Let There Be Light: Leaning in to Change

We finally have a “new” antique light in our dining room. After 18-plus years of wanting to gaze upon something other than a 1970s Victorian reproduction chandelier, we have made a change. Some of my friends who are architectural historians and preservationists may not like that this ornate pendant is Spanish Revival style and our home is not. But I love the light and the warm glow it casts in a space I already enjoyed as a gathering place for guests and family. It speaks to the value of leaning in to change.

 

This “new” old fixture was a long time coming, and not without some challenges:

  • Where to find the best style for a 1920s home?
  • Whether to go with a reproduction or an antique?
  • How much to spend?
  • If an antique, whether to restore or buy already restored?
  • And, once I found the Spanish Revival style light–whether to follow my gut and go with it?

These are only a few of the questions which for me became roadblocks in taking a step. (I am sometimes slow to make decisions.) Each supposedly simple question seemed to stub my toe in the midst of an already complicated path of daily life, with work, family responsibilities, and social events.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rumbles through my family . . .

And, quite frankly, we already had a dining room light that worked just fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rumbles through my family background and my husband’s, and he’s my number one carpenter, engineer, and electrician. In short, he’s the light installer.

But I’m the major decision maker for choices related to our home, so I am the one who let this project take 18 years. I bear full responsibility for delaying the change. When I saw the results–you can easily imagine what I asked–why so long???!!!??

In fact, this whole light buying and installation process resonates for me with questions I have asked for years. Some people seem to make choices easily and move right ahead, diving in to the proverbial cold water without a thought of potential hypothermia, or stomach cramps, or not being able to swim well enough, or any one of the number of things that cause others to stand on the edge. Some of us hesitantly dangle a toe in the water.

Chaos and Confusion–A Temporary Matter

But even once the change begins, its not always easy to continue without second-guessing and self-doubts. Being in the midst of change is not always easy. The light installation was not without some moments of chaos and confusion.

I think of the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” The woman of the lyrics leaves her marriage and position as housewife, where for “15 years she had a job, and not one raise in pay,” where “she does the carpool, she PTAs” (yes, the lyrics use PTA as a verb). She does not drive herself into a fantastic fantasy position but finds herself “in the typing pool at minimum wage.”

“for 15 years she had a job, and not one raise in pay” – Mary Chapin Carpenter

The song, however, is not a depressed song of mourning. It celebrates the choice of change. It sings of the woman’s agency, making a decision to move from one 13-year tradition to begin a new one.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lyrics don’t lie about change being easy. It’s not without its challenges. But this woman, like many before her, stepped out of what had once been a comfortable path. When it became one of crippling discomfort, but before it killed her, she took action.

True, leaving a marriage of many years it not the same as changing a light fixture. But the point is, what pushes people to step out? What happens when they do? And what about people who are in life-relationships that seem to limit their abilities to change? How do they respond to opportunities beyond redecorating or traveling?

Many people—not just now but also before our time—provide examples that answer those questions. My reading and writing through the years has explored many of them, especially those who have left behind letters, journals and autobiographies that trace their paths. I will be sharing parts of some of their stories here.

A 19th-Century Case: Caroline Crane Marsh

Caroline Crane Marsh

Caroline Crane Marsh, ca 1866, courtesy of University of Vermont Billings Library, Special Collections, George Perkins Marsh Collection

Most recently, I have been writing about Caroline Crane Marsh, the wife of a US ambassador who lived in Italy for more than twenty years. She, along with Anne Hampton Brewster, who left Philadelphia to become a newspaper correspondent in Rome, and Emily Bliss Gould, a New Yorker who established an industrial school and orphanage in Rome, are three women at the center of my book project on Italy and what I call their “later vocations.”

Last week I traveled to Denver, where I talked about Marsh, comparing her to two more radical and better-known women: Margaret Fuller and Germaine de Staël. I refer to Caroline Marsh as a “semi-feminist.” She did not push overtly for women’s roles to change, and she didn’t break the bounds of accepted behaviors in the realms of romance and sexuality, as Fuller and Staël did. As a woman married to a rather mountainous man and public figure, Caroline lived somewhat carefully in her husband George’s shadow.

But at least two loves link the three women—the Italian people and language study. They loved language study for how it opened up their worlds. As Staël wrote in On Germany, language study broadens knowledge beyond a person’s “own nation—a circle that is narrow” and “exclusive.” Focusing on children, in particular, she wrote, “the child who translates gradually perceives everything” about human communications. This perception through language study leads to “independence of thought.”

