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Alice French

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When a young Davenport woman named Alice French signed the name "Octave Thanet" to a story she published in Lippincot's Magazine in 1878, she had no idea the pseudonym would become the tail that wagged the dog. To be more exact, Octave Thanet became the dog, and poor Alice merely the tail.

The French family were well-connected Easterners. Alice was the granddaughter of the governor of Massachusetts. Her father ran a large and successful manufacturing plant in Davenport. The French home entertained the likes of Marshall Field and Branson Alcott, father of Louisa May.

As a child, Alice pretended her dolls were knights and ladies, and grew up into the life of a Davenport socialite. Then, Octave Thanet came into her life. While Alice was a romantic, Octave Thanet was a realist. That first Thanet story, "Communists and Capitalists: A Sketch from Life," was an accurate portrayal of the growing conflict between management and labor in America. Its main character, an unemployed worker named William Bailey, lived with his six children in a shanty, where the rats "eat a little of the children now and then."

By 1900, Octave Thanet had earned a reputation as a major American writer. She was ranked alongside Theodore Dreiser and Henry James for her realistic portrayals of life which refused to take political sides. She helped put Davenport on the literary map.

Romantic Alice French, however, would not let go. Increasingly, she got hold of Octave Thanet's grim stories and tacked on happy endings. Art must be true to nature, said Octave Thanet. "But," added Alice French, "it must be nature idealized."

By 1920 Octave Thanet's reputation had fallen out of favor with both critics and the public. A few last stories were published in the 1930s in Good Housekeeping.

In 1933, the Octave Thanet Literary Society at The University of Iowa folded. Alice French died in Davenport in January 1934, old, ill, and impoverished by the Depression, sustained by family and friends. It was not the fairytale ending you found in her novels, but a real one.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.