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13 AUGUST, 2014

Charity and Sylvia: The Remarkable Story of How Two Women Married Each Other in Early America

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“For 40 years… they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness.”

In 1897, a man by the name of Hiram Harvey Hurlburt recorded in his diary: “Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” Nine decades earlier in a neighboring village, more than two centuries before Edie and Thea claimed equal dignity for all love in the eyes of the law, 30-year-old Charity Bryant and 22-year-old Sylvia Drake had entered into a lifelong union and promised eternal love to one another, immortalizing their vows in a traditional silhouette portrait. With level eyes and uplifted chins, two elegant black outlines gaze at each other across a thick cream-colored mat, framed by delicate paper with pinkened edges and encircled by a thin braid of blond hair, which forms a heart between their mirrored bosoms.

This is how historian Rachel Hope Cleves paints the backdrop of these two women’s era-defying relationship, the remarkable story of which she tells with equal parts rigor and sensitivity in Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (public library).

Reflecting on the symbolism of the silhouette portrait, Cleves writes:

Their sameness is misleading, a misapprehension that obscures their differences from each other, and their difference as a pair from others at the time…

Charity opened the door to a different life. She struck an astonishing contrast to the women in Sylvia’s family, who were all mothers to large and growing families. Sylvia ultimately had sixty-four nieces and nephews; one sister-in-law gave birth to eighteen children, ten by the time Sylvia and Charity met…

[Charity] had pledged at age twenty-three to never get married. Instead [she] poured her creative energies into writing verses, not birthing children. Charity’s singularity and singlehood were intoxicating to Sylvia, who had very little interest in marriage herself. Sylvia dismissed the men who courted her without consideration. The Drakes could not make sense of Sylvia’s aversion. But in Charity, Sylvia finally found a kindred soul.

What an irony that these two marriage-averse women ended up forming such a remarkable union… Once Sylvia and Charity found each other, they were never willing to be parted. Charity described their encounter as “providence.”

Mere months after that fateful first meeting — one imagines something akin to how Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein — Charity rented a room at Weybridge and on July 3, 1807, Sylvia moved in. Cleves writes:

For the rest of their lives, the two women would celebrate this date as the beginning of their union. Over the next forty-four years they remained mutually devoted to each other through the tribulations of ill health, overwork, and spiritual doubt.

They finally parted when Charity died in 1851. Seventeen lonely years later, Sylvia was buried next to her in the graveyard on Weybridge Hill, under a shared headstone, like any married couple.

Charity and Sylvia's headstone at Weybridge Hill cemetery

But even though such same-sex unions were not entirely uncommon, what made that between Charity and Sylvia so singular was that it was an open secret — if there was any closet at all, it was wholly transparent, with the entire village looking in:

Although Sylvia and Charity lived a quiet life, far from the bustle and commotion of the nineteenth century’s growing cities, they did not live in secret. Everyone who knew them understood that they were a couple and viewed their relationship as a marriage or something like it… Charity’s nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, came close when he described the relationship as “no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage.”

And yet even boldness is beholden to the cultural context of its time — though their marriage was in many ways revolutionary, it simply reappropriated domestic gender expectations rather than creating new ones altogether:

One reason people viewed Charity and Sylvia’s relationship as marital was that the women divided their domestic and public roles according to the familiar pattern of husband and wife. Throughout their lives together Charity always served as head of the household. Her name came first in public documents, such as tax records and census records. She handled the money and took the leading role in all of their business. Sylvia performed the wifely work of cooking and keeping house. In some ways, she did not live all that differently from her sisters after all.

Once again, this dynamic calls to mind Gertrude Stein, who famously called Alice B. Toklas her “kitten, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster and wife.” Cleves writes:

Hiram Hurlburt explained in his memoir, “Miss Bryant was the man” in the marriage. And Sylvia, according to William Cullen Bryant, was a “fond wife” to her “husband.”

Charity and Sylvia also seem to have viewed their relationship in these terms. Charity portrayed herself as a husband when she called Sylvia her “help-meet” — a common early American synonym for wife, adopted from the Bible, Genesis 2:18. Sylvia fantasized about taking Charity’s name for her own. On an archived scrap of paper, in Sylvia’s handwriting, there survives a list of names that looks like practice toward a signature, with big loops on the capitals and flourishes on the final letters. The list begins with the name “Bryant,” followed by “Bryant Charity,” then plunges into the sequence “Bryant Sylvia Bryant Sylvia Bryant Charity Bryant Sylvia.” Excluded from the legal form of marriage, it appears that Sylvia, in a romantic gesture, once inscribed her desire to become a wife in name as well as practice.