Title page from one of Caroline Marsh’s translated volumes

When you think about it, this quote is about change–change brought about by language study. Caroline Marsh translated books from German and studied Turkish when she lived in Constantinople, where her husband also was an ambassador. Later, in Italy, she would communicate in the local language as well as study French with her nieces. My longer writing on Caroline looks closely at how language study and juggling new responsibilities transformed her. She constantly faced changes brought about by her husband’s career rather than her own ideas. She continually had new homes–and new dining room lights–forced upon her!

Learn more about Caroline and other women negotiating change by following my Facebook author page, where I’ll be posting blogs about twice a month. Or, send me a message here to let me know you’d like to follow the blog. I’d also love to know your thoughts—about my posts, or about your own challenges with change. What advice or stories do you have about leaning in to change? What happened with these women in the past only gains value as we connect it to our lives today.

More than a Haunted Cemetery: Public Humanities Past & Present

Mausoleum Row, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

Mausoleum Row, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

A tour at Mount Mora Cemetery in St. Joseph last week gave me much more than a Halloween scare.  It connected me “with the people, places and ideas that shape our society.” This phrase from the Missouri Humanities Council, one of the tour sponsors, markets its mission as “to enrich lives and strengthen communities,” as well as to connect people with ideas. Like events I experienced many years ago in New Hampshire, this one confirmed my belief that while our world continually changes, the value of public scholarship does not.

My eyes might have glazed over as I read the Missouri Humanities mission statement–had it not awakened memories. This phrase about “people” and “ideas,” on the table at my first board meeting of the Missouri organization, resonated with one I heard thirty years ago. Then, I was working with the New Hampshire Humanities Council. “Connecting People with Ideas” was our new brand. We called them slogans then, but the idea was the same. The phrase rang out our dedication to bringing public programming to people in the Granite State.

Humanities Past

Missouri Humanities was one of the sponsors of Voices of the Past at Mount Mora Cemetery

Now New Hampshire Humanities, the organization had supported a young Ken Burns, with his film on the Shakers, Hands to Work, Hearts to God. We had recognized Donald Hall when he was poet laureate for the state, long before he was honored with that role for the country.  And we celebrated the bicentennial of the ratification of the US constitution, with speakers such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, before she won a Pulitzer in history for The Midwife’s Tale. What I witnessed then was how the organization fostered the intellectual and creative productivity of people such as Burns, Hall and Ulrich. They were concerned not with themselves and their own fame but with ideas–ideas they believed would touch lives of local people. And they were correct.

Gatherings with each of these articulate, wise authors touched the broader public and still resonate for me. They remind me of the value of humanities scholarship made public–for how it enriches the lives of those who hear or see it. Last week, I had a similar experience in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Haunting Figures

In the evening air of Mount Mora Cemetery, rather than in a lecture hall, local actors and actresses gave voice to the early settlement town’s prominent figures.

Standing on Mausoleum Row, surrounded by a community of interested others, we felt history come to life.

Angelique Robidoux portrayed by Elaine Justus

Angelique Robidoux portrayed by Elaine Justus, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

We heard of the town’s European settlement by a French fur trader Joseph Robidoux of St. Louis, hired by the American Fur Company to establish a post in the Blacksnake Hills. We learned of Robidoux’s interactions with the indigenous Osage and Creek peoples and his later “negotiations” with the Ioway, Sac and Fox tribes. From Robidoux’s third wife, Angelique, we learned that his second was an indigenous woman and that their daughter, Mary, married Ioway chief Francis White Cloud.

Jeffrey Deroine, Robidoux’s former slave, explained that although he was fluent in several languages and served as an interpreter with the natives, he died illiterate.

Gary Wilkinson portrays Jeffrey Deroine, Mount Mora Cemetery

Jeffrey Deroine, enacted by Gary Wilkinson

This status remained even after his friends bought his freedom from his abusive owner and he worked for the US government.

Robidoux’s work for the US government platting of the area brought some people rushing west in response. But others migrated more slowly. Among these were the Scotch-Irish Kempers from Kentucky. We learned from Simeon Kemper that he and his wife lost not only a 35-room house due to the Civil War but also three sons in the brutal conflict–two fought as Union soldiers and one as a Confederate. Kemper’s message was haunting indeed, in today’s divided nation.

