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.

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.

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.

American Women Abroad

I often teach works by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Margaret Fuller, three among several 19th-century American writers whose lives were changed by time abroad.  My current book project focuses on three other American women who were their contemporaries–Anne Hampton Brewster, Emily Bliss Gould, and Caroline Crane Marsh.  These American women and their visions of making the world a better place were transformed as they traveled to and lived in Italy. I will be sharing more about these women and communities in future posts. Check back to see updates, or contact me for more information.

Eliza Leslie: Fun & Food

Selections from Eliza Leslie collects stories, recipes and other works by the nineteenth-century cookbook author and humor writer from Philadelphia. In addition to providing a biographical sketch, my introduction to the volume describes Eliza Leslie’s early career and her prominence among American women writers at her death in 1858.

Leslie established her career through writing fiction for children and collecting recipes. Soon after, she launched herself into humorous magazine fiction with the award-winning “Mrs. Washington Potts.” This tale of what-not-to-do-when-entertaining appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1832), the most popular women’s magazine of the era. Leslie rose to an editorial position with Godey’s as her career progressed.

Equally important as the selections and introduction, the book provides the first bibliographical overview of Leslie’s voluminous writings. Approximately 30-pages, arranged both chronologically and alphabetically, provide titles of Leslie’s publications that appeared between 1803 and 1853.

Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Native Tales

“Science in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827)” zooms in on a novel about Puritan New England that contributed to Sedgwick’s position as a rival of James Fenimore Cooper, author of Last of the Mohicans. The article (co-written with Shelley Block) discusses Native American rights and relationships with Anglo colonists, including sexual, marital and family bonds. The article employs the lens of science, since discussions of Native Americans by Anglo authors during Sedgwick’s day often drew from the ideas of “men of science” as they voiced their opinions about intercultural relations.