An only child, Zona Gale was raised in Portage, Wisconsin, a town that would occupy a central place in both her life and her writings. Her father, Charles Franklin Gale, was a railroad engineer with philosophical inclinations. Her mother, Eliza (née Beers), was a teacher and devoutly religious.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1895, Gale began her career as a reporter, first for the Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin and then, from 1896 to 1901, for the Milwaukee Journal. She earned her M.A. from her alma mater in 1899. In 1901 she moved east to write for the New York Evening World. Resigning after eighteen months to pursue freelance writing, she made her first short-story sale to Success magazine in 1903. She showed a flair for writing sentimental stories and set many in an imaginary small town called Friendship Village, an idealized Portage. These stories won her a wide readership.
Gale moved back to her birthplace after establishing her freelance career. Her novels soon began showing signs of greater ambition, while remaining sentimental works. Heart’s Kindred had an antiwar theme, while A Daughter of the Morning dealt with conditions endured by working women.
The novels that followed these established her literary reputation. With the appearance of Birth, critics observed a pronounced shift toward realism in her writing, a change confirmed two years later in the best-selling Miss Lulu Bett. This short novel’s new, pared-down prose style was widely hailed by critics. Ironically, before its appearance, Gale had been unable to sell the story to magazines. After this success, however, her next novel was immediately purchased by Century magazine.
Already famous for her sentimental works, Gale started being compared to such novelists as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Critics of the time, in discussing her change from sentimentalism to realism, pointed to the influence of poet Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915). Later biographers noted that Gale had become disaffected with small-town life during World War I, when her pacifism brought some in her community to suspect her of holding German sympathies.
Gale’s standing was enhanced when she wrote a stage version of Miss Lulu Bett, significantly changed from the novel. As with the novel, the play’s realism and intentionally plain dialogue won critical respect. The success of the production in New York and elsewhere led to a screen adaptation, while the play brought Gale the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
Short stories written in her realistic mode were honored in best-of-year anthologies. Following the 1923 death of her mother, however, she began exploring a new literary direction. The collection Yellow Gentians and Blue reflected this course alteration, containing both starkly realistic works and others reflecting her growing interest in mysticism. This interest led her to attend, for a time, lectures by famous mystic Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Mystical elements became pronounced in her later novels.
Besides her antiwar activities, Gale was involved in civic and charitable causes. With politician Robert M. La Follette, Sr., she campaigned for the Progressive Party; with feminist Lutie Stearns, for women’s suffrage. In 1928, Gale married Portage businessman William L. Breese. Following a trip to Japan her health failed, and she died of pneumonia in a Chicago hospital. Her last novel, Magna, appeared posthumously.
After her death, Gale’s literary star waned. Her finest achievements had been sandwiched between early sentimental and later mystical works, diffusing their impact. As novelist, playwright, and short-story writer, however, she produced portraits of small-town life of enduring importance within the American realist tradition.