year.

The Chasm explored the conflicts between socialist and Nietzschean philosophies. Jig claimed that Floyd Dell was the inspiration for the socialist gardener. The initial reviews weren't very good---Francis Hackett of the Evening Post considered it pedantic and heavy handed, if sincere---but Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, thought it was very well done.

Susan and Jig married in New Jersey on April 14, 1913. They became interested in the new trend toward contemporary realism in the theater and began experimenting with scripts. A few years later, while spending the summer in Provincetown, Jig formed an informal theater workshop, consisting of local writers and artists, who supplied the scripts and the acting talent. Creativity, and not a little alcohol, flowed freely.

One story, possibly apocryphal, demonstrates the larger-than-life mindset of George Cram Cook. One day, he and his friend Harry Kemp were discussing the odd fact that though the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown Harbor, it was Plymouth Rock that received the accolades of history.

Instead of writing to the newspapers or journals---or even writing a textbook of his own---Jig decided that the thing to do was to steal Plymouth Rock and place it in Provincetown Harbor. He and Harry found two fishermen willing to loan them their boat, which had a crane for heavy nets and set sail, making many toasts to a successful venture.

Alas for historical accuracy, the boat, containing four unconscious men and any number of empty bottles, was found floating in the harbor the next day. Is it not known what Susan had to say about this particular venture, though she appears to have been fairly tolerant of Jig's ways.

Despite such shenanigans, the theater group flourished. Soon, they were performing at a local theater and calling themselves the Provincetown Players. Jig demanded more and more plays, especially from friends who had never written a script. He wanted them to throw off the restraints of the expected and create their own native art.

There is no doubt that the Provincetown Players revitalized American theater. Many a well-known playwright began with them, one way or another. After the Players moved to Greenwich Village, Edna St. Vincent Millay acted in several productions before she was brave enough to offer her first script. Eugene O'Neill refused to stay in the room when his first play was read aloud---it was only four years later that he received the Pulitzer for his first published play.

By 1922, the Provincetown Players had premiered over ninety plays by almost fifty American playwrights. But over the years, the focus changed: the Players were no longer a theater workshop, but a lucrative business. Jig and Susan, among others, disagreed with the commercial aspects of the group and left.

Jig, though a product of the American Midwest, had loved and idealized Greece ever since he'd studied the language at school. It was his cultural home, and he and Susan moved there in 1922, though Susan spent much of her time writing in Paris.

Jig eschewed the cities and settled in rural area near the mountains, where he became friends with the shepherds and reveled in his rustic surroundings. While there, he rediscovered poetry, writing verses that would not be published until after his death, which would be all too soon.

In late December of 1923, while Susan was visiting Athens, Jig caught a terrible cold. The local doctor told him he had the grippe, so he paid no attention to his worsening symptoms, saving all his worry for TóPuppy, their small dog, who was also sick.

By the time Susan returned and discovered the both of them too weak to move, it was too late. TóPuppy had to be put down and Jig could not be moved. Susan found an American doctor who discovered that Jig was suffering from glanders, a disease of horses that rarely transfers to humans. It was speculated that TóPuppy had contracted the disease and passed it to his master through a scratch or a nip.

George Cram Cook died on January 14th, 1924. His death did not go unnoticed by any of the people he influenced, encouraged, and supported.

The poets of Greece petitioned that a stone from the Temple of Apollo be placed on Jig's grave, an honor that had never been bestowed on any other person. Eugene O'Neill put up a massive bronze plaque in the Provincetown Playhouse. And a grieving Susan Glaspell wrote both a biography of Jig called The Road to the Temple and gathered his poems together into a collection titled, Greek Coins, a quiet memorial to her soulmate and husband.

Here is my spruce-bough bower

Whose posts are living trees

On the Greek mountain side,

A young wild bird

Hops on the ground at my feet

And examines me with friendly interest.

I lean on my table of hand-sawn boards and bark-covered,

I sit on the rock I have set for a seat,

The lazy tinkle of bells

Of goats and lambs

Floats up from the valley

And for the first time in a long while I hear

The quietude of my soul.

Sources

  • Cook, George Cram. Greek Coins. (New York: George H. Doran Company), 1925.
  • Elsner, B.J., editor. With Pen I nHand: Notable Quad-City Writers of the Past. (Davenport, Iowa: Midwest Writing Center), 2003.
  • Glaspell, Susan. Road to the Temple. (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company), 1927.
  • Sarlos, Robert Karoly. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players. (Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press), 1982.
  • Tanselle, Thomas. "George Cram Cook and the Poetry of Living, with a checklist." Books at Iowa 24, (April, 1976)