Scott Killgore portrays Simeon Kemper

Simeon Kemper, enacted by Scott Killgore

Some might have expected the Mount Mora tour to be haunting in other ways, but the emotional shivers sent through the cemetery’s air came from how real these horrors of the past continue to be. The local actors were neither Pulitzer-prize winning authors nor famous filmmakers. But  like Ulrich,  Hall and Burns, they care about how the past informs our present. And they know how such stories can direct our future. What might we learn from these stories of indigenous and European interactions? from the injustices of slavery that continue as social injustices today? Of families divided over political and economic differences that erupt in warfare?

While witnessing these figures bring the past to life, I made another note of what moved me. None of the actors was young. Nor were those of us in the supportive crowd.  The roar from the nearby football stadium and its Friday night lights signaled loudly enough where some of the younger set was. Some say history and education are wasted on the young. As a mother of two sons who love history and an educator, I won’t go that far.

Later Vocations

But I will add that many of us, as we garner experiences with our gray hairs, become  interested in the lives of those who have gone before. We reach out to read about our ancestors. We want to learn about our origins. We get our 23andMe results. But we also want to know about people who took different paths. We want to know of the Robidouxs and the Kempers and the Deroines and the White Clouds. What drove them? What kept them going?  And, when they found what they loved–a place, a person, a creative passion–how did it feed their daily lives? How did it foster their “next steps”?

“many of us, as we garner experiences with our gray hairs, become  interested in the lives of those who have gone before . . .”

In the coming months I will be writing here about my research in the lives of nineteenth-century Americans whose journeys took them on different paths. I’m zooming in on a newspaper correspondent, Anne Hampton Brewster; an ambassador’s wife, Caroline Crane Marsh; and an activist Emily Bliss Gould, who established an orphanage and industrial school in Rome. The three followed what I refer to as “later vocations”–callings that in their earlier years they likely never imagined. Yes, all three were women, but their lives were not without men. Nor were the women’s decisions made without men’s influences–that’s an important part of their stories!

Some of you have heard me talk rather obsessively about these women. If you have not, you may be intrigued by how these women have haunted me as I have uncovered their paths. They speak to us–as do those souls in St. Joseph’s Mount Mora cemetery–as we reflect on where we are now, how we got here, and where we might go. May the ideas I share resonate with you on your journey, as you come to better understand the people and places that shape our society.

Candace Millard and the Library Company

Candace Millard & the Library Company

Invitation to Library Company of Philadelphia annual lecture with Candace Millard

Candace Millard speaks at this year’s Library Company of Philadelphia lecture

Missouri author Candace Millard speaks at this year’s annual dinner of one of my favorite places to conduct research, the Library Company of Philadelphia. Millard’s book on Garfield’s murder, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness Medicine and the Murder of a President  was my selection for the Thorpe Menn Award in 2012. Here’s a bit I wrote about it in my stint as judge for the American Association of University Women-Kansas City’s annual contest that year:

 

“Reading Millard’s book, I placed myself in the seat of an adult drawn to historical fiction and murder mysteries. Since I knew next to nothing about the topic, and I don’t usually read histories, historical fiction, or murder mysteries, I assumed the volume would be a challenge and was happy to see it included pictures and informative captions and source citations. Soon, however, I was swept up in the heroic and romantic rags-to-riches early life of James Garfield and his wife. I was intrigued by the background of Garfield’s deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau—fascinated to learn of his brief membership in the “free love” Perfectionist Oneida community, his numerous schemes to make and borrow money in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, and his sense of personal destiny as murderer of the President.

I was intrigued by the background of Garfield’s deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau—fascinated to learn of his brief membership in the “free love” Perfectionist Oneida community, his numerous schemes to make and borrow money in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, and his sense of personal destiny as murderer of the President.

Guiteau’s personality, along with details of the political conventions in Chicago, Chester Arthur’s position as Vice President, and scientist Alexander Graham Bell’s role in Garfield’ s medical treatment all intertwine to remind us that a shooting is never simply a shooting, nor is a death merely a death. Multiple factors and causes contribute to the complex social fabric in which each of us lives. It is the best historians and story tellers who provide us with glimpses of how and why events unfold as they do—enriching our understanding of humanity in the process.

