Anonymous Was a Woman #NEHturns50

First, a very happy 50th birthday to the National Endowment for the Humanities today! If you want to participate in their celebrations, tell them why you love the humanities on Twitter @NEHgov, with #NEHturns50. We are celebrating here at IC because in 2014, an NEH Challenge Grant made the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives into a reality.

I personally love the humanities because through art, literature, history, and many other fields, we can communicate complex feelings and ideas to a wide audience. During the early 19th century, a highly literate generation of women began publishing in unprecedented numbers. The women of Jacksonville were no exception, joining the trend with gusto and adding their own “frontier flair” to poetry and the short story. Women rarely show up in official government documents, so without the humanities, and their drive to share their ideas, they would otherwise be lost to history.

Early Jacksonville newspapers teem with prescriptive fiction and poetry by local authors that illustrate how familial relationships changed with westward movements. As historian Joyce Appleby observed, those who moved west were uprooted from established familial and community networks. Marriage continued to define women’s adult lives, but it was less a social contract and more an individual choice based on practical need or even romantic love (or both). Without large extended families to support them, successful marriages required husbands and wives to turn inward and forge deep emotional bonds.  Fiction and poetry provided a roadmap to navigate new rules for relationships. As Appleby noted:

“With courtship a common focal point of plots, novels provided a language for talking about the coded gestures, changing proprieties, social implications, and permissible passions of romancing. Novels not only fed the imagination, they set examples of acceptable behavior in a domain no longer as strictly patrolled as in the colonial era.”

Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 179.

Take for example this tender poem, published in the Illinois Patriot on November 24, 1832. The author has clear expectations for the work his wife will do, including bringing him coffee and tending to the children, but he clearly appreciates that work. He also expects that they will share an emotional bond unbroken even by his own death.

My Wife - Illinois Patriot - 24 November 1832

Frontier papers also provided cautionary tales about the broader dangers of unmarried, lazy, or impetuous women. For example, how does a good mother on the frontier behave? She certainly doesn’t do as Hannah Wilson did in the short story, “The Snow Storm,” published in the Western Observer, an early Jacksonville newspaper, on March 5, 1831. Hannah, a widow, failed to provide for her children during the productive summer and fall seasons, and her greed and laziness in the midst of a winter storm results in the death of her two youngest, and the permanent physical impairment of the oldest. Printed in the wake of a season long remembered as the “Winter of Deep Snow,” Hannah Wilson’s story is likely fictional but nonetheless relevant to its first readers.

During the early nineteenth century, American citizens took up the pen to rewrite the rules of social behavior so dramatically altered by the Revolution.  Freely exercising their freedom of speech as newspapers, pamphlets, and books, the printed word proliferated daily life. This was especially significant for women, who could participate in public discourse anonymously, without upsetting normative gender roles and without setting foot in public spaces. Young women, in particular, recognized that their lives were largely dictated by their choice of husband. They did not question the merits of matrimony, but they questioned the patriarchal control of parents (especially fathers) in choosing a mate. Their stories reflect a desire to freely choose their husbands, like “DeLancy,” published in the Illinois Patriot on December 8, 1832. Told in the style of Jane Austen, the tale of a sought-after, young, wealthy widow demonstrates the positive feminine virtues of patience and persistence in securing a favorable match. Whereas her father selected her first husband, an older, wealthy man, the heroine ultimately selects her second based on romantic inclinations.

Of course, women could not entirely ignore the will of the community. Other stories  (often inspired by the emerging temperance movement) like “Gertrude,” published in the Western Observer on October 23, 1830, demonstrated the dangers of youth and naivety when selecting a mate. Despite the warnings of her mother and her friends, Gertrude insists upon marrying a drunken brute, believing her love for him will turn him around. She ultimately pays the price with her life, “but not before the beautiful blossom of her affection had perished.”

There is a clear message that bad marriages were detrimental to women’s health, but the wife’s death was not the only escape. In the age of cholera and tuberculosis, there was a chance that unsavory husbands would meet an early end. The story “Martha Grafton” published in the Illinois Patriot on December 1, 1832, is a dialogue between two male “scholars” wherein the narrator describes meeting his ideal woman, Martha Grafton. Miss Grafton was not only a key witness in a murder case (again, a woman poisoned at the hands of an abusive husband), but as a “learned woman,” her “bold and daring” intellect made her an excellent prospective wife for a professional man. She “was one of those rare beings; one who dared to think and feel beyond the limits which society has drawn around her sex.” The narrator touches on feminist thought when he says, “I am heartily wearied of this eternal cant about bluestockingism, as though it was not a woman’s privilege to know anything.” (As an aside: this story was published at the same time that the Trustees of the Jacksonville Female Academy were arranging to hire the first preceptress). The narrator relates how he then left for a three-year European tour and returns only to find Miss Grafton married to a less than ideal match. Miserable in her new situation, she had lost the “color in her cheek and brilliancy in her eye.” Fortunately for the narrator, Martha’s husband promptly died and she married the narrator shortly thereafter.

These stories challenge parental authority and encourage young women and men to think critically not only about the ideal qualities in a mate, but about their overall ambitions. Marriage is a matter of life and death, and it is central to one’s professional and personal success. Most fascinating is that these were composed by migrants living in a highly transient, unsettled frontier town. Though comparable to most stories and poems from the nineteenth century, that they appeared in the local paper shows the authors believed their words could inspire a community.

Who wrote all of these stories? There’s a chance we’ll never know. Most were not signed. Occasionally, newspaper editors noted that a poem or story had been “composed by a young lady of the county,” but more often than not the stories have little more than initials to indicate authorship. Historians have well documented the growing numbers of women publishing fiction and poetry during this time, yet, as Virginia Wolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929): “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (51).

We’ll end the post with one last poem published in the Western Observer on August 28, 1830. Composed by a young lady, just sixteen years old, it reflects on death and grief and was published at the end of the summer, an especially dangerous time for infectious disease.

Poem - Western Observer - 28 Aug 1830_Page_07


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