According to English common-law tradition, wives assumed their husbands’ names because marriage transformed spouses into a single person. Genesis 2:24 states that “a man shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The idea that a husband and wife became one person, in spirit, body, and law, lay at the heart of early American ideas of marriage. The eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone described husbands and wives as one person in the law. Charity shared Sylvia’s evident wish for marital oneness. “May we pass our whole life,” Charity serenaded Sylvia in an 1810 poem, “and our minds be united in one.” Her language echoed an early nineteenth-century English treatise, which defined husbands and wives as “united in one body out of two by God.”

But perhaps most interesting of all is the transparency of their marriage. Indeed, that proverbial closet appears less like a closet than like a translucent Japanese parlor screen — as in their wedding portrait, one can see the women’s silhouettes, the outlines of the relationship, and interpret them with one’s chosen degree of realism, fill them in with as much social propriety as one needs to feel proper oneself.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

Cleves considers the question of freely relinquished privacy:

Like queer people in many times and places, Charity and Sylvia preserved their reputations by persuading their community to treat the matter of their sexuality as an open secret. Although it is commonly assumed that the “closet” is an opaque space, meaning that people who are in the closet keep others in total ignorance about their sexuality, often the closet is really an open secret. The ignorance that defines the closet is as likely to be a carefully constructed edifice as it is to be a total absence of knowledge. The closet depends on people strategically choosing to remain ignorant of inconvenient facts…

The open closet is an especially critical strategy in small towns, where every person serves a role, and which would cease to function if all moral transgressors were ostracized. Small communities can maintain the fiction of ignorance in order to preserve social arrangements that work for the general benefit. Queer history has often focused on the modern city as the most potent site of gay liberation, since its anonymity and living arrangements for single people permitted same-sex-desiring men and women to form innovative communities. More recognition needs to be given to the distinctive opportunities that rural towns allowed for the expression of same-sex sexuality.

[...]

Charity and Sylvia gained the toleration of their relatives and community not by hiding away but by being public-minded… They became “Aunt Charity” and “Aunt Sylvia” to the whole community… [Their] relationship, far from hidden, was widely known and respected. In fact, the absence of a man in their household allowed the women’s marriage less privacy than traditional unions received. In a male-dominated world, two women could not claim the same freedom from public interference that a man could for his home.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

The first formal account of the women’s marriage came from Charity’s nephew, Cullen, who wrote about it in the New-York Evening Post in 1843, as Charity and Sylvia were celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Charity supported Cullen’s poetic aspirations from a young age and he went on to become a writer. In 1850, he published a book of letters, in which he wrote a lyrical account of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, inspired by a popular marriage passage in The Book of Common Prayer:

If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.

But the story, Cleves notes with a charming wink at her profession (“Historians, unlike poets, are not content with evocative imagery. We have a ravenous appetite for the factual.”), so woven as much of such second-hand accounts as it is of first-hand silences — once again, the negative space shapes the silhouette, adding by leaving out:

Not only have few of the women’s letters survived, the documents that do remain are mostly silent on the subject that first sparked my interest and probably the interest of most readers: the women’s sexuality. Some of the strongest evidence for the women’s sexual relationships appears in their religious writings, where they struggled with the burden of secret sins that left both women feeling uncertain about their redemption. Romantic letters and poems hint at more positive aspects of the women’s physical relationship. In both these sources, references to sexuality take the form of allusions, not direct statements. Respectable nineteenth-century women rarely wrote directly about sex of any sort, but this silence is especially characteristic of the history of same-sex intimacy. For many centuries, sex between women or between men was referred to as “the mute sin” or the “crime not fit to be named.”

Even famous lovers like Oscar Wilde and Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Cleves points out, called their longtime relationship “the love that dare not speak its name.” What’s singular about the women’s story is that they did speak, if sidewise, to the true nature of their relationship. As such, it reveals just how much more tolerant early America was of same-sex marriage than most people realize. Cleves writes:

Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives tell a more complicated story, revealing the gap that existed between prescription and practice, the rules that govern society and how societies actually operate… More astonishing still, society could also tolerate such sexual possibilities through manufactured ignorance, creating opportunities for same-sex sexuality that should ostensibly have been impossible.

[...]

