Claire Sprague, a New Yorker who was a part-time resident of Provincetown for over 40 years, died on Nov. 13, 2021 at Whitehall Manor, an assisted living facility, in Whitehall, Pa. She was 95.
Claire was born on Aug. 22, 1926 in Brooklyn, NY. Her parents, Albert and Molly (Teitch) Sachs, were immigrants who never went to school, said her son, Jesse Sprague, adding that Claire used to say that her mother “was illiterate in four languages.”
The Sachs family, including Claire and her sister, Annette, moved often between the Bronx and Brooklyn as her father’s jobs required. After she graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Claire studied painting at Cooper Union in New York. But she always found her escape in books, her son said.
At the University of Wisconsin, Claire found both freedom and direction. She earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees there in modern English and American literature.
Although her first marriage, to Charles Bevier, ended in an annulment and her second, to Norman Sprague, ended in divorce, Claire forged a family of her own. She adopted Jesse, who had been born in California, in 1968. They lived in the Greenwich Village apartment she had moved to in the 1950s.
Claire had a long career at the City University of New York. She taught at Brooklyn College, then became dean of graduate studies at John Jay College. She also taught at Reed College in Oregon and was an adjunct professor at New York University until she retired in the early 1990s. She won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Zaragoza in Spain.
Claire was a distinguished literary scholar, “a pioneer among women in academia,” read her obituary in the New York Times. Her first book, a critical study of the American novelist, philosopher, and critic Edgar Saltus, was published in 1968. A series of works of feminist literary criticism followed, including, in 1986, Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, co-edited with Virginia Tiger, and Rereading Doris Lessing in 1987 and In Pursuit of Doris Lessing in 1990.
As the first president of the Doris Lessing Society from 1980 to 1988, Claire edited the Doris Lessing Newsletter, now archived at the University of Tulsa.
In 2012, when she was 86, Claire’s study of three dystopian novels by Jack London (The Iron Heel), Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), and Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) was published with the title It Can Happen Here. In it, she made the case that the possibility of a fascist takeover of America feels even more real in the 21st century than it did in the dark fantasies of those three 20th-century novelists.
In the early 1970s Claire became one of a group of literary critics, historians, and artists who lived in Greenwich Village but spent their summers in Provincetown. She reveled in the connection between the two “cultured, eccentric communities,” as Jesse put it. She was, Jesse added, “an incredibly social person who would talk to anyone.”
Claire remained interested in art and design throughout her life. She was a supporter of the Fine Arts Work Center and served on the board of the Provincetown Art Association, where she curated The Jewelers’ Art: Four Provincetown Silversmiths 1940s-1960s in 2003, highlighting the work of midcentury modernist jewelers on the Outer Cape.
Memories of her house at 2 Baker St. can be found in David Dunlap’s Building Provincetown. In the dispersal of her property after she moved, a Marimekko dress she had owned was given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From 1992 to 2009 she created with Ann Lane and hosted a popular radio program focused on gender issues called Sister Talk on WOMR-FM.
Claire is survived by her son, Jesse Sprague, and his wife, Jenny Song, of Wayne, N.J.; her grandsons, Alden and Jalen; her niece Aleta Kaufman; her nephew David Kaufman, his wife, Jan, and their children, Annessa and Daniel; and countless friends.
She was predeceased by her sister, Annette, whose ashes rest in a burial plot in Provincetown. Jesse is making arrangements for Claire to join Annette there.
A celebration of her life is planned for the summer of 2022 in Provincetown.