article first appeared in
by Peter Lucia
Margaret Widdemer about 1964 (Photo: Lorstan Studios)
Margaret Widdemer was a poet and novelist whose work was much honored during the first half of this century. Among her many awards, and her honorary degrees, was the 1916 Columbia University Prize for poetry (the early Pulitzer, which she shared with Carl Sandburg). While she considered herself primarily a poet, she was more prolific as a writer of prose fiction: she wrote 32 novels during her long career.
Though a native of Doylestown, PA., she spent her childhood off and on in Asbury Park, where her father was minister of the Congregational Church (which was on First and Emory), and her mother and aunt owners of a hotel (the Breakers, which was on Second near Ocean). Their residence was on Grand and Seventh. She had been educated entirely at home until she attended high school in Asbury Park (on Bond Street).
Two of her works take as their setting local shore towns. "Why Not?" (1915) is a light romance novel whose story unfolds in "Wanalasset" (that is, Wanamassa); and "The Boardwalk" (1919), which is a book of short stories that are set in "the Park" (that is, Asbury Park), and also in "Allenwood" (Allenhurst), "the Grove" (Ocean Grove), and other locales. "Why Not?" is about a spirited girl of 18 who has inherited $3000 from the strict great-uncle who raised her. Now that she's rich and free she can realize her dreams ("why not?"), one of which is the purchase of a bungalow in "Wanalasset." During the course of her adventures, she fulfills not only her own dreams but those of others, in unusual ways.
Wanamassa, in the first quarter of the century, was a rustic cottage community where canoeing was popular pursuit. In Widdemer's novel this romantic activity is apparent: people come and go by via the intimate branches of "the lake" (Deal Lake). The nine stories of "The Boardwalk" follow the searching paths of young people -- their loves, sorrows, joys and revelations. Unlike the tourists, they live in "the Park" as "year-rounders" through "the eight long village months you don't see." Of the boardwalk the author writes: "It is not so very long as the Atlantic City one. But it is smooth and very wide and un-built on, and garlanded with lights and jeweled with light-traced casinos." One of the stories depicts ice skating on "Sunrise Lake."
Life in Asbury Park was a stimulus for Widdemer. Reportedly she stated that were it not for her having lived in this city, she might never have become a writer. Indeed, it is said that her first poem, written when she was four, was titled "Asbury Park Goldenrod."
In her book "Golden Friends I had" (1964) she tells of her social adventures as an author, detailing her friendship and encounters with noted writers (Edna Millay, Joyce Kilmer, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others). Unfortunately, her work has not shared the same longevity as that of many of her acquaintances. A search of "Books in Print" lists not a single instance of her name. People who wish to read her work must check the libraries and antiquarian bookstores.
Margaret Widdemer died in 1976, in Gloversville, NY, reportedly at age 93.