This year’s finalists have several similarities . . . each is a work situated within a solid historical context; each is a history, and each was written by a woman. In addition to this similarity of genre—a genre usually associated with male writers—there is the odd similarity of subjects. Each of these three histories is notably not focused on women, nor does it zoom in on domestic life. Rather, all encompass issues of concern to culture that extends beyond gender. Each, as a social history, nonetheless reflects the female authors’ collective concern with issues touching the larger society—not merely those limited to or by gender. All three women writers are to be commended for their desires to touch and change the larger culture through their use of language and narrative. Each of the three finalists selected illustrates the gifts of literary women of Missouri.

This year, however, I select Candace Millard’s Destiny of the Republic as the Thorpe Menn award winner—for the overall strength of research, creativity and clarity of narrative voice and presentation.”

Looking Back

Looking back at what I wrote six years ago, I see that then I didn’t consider myself a reader of history a much as fiction. Now, I would write otherwise. As a reader and writer of “serious non-fiction,” I hope I will be asked to review and comment on many other works like Millard’s.

Also of note regarding Millard as an author: as a friend of the Provost at William Jewell College, Millard spoke this year at the annual dinner for my son’s Oxbridge program. Of course, he was surprised when I said I knew something of her work. Our conversation a few weeks ago sent me back to Destiny of the Republic and my thoughts of what it means to be a Missouri woman writer of serious non-fiction. It is inspiring to be surrounded by such award-winners.

Alternative Spiritual Formation in the Italian Piedmont & Tuscany

Soon after I announced this summer’s spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up.  (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we’ll be eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We’re headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.

Sunset Arno River Florence Italy

Sunset over the Arno in Florence, Italy

With Roman Catholicism as a backdrop,  “off-the-beaten-track” sites will populate the foreground. Santa Caterina del Sasso, Damanhur, and Torre Pellice will be starting points in the north.  What are they? A lakeside hermitage, an earth-centered ecovillage, and home of the Waldensian church, respectively.

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

 

Then we’ll head to the Ligurian coast and Tuscany for familiar stops in Pisa and Lucca.

Ligurian Coast near Rapallo

Then the English community of Bagni di Lucca (a hot springs resort that became a WWI refuge), and Nomadelfia, a Roman Catholic commune (that began as an orphanage), will remind us of many ways of putting faith into practice.

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Finally, a few days in Florence  & Fiesole will provide glimpses of Roman and Etruscan ruins, reformer Savonarola’s cell, and the historic Jewish community. Such alternatives have existed for centuries on a peninsula primarily known in the US for the influence of St. Peter’s.

If you missed this opportunity, keep a trip in mind for the future. What will be next year’s itinerary?  Think about it . . . . And then let me know. It only takes an idea–and a handful of interested travelers.

 

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers & The Good Life

Mark Sundeen Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life

Mark Sundeen’s book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017.  Here are some highlights from my  review of it, which appeared in Communal Societies a few months ago. Perhaps these lines  will intrigue you, if you’re looking for a few more titles for your winter reading list.

In this piece of “immersive journalism,” Sundeen explores three contemporary couples  whose searches for “the good life” took them down paths to lifestyles different from those of most Americans. His intensive interview time with the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in urban Detroit and Lifeline Farms in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, contribute to a story that is both personal and engaging.

The Unsettlers Tradition

With echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s apology for his two years at Walden Pond, Sundeen explains his motivation:

“I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit. . . . What I wanted to learn was how to lead a good life.”

Sundeen’s past experiences–before journalistic authorship–also pushed him toward this topic. With years of outdoor work experience, plus lots of travel, he, too, had been often in search of something other than a career “tethered to a screen”  and enslaved by capitalism.

With this personal background revealed. Sundeen places himself, his humor, and his occasional skepticism into the immersive experiences. These occur primarily in the three featured sites of the diverse American landscape. But other locales, such as Brooklyn and rural France, emerge as well.  And he sinks the stories of Sarah, Ethan, Olivia, Greg, Luci and Steve into the larger context of America’s many utopian and communal experiments. Their personal histories with alternative agricultural practices, in particular, come to life within this larger context. Sundeen discusses movements as diverse as the celibate, religious Shakers of the nineteenth-century and Stephen Gaskin’s the Farm, a latter-twentieth century enclave that continues today as an educational site.

This larger context of communal, utopian practices is what drew me to his book, of course. (It also explains why my review appeared in the latest issue of the Communal Studies Association journal.) Sundeen’s interviews should interest others, however. Those skeptical about or interested in urban agricultural practices should be enlightened by Brother Nature Produce and its history in Detroit.  They should find fascinating the longstanding but changing organic practices in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. And the Possibility Alliance in northeastern Missouri draws interest because of its attempts to live off the grid.

