Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, 1981 (autobiography)
Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, 1984 (autobiography)
How to Prepare for Your High-School Reunion, and Other Midlife Musings, 1988
A House of One’s Own: An Architect’s Guide to Designing the House of Your Dreams, 1991 (with James Stageberg)
My Love Affair with England, 1992
England as You Like It: An Independent Traveler’s Companion, 1995
England for All Seasons, 1997
Victoria: The Heart of England, 1999
Reading Rooms, 1991 (with John Coughlan)
Susan Allen Toth is an important Midwestern chronicler of the life of the common person. Her writing shows how a relatively mundane life may seem intriguing if it is told with sensitivity and sympathy for humanity. Born in Ames, Iowa, where she also grew up, she had a quiet and happy childhood with her mother, Hazel Erickson Allen Lipa, an English teacher at Iowa State University, and her sister, Karen, one year older than Toth. Her father, Edward Douglas Allen, a promising economist at Iowa State, died when she was seven years old; her mother did not remarry until Toth’s college years.
Toth’s childhood and adolescence are recorded in detail in her first book, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, which is a thematic collection of reminiscences from her grade-school years to her arrival at Smith College. The book depicts incidents and people, apprehensions and successes, that shape the person she would become in adulthood. Blooming also describes Toth’s early propensity for omnivorous reading, her immersion in the Protestant work ethic (from baby-sitting to detasseling corn), and the social and psychological importance of cultivating many girlfriends and boyfriends.
Blooming’s eleven chapters explore Toth’s early interests and experiences: the town swimming pools and her family’s summer lake retreat, her friends and classes and parties, holiday celebrations, and preparations for and departure to college. Ivy Days: Making My Way out East, a memoir of Toth’s four years at Smith College and her first two years of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, has seven chapters that tell of Toth’s alliance with and adjustments to all sorts of other women, her fledgling attempts at social drinking and smoking, her embarrassments and boredom on uninteresting or threatening dates, her apprehensions and successes in college classes, and her enchantment with campus scenery and with East Coast families of her friends.
Ivy Days is not only more mature chronologically than her first book but also tighter in its prose and more symbolic in its language. Apples packed in a bag for lunch on the train home from college symbolize freedom and health, a quilt made by her aunt signifies solace and love in her claustrophobic dormitory room in Lawrence House, and six-foot-long college scarves curled on other girls’ shoulders broadcast popularity and romantic involvement. Ivy Days is a book at once universal and particular in its topics of uprooting, moving, becoming homesick, and reaching out to others.
Ivy Days is also about charting direction for life. Toth embarks on a history major after considering art history and economics, but two months later she finds governmental abstractions and legislative acts uninteresting when compared with the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Carlyle, which delights her. Her experiences as an English major are not all positive, however: A devastating comment from a creative writing instructor causes her to give up writing short stories for the next eighteen years.
After one summer working in Boston for the Harvard Business Review and another going to summer school in London, Toth graduated from college, not with the summa cum laude for which she had striven (illness having caused her to do poorly on the final examination) but with magna cum laude distinction and with her mother and stepfather in attendance at the ceremony. The last dozen pages of the book cover her Berkeley years and her meeting and falling in love with Louis E. Toth, whom she married in 1963. They had one child, Jennifer Lee. Since 1969 Toth has been on the writing faculty at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Toth’s third book, How to Prepare for Your High-School Reunion, and Other Midlife Musings, chronicles her feelings and concerns at the stage of mid-life, following her divorce in 1974 and her remarriage to architect James Stageberg in 1985. Here she presents emotions and insights about single parenting, adult dating, adjustments in a happy second marriage, college teaching, tranquillity in nature, and fascination with material things. In one essay, childhood reminiscence about an inappropriate gift purchased for her mother concerns, more important, parental love. In other essays she recommends five steps of preparation for attending a class reunion, offers suggestions and encouragement to would-be writers, shows how she combats an emotional crisis, and shares fears of violence and crime in an urban neighborhood. In three of the final essays Toth hypothesizes about her maternal grandmother’s life and the lessons Toth learned from her without ever meeting her.
In addition to coming-of-age domestic prose, Toth has written two entertaining, conversational, autobiographical travel guides: My Love Affair with England and England as You Like It: An Independent Traveler’s Companion. A third book on England, England for All Seasons, was published in 1997. Toth’s guides encourage leisurely travel and well-planned exploration of small areas and highlight destinations that are her personal favorites. All three books are informative and readable.
Toth is also adept at composing book-length essays on other topics. She coedited (with John Coughlan) Reading Rooms: America’s Foremost Writers Celebrate Our Public Libraries and co-authored (with her architect-husband) A House of One’s Own: An Architect’s Guide to Designing the House of Your Dreams. In addition, her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in Family Portraits: Remembrances by Twenty Distinguished Writers (1989) and in such publications as North American Review, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times, Harper’s, Woman’s Day, and Vogue.
Toth has said that she has been influenced by E. B. White’s varied sentence structure, his use of the surprising image, and his zest for life amid fear and self-doubt. She is an avid admirer of Henry David Thoreau, for his spare and strong style and his moral philosophy. From Sarah Orne Jewett she learned to write about small things and the quiet, domestic life. In her personal revelations Toth is unpretentious, self-deprecating, and unembarrassed. Her books concern humanity in general, and she uses commonplace subjects, such as picking raspberries or buying knee socks, to illustrate truths about life. Her style is modest and matter-of-fact, and her prose reveals universal life experiences of growth and exploration. Critics have noted that her work is well-received in part because her vivid memories spark similar reminiscences in her readers.