The American Girl on the Home Front in Jean Webster’s Dear Enemy

© Copyright 2014 Danielle Parris, Ryerson

In the Children’s Literature Archive (CLA), located on 111 Gerrard Street, the novel Dear Enemy is cataloged. This ‘Top 10 Best-Seller’ novel was written and illustrated by Alice Jane Chandler Webster, or otherwise known as Jean Webster. Published by Grosset and Dunlap, in New York in 1915, the novel is situated under the genre of Young Adult Fiction. Dear Enemy is included in the larger CLA exhibit Children’s Books and War, because it was published during the years of The Great War with a context dedicated to the education of young adults, particularly female adolescents.

America, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, was going through several changes and many cultural movements had taken over the American lifestyle and literature. The Progressive Era, the suffrage movement, Transcendentalism and The Great War were just a few campaigns of the early 1900s[1]. Though war had begun in 1914, Americans did not solely focus on the war, society was preoccupied with the various cultural transitions taking place. These times of reformation had great impacts on literature and thus writers of the period. Jean Webster was no acceptation, for the suffrage fight was one close to her heart, she was a student and advocator (qtd. in Phillips A.K. 68).

Webster, born in Fredonia, New York, had become known as an influential and clever writer for her era. She was a 1901 Vassar College graduate with progressive and social reform values. Webster supported the suffrage movement, studied Transcendentalism theorists and most of her novels centered on female voices and female communities, such as the college scene (Stoneley 77-79). Webster’s novels were often viewed and praised as a form of ‘new girl’ fiction or aiding to the ‘New Woman’ fight. This type of literature reinvented females as more than belonging to the domestic spheres. The ‘New Woman’ was a mother, daughter, educated, reformer and wife (“Webster, Jean”).

Dear Enemy is a novel that can be categorized under gender relations, feminine identity and the transformation of women roles out of the domestic sphere. This paper will take a critical approach on the production and reception of the context of Dear Enemy. How this context, is a product of the ever changing cultural ideals that focused on the education of young adult females during World War I and because of this it was so wildly received. The paper will look at the cultural and gender traditions of American that Webster was trying to break down, but also the notions of who an enemy is. The critical approach will be a combination of my own analysis and of the research found.

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This is from page six of the novel. Sallie has drawn what she believes her at the John Grier Home would look like.


Dear Enemy is an epistolary novel and the sequel to Daddy Long Legs. The story begins in Worcester, Massachusetts where Sallie McBride, a recent college graduate, is living her life as a frivolous socialite. One day, her dear friend Judy asks of her a monumental task. That is to be the temporary superintendent of the John Grier Home, an orphan asylum. Sallie feels her friends have gone mad, but after several alluring attempts what really pushes her over the edge is when Mr. Hallock, a politician and possible suitor, laughs in her face. McBride becomes determined to prove him wrong. She sets out to study orphanages, visits several and the journey begins. It is through trial and error that McBride comes to admit that this job was perfect for her.

On numerous accounts she struggles with the concept of how she will fill one hundred and thirteen little lives with the right amount of joy, love, and happiness. How will she teach them all to grow up to be respectable people in society? How will she find the right homes for these children? Sallie is constantly asking questions, figuring out how to better become an example to these children and socially reforming the world of the orphan. Obstacles and enemies (who tend to be men) who assert that she is too young, ill-educated, unprepared and unwilling to adopt to the old standard pose no threat.

In the end, McBride finds her own voice and becomes more aware of who she is and what she stands for. The once drifting Sallie is no more, she is now a self-aware women, with a career and proud of her independence. Romance is found in her relationship with Dr. MacRae. The doctor is her first enemy and first to question her authority but in due course, as they work together more closely and as the doctor continues Sallie’s education in the sciences, respect and friendship grows. The novel in all its wit, attacks gender, education and the social reform of dependent children. The illustrations are also an added touch of amusement.

Dear Enemy’s Context Production and Connection to Female Education

A photo of Jean Webster, taken from her alumni page on the Vassar College website.

Jean Webster was a product of her environment and was often known to be the type of writer who drew upon her own experiences and used her writing to advocate for what she believed. It was almost like a religion to her, to support female education, the women’s vote and the women’s right to social reform within society (Phillips A.K. 68). At Vassar, and several other women colleges, the courses were geared towards the social sciences, social work, sociology and economic field. Webster, in particular, was concerned about the social issues of dependent children, and how to best reform orphanages. She made herself an expert on the topic, studied and visited several asylums and knew the John Grier Homes very well (Phillips A 155).  Webster, was also very interested in the Transcendentalism movement, popular in the Civil War and the Great War (Phillips A 16).  It was an intellectual campaign that believed in the infinite goodness of humanity. Webster had studied transcendental theories and writings by Thoreau and Waldon; even using Thoreau’s emphasis on human work and nature dependency. She was one of the many authors to bridge transcendental improvements for children and adults (Phillips A 24).  During her studies at Vassar, Webster read the journal of Marie BashKirtseff, who was a Russian artist, and focused on the importance and interesting aspect a women’s account of daily life would have. When her work was translated into English, in 1889, a type of cult following had emerged in America. American women were now following in her foot prints and paying much more attention to the self (Phillips A.K. 70). Webster’s use of the epistolary novel came at a perfect time and went hand in hand with female education and voice. This style of writing was not uncommon to her, while she was in college she used to write a chatty column for the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier. (“The Vassar Literary”). This chatty, comedic style of Webster’s carried on throughout much of her career and landed her first book deal.

