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.

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.

 

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.