Past Heroes, Present Purposes

Sundeen and his subjects have certain heroes whose names continually resurface. Chief among them: Wendell Berry (his The Unsettling of America influenced this book’s title) and Mahatma Ghandi. Their beliefs capture a spirituality, self-discipline, and social activism that Sundeen believes many liberals don’t quite understand.

Many liberals talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, they’d rather drive.

By contrast, his subjects make sacrifices in order to share their visions of how the world might become a better place.

Stylistically, The Unsettlers reverberates with the tone of J. C. Hallman’s In Utopia (St. Martin’s). Also like Hallman’s book, Sundeen’s study provides a broad historical context for this topic of living intentionally.  It, too, is worth a read.

Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Linking “utopian” communal groups and American women writers in Italy, I spoke last weekend on Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar.

Zoar Separatist Community

Zoar Separatist Community, Ohio. Woolson loved to visit from her home in Cleveland.

Woolson began her career with a sketch on the Ohio German Separatist community of Zoarites. “The Happy Valley,” published in 1870, set the foundation for Woolson’s more than two decades as a successful author. Her thought-provoking and insightful sketches, novels and short fiction  are regaining the attention they once held. Woolson’s somewhat nomadic life took her throughout Ohio and the Great Lakes region, to Florida and the Reconstruction south, to the Mediterranean and Italy, where she died in 1894.

A few weeks ago, Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux asked for some specifics about my conference talk. I put off answering. Now that it’s complete, I’m better set to respond.

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Woolson’s 1881 letter written from near Rome’s Spanish Steps invites the connection between Italy and Zoar. She wrote to friend and editor Henry Mills Alden of the loggia above her apartment:

“this loggia is a little square room with windows towards all points of the compass, and an arbor outside, made of lemon-trees, plants in pots, and climbing vines. . . . Here among the roofs and campaniles, and under the deep blue sky of Rome, I can sit and write in perfect solitude when tired of my little parlor below. It all seems so wonderful and strange,–the being here at all! I think of Ohio and the Zoar farm where I used to spend so much time; of Mackinac and the peculiar color of Lake Huron; and of Florida, and the pine-barrens. And, all the while, I am in ‘Rome’!”

At a conference where participants’ interests are primarily communal groups, I began with this quote but then concentrated on Zoar.

The Zoar Sketches

Woolson’s early works referring to Zoar set the stage for stories in which her characters often imagine better worlds. Within “The Happy Valley,”  “Solomon” (1873) and “Wilhelmina” (1875), published in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, Zoar prompted such glimpses for visitors from Cleveland and Cincinnati. In these stories, Woolson juxtaposes idyllic views with life’s often harsh realities—whether within or outside of the community.

Fruits of Zoar

Fruits of Zoar

To set the stage for the Communal Studies Association conference audience, who knew nothing of Woolson but something of Zoar, I mentioned Woolson’s now-better-known predecessors, contemporaries and successors—Hawthorne, Twain, James, Howells, Wharton, Cather. I depended heavily on what Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux and Zoar historian Kathleen Fernandez have written on the subject. The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit, coming from her home in Cleveland.

The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit. . .  Anne Boyd Rioux

“Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.”   Kathleen Fernandez

Woolson’s “romantic” and “idealized views about the Society” include some inaccuracies. But “the stories have the ring of truth. Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.” I added to these overviews an assertion that Woolson’s writings about Zoar enabled her to soar.

Professionally speaking, anyway, the author’s imaginative reflections on life in and around an intentional, utopian community contributed to her following of readers. This following bolstered her financially and gave her confidence. Zoar prompted Woolson to spin stories that pushed her to consider the themes of marriage and the isolated artist’s life. As Rioux and several other scholars have noted, these themes would remain with Woolson throughout her career. I suggest additionally that the three Zoar sketches considered together reveal the beginnings of her understanding of the power of utopian imaginings and of gift exchanges that cross barriers of community and place.

“Solomon” — A Story of Gift Exchange

Through “Solomon, ” in particular, a story of gift exchange and human love, Woolson reminds us that utopia is, by definition, not a literal place. Rather, it is an imaginative vision that individuals hold and may share. By the time Woolson wrote this sketch, she realized that linking Zoar insiders and outsiders were these keys: imagining, giving and exchanging, and in doing so, creating community, however small.