Webster’s era was a time of great question, one in particular was the effects of college on women. Since the opening of women colleges in the 1860s-1870s, great tension arose and could still be felt even into the early 1900s (Phillips A.K. 67).  Many had written articles on the negative impacts of college on women, stating such things that women would no longer be in touch with their housewife nature, the tradition of domestication would be lost, women would become unfit to bear children and too much women in once place was never a good thing. The extreme arguments were that by women going to college, America was committing ‘race suicide’ (qtd. in Phillips A.K. 67). Webster, being a suffragist at heart, never missing an opportunity to advocate for women’s rights to education and the vote, it would make sense that she would answer such ridiculous accusations the best way possible. That way would be to create a novel, with a female protagonist, who is educated, concerned about social reform and could handle men, the so called “enemies” in the novel which Sallie must face. Grosset and Dunlap were also known to sell Dear Enemy for a reasonable price, usually advertised for $1.30. (Century Co.)

How Dear Enemy is received in Reviews and Scholarly Articles

During the Great War it was known that reading had become an escape from the devastation and hard times (Butler 100). Readers were looking for something fun, uplifting and comedic. Dear Enemy offered this to many readers. With her wit and charm, newspapers and critics alike noted that Jean Webster’s characters and illustrations were hilarious and refreshing in such times.[2] Besides being a distraction, others recognized the female empowerment and self-identity that Webster has encouraged and portrayed. Book reviews written in Vogue Magazine, conclude that Dear Enemy is a great book, not only humorous but what is really interesting and guaranteed to hold a reader, is the self-development of Sallie. Watching Sallie become her own woman is a great thing for women to read about and support.

Academically Dear Enemy has been seen as a heavy text, loaded with educational purposes. Incorporating domestic transcendentalism; which encouraged women to resist the government but also to confront, challenge, and call for social reform (Phillips A 25). Webster’s character, like most popular fiction of the time, encouraged the protagonist to leave home, in order to become the self-sufficient and self-identifying heroine (Berke 189). This is important because girls going off to college, to be educated and earn a professional career left home as well.

The article “Yours most loquaciously’: Voice in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs”  written by Anne K Phillips, recognizes the power of the epistolary novel for expressing the feminine voiceThe epistolary genre, which was highly popular at the turn of the century (Phillips A.K. 65) has two categories; one erotic and the other educational.  This novel fits into the educational because it is focused on the further education of McBride but also of the orphans. The educational epistolary novel also tackled various settings and experiences, not commonly known, so that the larger public could be educated. Dear Enemy addresses the after college experience and even takes the reader into the politics of running an orphanage asylum. The epistolary genre is very important because when one character functions as the speaker, priority is given to that speaker’s perspective on experiences (qtd. in Phillips A 69). Sallie is given all the control, and in the end it is her voice that is reigns supreme.


Jean Webster was a writer who drew on the experiences of her environment and used that as a muse to publish a novel. This novel, Dear Enemy, has a rich context, containing, social, cultural and history aspects of American society in 1915. This novel was popular due not only to the comedic nature, illustrations and use of an escape; this novel touched on important movements and ideals, particularly concerning female education, which was an important in American society during the year 1915. This type of novel spoke volumes to what women, especially educated college women were capable of. Sallie came, once a giddy young thing and grew into a women. She runs an asylum, has a voice to be heard and defeated the male enemies who tried to inhibit her powers. Lastly, after a career is found, love is found with a man who respected her and her vocation. A novel that does all this, in the questionable years of 1915, is worth recognition.

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An example of the novels comedy. Sallie hopes that each child will be able to take a daily bath.


Works Cited

“Advertisement: Dear Enemy (Dear Enemy).” Vogue 46.2 (1915): 80. ProQuest. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

“Advertisement: Century Co.” Vogue 47. 3 (1916): ProQuest. Web. 26. Feb. 2014

Butler, Pierce. Books and Libraries in Wartime. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945. Print.

Berke, Jacqueline. “‘Mother I Can Do It Myself!’: The Self-Sufficient Heroine in Popular Girls’ Fiction.” Women’s Studies 6.2 (1979): Print.

Haire-Sargeant, Lin. “American Girl to New Woman: Themes of Transformation in Books for Girls, 1850 1925.” Ph.D. Tufts University, 2004. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Phillips, Anne K. “‘Yours most loquaciously’: Voice in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.” Children’s Literature 27 (1999): 64-86. Project MUSE. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Stoneley, Peter. “PART 2: Fulfillment.” Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1860-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Online.

“What They Read: What They Read.” Vogue 47.6 (1916): 84, 86, 88, 90. ProQuest. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Webster, Jean. Dear Enemy. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1915. Print.

“Webster, Jean – Oxford Reference.” N. p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Webster, Jean. “The Vassar Literary.” The New York Times. N.p., 21, Mar. 1915. Web. 26 Feb. 2014


[1] For a sampling of materials that touch on cultural movements, see Phillips A 12-17; Haire-Sargeant 5-6; Seller 108-111.

[2] For samples of newspapers and critics see Century Co.; Vogue Magazine; Phillips A 152.