Same-sex marriage is not as new as Americans on both sides of today’s debate tend to assume; it is neither the radical break with timeless tradition that conservatives fear nor the unprecedented innovation of a singularly tolerant age that liberals praise. It fits within a long history of marriage diversity in North America that included practices such as polygamy, self-divorce, free love, and interracial unions… Through their union, Charity and Sylvia undermined the conventional definitions of womanhood and manhood that ordinary marriages reinforced. They staked out new claims to familial, economic, and spiritual authority that were denied to their conventionally married sisters. It seems reasonable to hope that same-sex marriage has the same potential to reshape acceptable sex roles today.

In that regard, Cleves — who chanced upon Charity and Sylvia’s story by complete accident while browsing a local history museum — reflects on the broader importance of mining history for evidence of social phenomena we mistakenly believe to be unique to our age:

The research process has left me more sure than ever that there are countless pieces remaining to be found, if not from Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives then from the lives of other lovers who lived outside the norms. Their stories have been hard to see because they confound our expectations. We see each story as one of a kind, defying categorization. Taken together they tell a history we are only beginning to know. The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, in the final assessment, may be how unremarkable it was.

Charity & Sylvia is an absorbing and perspective-shifting read in its entirety, chronicling the lives of these two pioneering women, the multitude of challenges, personal and social, they overcame to be together, and the depth and richness of their lifelong love. Complement it with the greatest queer love letters of all time, including Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, then revisit the passionate correspondence of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and these moving vintage photographs of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century.

Thanks, Michelle

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06 AUGUST, 2014

This Land Is Mine: Nina Paley’s Animated History of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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“A brief history of the land called Israel / Palestine / Canaan / the Levant.”

Ever since her remarkable 2008 animated feature film Sita Sings The Blues, I’ve been a great admirer of animator, cartoonist, and free-culture activist Nina Paley’s creative and meta-creative work. The recent situation in Gaza makes Paley’s 2012 animated short film This Land Is Mine — “a brief history of the land called Israel / Palestine / Canaan / the Levant” — particularly timely.

Using the visual storytelling tropes of comics and videogames, genres characterized by expressive over-the-topness, Paley captures the subtleties and complexities of the interplay of religion, geopolitics, and the fatal human hunger for power underpinning the region’s long history of conflict.

On her blog, Paley offers a viewer’s guide to who’s killing whom, “because you can’t tell the players without a pogrom.” Her work, like Brain Pickings, is supported through donations, so consider making one on her site.

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22 JULY, 2014

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Death Penalty and What It Really Means to Be an Anarchist

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“The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank…”

In 1921, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both in their thirties, were convicted of murdering two payroll guards during a bank robbery in Massachusetts. The conviction was made despite highly questionable ballistic evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts that placed Sacco in a different city on the day of the alleged crime. The case dragged on for years, until Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in April of 1927. Many, including a number of public intellectuals, believed the murder conviction was wrong, deliberately served to punish the two men for their history as social activists and anarchists, and the subsequent death sentence a complete failure of both the justice system and humanity. Among the outraged was Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet and lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, delinquent schoolgirl, literary gateway drug for children, and only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

On August 22, 1927, 35-year-old Millay made a passionate case for justice and humanity in a letter to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, found in the altogether absorbing The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library). She had met with the governor, one of the wealthiest men in America at the time, earlier that afternoon to interview him for a magazine story she was doing on the case. Millay writes:

Your Excellency

[...]

Tonight, with the world in doubt, with this Commonwealth drawing into its lungs with every breath the difficult air of doubt, with the eyes of Europe turned westward upon Massachusetts and upon the whole United States in distress and harrowing doubt — are you still so sure? Does no faintest shadow of question gnaw at your mind? For, indeed, your spirit, however strong, is but the frail spirit of a man. Have you no need, in this hour, of a spirit greater than your own?

Think back. Think back a long time. Which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith? — Oh, not the way in which your feet are set!

You promise me, and I believe you truly, that you would think of what I said. I exact of you this promise now. Be for a moment alone with yourself. Look inward upon yourself. Let fall from your harassed mind all, all save this: which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?

I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubt. Exert the clemency which your high office affords.