Memories of past experiences lead to ideas of community shared in the present and projected onto the future. The German Separatists held memories of European traditions as they shared visions of a new home in the Tusacarawas valley and labored to build it. So, too, Woolson held on to her memories of childhood visits to Zoar. She adapted them, as the Zoarites adapted to their new environment.

First Settler House Zoar

First Settler House Zoar

While Woolson migrated as an uprooted adult, looking for the perfect place in which to write, her work also caused her to imagine other places. As she soared above and beyond Zoar in later years, moving to Italy, she never completely left behind the idyllic place in Ohio. As Rioux has noted, in the last few years before her death, she was “writing . . . of her father and their trips to Zoar and the Tuscawaras Valley in Ohio.” Memories of Zoar, even late in Woolson’s life, reflect the importance of those visions that fed her imagination and bolstered her professional position.

Audience Response and More

The best news about this presentation? The audience response. One person asked, why was Woolson popular in her day but overlooked in the twentieth-century? And why has scholarship on Woolson exploded in the last decade? More than one asked about her financial success. Several wanted to know how to access Woolson’s writings. Of course, I referred them to Miss Grief and Other Stories , to Victoria Brehm and Sharon Dean’s gathered reprints,  and to the Great Lakes collection, Castle Nowhere. I told them that their local libraries might have turn-of-the century copies of Castle Nowhere, Jupiter Lights, The Front Yard and Dorothy. I explained that the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society website provides a chronology of all her works, with active links to those available free online.

Finally, I encouraged them, as I encourage you, to read “Solomon.” Once  you do,  you will be hooked to move beyond the Zoar sketches to see how they enabled Woolson to soar as a writer.  You will be engaged by her ability to capture life’s hopes and promises, as well as its troubles and truths.

 

Anne Hampton Brewster: Nineteenth-Century News from Rome

Think of Anne Hampton Brewster as a precursor to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli. American, female, news correspondent in Rome,  writing stories followed by many in the US.  The similarities stop there. Brewster, a Philadelphian, left for Italy 150 years ago. She began her foreign correspondence later in life,  in 1868, when she was  well-beyond age 40.  Looking forward to this new chapter in her career,  she had no idea she would send back to America more than 500 “letters,” appearing in papers from North to South and coast to coast.

Regular readers of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and Boston Daily Advertiser knew Brewster’s name and looked forward to her news from Rome. Other writing agreements flooded in, so that her accounts appeared in the New York World, the Chicago Daily News,  the Cincinnati Commerical and numerous other papers. Why, then, is Brewster’s name now unknown?
Anne Hampton Brewster and Rodolfo Lanciani essay published in Questioni di Genere

My essay in Questioni di Genere  (Questions of Gender), provides an answer. It describes Brewster’s sometimes crafty choices and, at other times, self-destructive decisions. These allowed her to make connections with men in Rome like Rodolfo Lanciani, a “social climber” himself. Lanciani became a civic leader, an expert on excavations, and a professor at the prestigious La Sapienza, Rome’s premier university.  He lectured at prominent venues throughout the US, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins. While Brewster’s relationship with Lanciani was, at first, one that might be deemed “mutually beneficial,” it went awry. He achieved fame.  She fell to obscurity. He married another US citizen. She remained the single “Miss Brewster.”

He achieved fame.  She fell to obscurity. He married another US citizen. She remained the single “Miss Brewster.”

I explore just how and why the relationship went wrong, as the essay traces Brewster’s time in Rome, at the Tuscan resort town Bagni di Lucca in 1873, and afterward.  Brewster was never a sleeping beauty, as the cover image of Questioni di Genere may suggest. In fact, Frederic Leighton’s dramatic oil painting Flaming June  appeared after Brewster’s death in Siena in 1892. At that point she was more than 70. Even twenty years earlier, when Brewster posed for another type of portrait, she was far from a blazing beauty.

Elegant or Assertive–How Should a Woman Writer  Be?

Anne Hampton Brewster Carte de Visite Fratelli d'Allessandri Rome ca. 1874

Anne Hampton Brewster, ca. 1874.  Carte de Visite by Fratelli d’Allessandri.  From the Library Company of Philadelphia.

This Carte de Visite photo, taken by the successful Fratelli d’Allessandri at the prime of Brewster’s Roman years, demonstrates her self-assurance and the elegance she wished to present. Known for wearing black velvet and diamonds when she hosted her regular evening receptions, the unmarried “Miss Annie” wanted to be a proper woman-of-leisure as well as a professional writer. The two desires did not mix well.

