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July 16: Tess Slesinger and The Unpossessed

July 16, 2014
9781590170144Tess Slesinger, a New York writer who helped to establish the Screen Writers Guild in 1933, was born in New York on this date in 1905. Her mother, Augusta, was a psychoanalyst who helped found the New School. Tess Slesinger’s short story, “Missis Flinders,” based on her own abortion experience, may have been the first widely circulated work of fiction on that topic when it appeared in Story Magazine in December, 1932. She was married twice before her death at 39 — first to Herbert Solow, editor of The Menorah Journal, the preeminent Jewish periodical of its day, and then to screenwriter Frank Davis, with whom she wrote the screenplay for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1946). Slesinger was also responsible for the 1936 screen adaptation of The Good Earth, among other screenplays. Her short fiction, which appeared regularly in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, combined personal, emotional stories with reportage on the culture of the New York and Hollywood left. “The notoriety [that her] quasi-autobiographical story received convinced Slesinger to expand the piece into a complex novel tracing not only the Flinderses’ disintegrating marriage but the ravaged lives of a group of left-wing writers and artists gathered around a charismatic Jewish professor to start a magazine. Critics immediately praised Slesinger’s novel, calling it ‘impeccable,’ ‘brilliantly written,’ and ‘sheer genius,’ and began sorting out the characters of this roman à clef convinced that, in Murray Kempton’s words, The Unpossessed was a ‘document’ about 1930s literary radicals.” —Paula Rabinowitz, Jewish Women’s Archive