Katy Gaumer, 1915
Basil Everman, 1920
Ellen Levis, 1921
Bennett Malin, 1922
The Hidden Road, 1923
Keller’s Anna Ruth, 1926
What Everybody Wanted, 1928
The Magic Mirror, 1934
The Loving Heart, 1937
A High Wind Rising, 1942
I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens, 1947
I Heard of a River, 1948
Bred in the Bone, 1925
Stories to Read at Christmas, 1940
Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna, 1950
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
When Sarah Saved the Day, 1909
John Baring’s House, 1920
A Boy at Gettysburg, 1924
“Sewing Susie,” 1927
Virginia’s Bandit, 1929
You Make Your Own Luck, 1929
Swords of Steel, 1933
Stories of Pennsylvania, 1937–1940 (4 volumes)
Rifles for Washington, 1938
The Isle of Que, 1948
The fiction of Elsie Singmaster may be clearly charted in geography and time. She is the novelist of Pennsylvania, more particularly of the Pennsylvania German region from the colonial period to the present. First in time are her stories of the early settlements in A High Wind Rising and I Heard of a River, set against the years when French and Indian raiders swept over the Warrior Road and Carlisle and Lancaster stood on a disputed frontier between the French lands on the Ohio and English territory along the Schuylkill and the Delaware. Later the history of the state widens into the history of the nation in her Revolutionary War novel, Rifles for Washington, and in I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens and in her stories of the three bloody days at Gettysburg in 1863. For a later time she wrote novels and tales of small-town and country life. These are regional rather than historical, for in them she makes vivid and real the Pennsylvania German countryside of red barns and fieldstone houses, the landscape of the sturdy, patriarchal Mennonites, Dunkers, and Amish, with their religious dress and slow unchanging ways of conduct and belief. This was her own region as well, and she brought to it her vision and understanding as a writer.
Singmaster was born in the Lutheran parsonage at Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania. Her father, the Reverend John Alden Singmaster, had among his ancestors one who studied under Martin Luther and another who was the first Lutheran minister ordained in the United States. Part of her childhood was spent at Macungie, the Millerstown of her fiction, where her father had been called to a pastorate of six churches between Allentown and Reading. She gathered impressions of this locality as she drove about with him when he went to preach to the different congregations in his charge. English was always spoken in the Singmaster home, as her mother was a Quaker of English descent, but from playmates and neighbors the children learned the hybrid mixture of English and German known as Pennsylvania Dutch. This was the only language known to the first teacher who taught her rhetoric.
If her early education was at best rudimentary, there were always good books to read in her father’s library. By the time she was eleven she had begun to write stories of her own. Later, at Cornell University and Radcliffe College, she continued to write sketches of Pennsylvania life and character, partly to set down her observations and partly to explain a group of people she thought were misunderstood. She sold her first story in 1905. By the time she graduated from Radcliffe in 1907 she had already contributed to Scribner’s, Century, and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1912 she married Harold Lewars, a musician, and went to live in Harrisburg. After his death in 1915 she made her permanent home in Gettysburg, where her father was the president of the Lutheran theological seminary.
Singmaster had already written a number of stories and several books for children when in 1915 she published her first novel, Katy Gaumer. Katy is one of Singmaster’s typical heroines, a Pennsylvania German girl eager to acquire the learning that will prepare her for life in a larger world. Basil Everman, which is set in a college town that may be identified as Gettysburg, deals with the influence a young writer of genius has on a group of people of the college and the town many years after his death. Ellen Levis and Keller’s Anna Ruth are stories of gentle, self-sacrificing young women, handicapped by environment, who ultimately have a better future. Bennett Malin, darker in mood and implications, tells of a man who builds a false, bright world about himself on a shaky foundation of literary theft. In What Everybody Wanted, Singmaster shifts the scene to Maryland to present a light and amusing account of human vanity and desire. The Magic Mirror returns to a more familiar Pennsylvania setting and brings to life a community, a countryside, and a strange but rich way of life through the experiences of Jesse Hummer, whose ambition it is to tell the story of his people after he becomes a writer.
Singmaster’s later novels reveal a renewed interest in historical themes. In Rifles for Washington she presents the events and battles of seven years of war from a boy’s point of view because she wanted to stress the element of action that would make the deepest impression on a boy’s mind. Like many of her stories, this book is juvenile fiction only in the sense that it deals with a youthful hero. A High Wind Rising is a regional chronicle dealing with the early settlements and the part played by the Pennsylvania Germans under Conrad Weiser in holding the land for the English during the French and Indian wars. I Speak for Thaddeus Stevens is a biographical novel throwing new light on the powerful political figure of the Civil War period. I Heard of a River is another story of the early settlements. Of Singmaster’s short stories, the most vivid and moving are the Civil War tales in Gettysburg, the most amusing her stories of the Mennonite Shindledecker sisters in Bred in the Bone. Much of her magazine fiction remains to be collected.
A writer of quiet but satisfying richness and depth within her chosen field, Singmaster never attracted a wide reading public or the attention of popular criticism. One reason may be that as examples of work done within a clearly defined regional tradition, her books have owed almost nothing to literary fashion.