Anne Hampton Brewster’s  Anglo-American Circles in Italy

Brewster’s active life in social and professional circles–including Italians and Americans, men and women–reveal much of the life of a nineteenth-century career woman abroad.  Her story is a poignant one among many about Anglos in Italy that recently have engaged readers and writers of women’s history: Margaret Fuller, Jessie White Mario, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Harriet Hosmer, Louisa May Alcott . . . the list goes on.

 Margaret Fuller, Jessie White Mario, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Harriet Hosmer, Louisa May Alcott . . . the list goes on.

Yet in spite of the similarities among these brave women of “genius,” as Anne Boyd Rioux, Kate  Culkin,  and Renee L. Bergland  aptly dub them, each one experienced professional life abroad differently. They brought with them diverse desires and haunting pasts, sexual preferences and religious stances.

Brewster, for example, had converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult in Philadelphia. She was wooed by both men and women in the US and abroad. But she died as a single woman in Siena, Tuscany, in 1892. Her story is worth remembering for what she offers all of us about journeys that take people around unexpected turns and across wide waters.

I hope you will follow as I share more about Anne Hampton Brewster and other nineteenth-century women in Italy. And, I would love to read your questions and comments about these fascinating women.

If you are interested in accessing my essay on Anne Hampton Brewster, let me know. In case you’re wondering–it’s written in English.

An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Occasionally I read a not-recently-published book that moves me so that I wonder how I missed it when it first appeared.

Book Cover of Divine Expectations An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Book cover of Barbara Kreiger’s Divine Expectations: An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine.

 Divine Expectations is one such book. Since it was published fifteen years ago, interest in the Mid-East has certainly increased. Although now the US war against ISIS complicates language of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, themes of religious differences in this ravaged zone continue to loom large. Add to these contemporary interests the fascinating story Barbara Kreiger tells in this book. Her focus: American Clorinda Strong Minor (1809-55), who spent the last five years of her short life in Palestine.

Devoted to a utopian vision of agricultural improvements and spiritual development, Clorinda Minor traveled as a married female without her husband. While on journey she wrestled not only with cultures and languages new to her but also with new technologies. A neophyte to rural farm life, she believed in a future heaven on earth–an ushering in of Christ’s kingdom–in the crescent of the world that has interested Americans and Europeans for centuries. The role of the Jews there, she believed, was essential to the divine kingdom that had been prophesied.

For those who know nothing of Americans in Palestine in the nineteenth century, the expedition in which Minor was  a part opens up views of global relations that go beyond typical evangelistic missions and economic imperatives. By zooming in on specific individuals, Kreiger brings to life the realities of loneliness and personal hungers. In addition to Minor, for example, Kreiger tells the story of John Meshullam, a convert from Judaism to Christianity. Dedicated to farming although also a hotel proprietor and successful businessman, Meshullam was crucial to Minor’s successes. The life experiences of both these transnational travelers included strong desires to achieve. At the same time,  their driveness sometimes contributed to conflicts in their utopian efforts and communities.

Firmly grounded in research and well-documented, Divine Expectations contains clear prose. Approximately a dozen illustrations from nineteenth-century publications recreate what Americans then were envisioning as they read about the Holy Land. Kreiger gives readers a story whose narrative arc demonstrates dreams, struggles, triumphs and failures, both large and small.  Overall, this American woman’s journey included engaging those around her in a vision of social improvement.

I loved this book so much that I bought it for my mother-in-law! Her interest in travel, history and religion suggests Kreiger’s work will engage her as much as it did me.

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Transitions in Gender and Spirituality: Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka

In the spring of 1962, within a month of my birth and just before his death, Lobzang Jivaka finished composing his spiritual autobiography in India. Almost fifty years before and half-way round the world, he had been named at birth Maude Laura Dillon in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood of Kensington, a now-posh borough of greater London.

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka's memoir of transgender and spiritual life

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka’s memoir

While my young parents were adjusting to life with a third child in suburban New Orleans and wrestling with a cultural change from rural Arkansas, this Buddhist monk was revisiting his life’s journey. Writing this memoir of “transitions,” from declared female at birth, to living through one of the first medical sex changes in history and re-registering as Michael, was the last of his many accomplishments. These and his transformations–through undergraduate studies at Oxford and medical school at Dublin’s Trinity College, serving as a naval physician and finding his way to Tibetan Buddhism–are the focus of Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (Fordham UP, 2016).