There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The governor never rose to greatness. Millay was arrested and thrown in jail for joining the public protests and the “death watch.” Minutes after midnight on August 23, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco in handcuffs

Over the next three months, Millay remained thoroughly invested in the story and its broader cultural implications. On November 9, 1927, the weekly New York magazine The Outlook published her article on the ruling, titled “Fear” — a kind of open letter to the general public, a spirited case against the execution of the two men and, more broadly, of execution in general. She writes:

On the surface of a Christianity already so spotted and defaced, by the crimes of the Church this stain does not show very dark. In a freedom already so riddled and gashed by the crimes of the state this ugly rent is with difficulty to be distinguished at all.

And you are right; it is well to forget that men die. So far we have devised no way to defeat death, or to outwit him, or to buy him over. At any moment the cloud may split above us and the golden spear of death leap at the heart; at any moment the earth crack and the hand of death reach up from the abyss to grasp our ankles; at any moment the wind rise and sweep the roofs from our houses, making one dust of our ceilings and ourselves. And if not, we shall die soon, anyhow. It is well to forget that this is so.

But that man before his time, wantonly and without sorrow, is thrust from the light of the sun into the darkness of the grave by his brother’s blindness or fear it is well to remember, at least until it has been shown to the satisfaction of all that this too is beyond our power to change.

Millay argues that the atrocity of the sentence itself was only amplified by the failure of justice that resulted, as it was believed, in the men being wrongly accused of murder in order to punish them for their social activism:

If you should rouse yourself for a moment and look about you at the world, you would be troubled, I think, and feel less peaceful and secure, seeing how it is possible for a man as innocent as yourself of any crime to be cast into prison and be killed. For whether or not these men whom I do not name were guilty of the crime of murder, it was not for murder that they died. The crime for which they died was the crime of breathing upon the frosty window and looking out.

[...]

This is the way you look at it: These men were Anarchists, and they are well out of the way; you are fortunate to have escaped destruction at their hands; they were probably murderers; but, in any case, they are well out of the way. It was that word Anarchist which brought them to the chair; that word, and your ignorance of its meaning.

An Anarchist, you insist, is a man who makes bombs and puts them under the State House, and that is that. On the contrary, that is by no means that. The person you have in mind is not an Anarchist, he is a bomber. You will find him everywhere — among Anarchists, among Fascists, among dry-law enforcers, among Modernists, among Fundamentalists, and freely distributed throughout the Ku Klux Klan. He is that person who, when he does not like a thing, lynches it, tars and feathers it, lays a curse upon it, or puts a bomb under it. His name is legion, and you will find him in every party.

An Anarchist, according to the dictionary, is a person who believes that human beings are naturally good, and that if left to themselves they would, by mutual agreement, govern themselves much better and much more peaceably than they are being governed now by a government based on violence.

Millay also argues that the men’s status as immigrants made them all the more vulnerable to injustice:

These men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant and savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.

These men were put to death because they made you nervous; and your children know it. The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank; whereas in the pool of your own mind, whenever an alien image bends above, a fish of terror leaps to meet it, shattering its reflection.

Millay’s closing words reveal just how profoundly the case had touched some deep part of her own humanity, and their poignancy carries great resonance for contemporary debates on the death penalty, nearly a century later:

I am free to say these things because I am not an Anarchist, although you will say that I am. It is unreasonable to you that a person should go to any trouble in behalf of another person unless the two are members of the same family, or of the same fraternity, or, at the remotest, of the same political party. As regards yourself and the man who lives next door to you, you wish him well, but not so very well.

[...]

I dare say these things because I am not an Anarchist; but I dare say them for another reason, too: because my personal physical freedom, my power to go in and out when I choose, my personal life even, is no longer quite so important to me as it once was… Death even, that outrageous intrusion, appears to me at moments, and more especially when I think of what happened in Boston two months ago, death appears to me somewhat as a darkened room, in which one might rest one’s battered temples out of the world’s way, leaving the sweeping of the crossings to those who still think it important that the crossings be swept. As if indeed it mattered the least bit in the world whether the crossings be clean or foul, when of all the people passing to and from there in the course of an eight-hour day not one out of ten thousand has a spark of true courage in his heart, or any love at all, beyond the love of a cat for the fire, for any earthly creature other than himself. The world, the physical world, and that once was all in all to me, has at moments such as these no road through a wood, no stretch of shore, that can bring me comfort. The beauty of these things can no longer make up to me for all the ugliness of man, his cruelty, his greed, his lying face.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a trove of timeless wisdom, and the lion’s share of it is far more humanistic and uplifting than Millay’s reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Sample it further with Millay on her love of music, her love of her mother, and her love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison.

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