Although completed more than a half-century ago, the account of this “evolution,” as he shared it, has only been published recently. What kept Dillon/Jivaka’s story from the light? (more…)

Vida Dutton Scudder, Christian Socialist for Several Generations

Yesterday my son, just returned from grad school,  told me he’s writing an essay on Vida Dutton Scudder.  Before stating her name, he hesitated.  Why the hesitation–in what was otherwise an enthusiastic report of his first term? Was it that Scudder, a Turn-of-the-Century and Progressive Era activist, is an unknown figure?

Vida Dutton Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), Political Activist and Christian Socialist

Although Scudder is relatively unknown today, that was not the reason for his noticeable pause.

Rather, he almost hated to tell me because he knows that she is one among a handful of women at the center of my research. Her political activism and spiritual journey were influenced largely by her time in Italy.

Scudder’s settlement house work, utopian writing, and teaching at Wellesley come up every semester in my Public Affairs seminar for B. A. English students. And I have given a few off-campus presentations to adult audiences about Scudder–not only her activism in Boston’s Denison House and Circolo Italo-Americano but also her writings about St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi. Last summer I took adult travelers to La Verna, which was an important site for Scudder as she wrote of St. Francis.

La Verna St. Francis site

La Verna, St. Francis site

During these moments of impassioned conversations about Scudder’s coinciding beliefs and actions, my son has been engaged otherwise–understandably so–with his own interests. He has not been a part of these captive audiences.

Yet somehow Scudder’s name, associated with my motherly ramblings, came into his consciousness.

Now, a few months into his intensive readings on the “social gospel” movement, he selected Scudder and Walter Rauschenbusch for further research and writing.  My son firmly underscores that his emphasis is on their theology; he is analyzing their writings and not discussing Scudder’s “utopian” endeavors in her daily life. Scudder differed from Rauschenbusch, he continues, in her affiliation with the Christian Socialist party. While Rauschenbusch claimed socialism ideologically and theologically, he was never officially affiliated with a Socialist political party.

I appreciate the clarification and the distinction.

Do I know about the Fabian Society? he asks.  A little, I say. I know of its place alongside of “utopian” and spiritual/ist groups of the “turn-of-the-century.”  I pull Joy Dixon’s book Divine Feminine from the shelf. It is the closest at hand that contains information on both Theosophists and a few references to the Fabians. I wrote a review of it–I stop to calculate and realize it was almost two decades ago. Some say that’s a generation. . . .

Yes, my son is correct. My focus has been on Scudder’s literary endeavours–her teaching of literature, her settlement house novel, A Listener in Babel (1903), her translation and editing of St. Catherine’s Letters (1905), her works on St. Francis and his followers.  These are not without their spiritual and religious components. Even her autobiography, On Journey (1937), falls into the category of spiritual narrative I analyze and regularly teach. But my approach is not theological. I am a literature professor.

La Verna Site of St. Francis vistied by Vida Dutton Scudder

Cavern known as St. Francis’s bedroom, a site visited by Scudder and by a recent group of “pilgrims.” Dr. John White, emerging, was influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s ideas.

I am interested, however, in Scudder’s differences with Rauschenbusch. And it is not just that my son has now taken interest in them. I first learned of Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian, from friends John White (who attended Rochester Theological Seminary, where Rauschenbusch taught) and Peter Browning.

They often lead discussions of Christian social activism and its traditions. So when I began to learn about Scudder and came across her relations with him, I was intrigued by the interesting lines of association that link so many of us with common interests.

What I saw then between Scudder and Rauschenbusch and continue to see now was the importance of that relationship for both of them. They depended up their correspondence and communication of ideas. They spurred each other on. Earlier in Scudder’s life, John Ruskin’s lectures about aesthetics had stimulated her. She wrote extensively of them and drew from them as she taught literature at Wellesley. But as her life and experiences piled up, and as her confidence in her own ideas developed,  Scudder set aside Ruskin’s teachings and followed other paths. I have detailed these differences in notes. . . .

Will my notes and bibliography be of interest to my son? Will they be of help? Perhaps the former, likely not the latter.  We must all make our own intellectual paths, following our own curiosities.

Sometimes, in the short and dark December days, it’s nice to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I only hope that the germinating seeds will grow strong enough to bear future fruits.