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Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 MARCH, 2013

The Proud Surrender: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Love Letters to Edith Wynn Matthison

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“This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness.”

No other form of human communication measures up to the mesmerism of an exquisite love letter, especially one that defies the romantic conventions of its age, like the stirring missives exchanged between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 — Edna St. Vincent Millay met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:

Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.

In another, she pleads:

I will do whatever you tell me to do. … Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything. … But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way. … I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.

In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:

You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.

With love,

Vincent Millay

Thanks, Chel

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28 FEBRUARY, 2013

Oppression by Omission: Women Soldiers Who Dressed and Fought as Men in the Civil War

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“Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.”

Conventional narrative has framed the Civil War as a man’s fight, with historical accounts focusing almost exclusively on the men who fought as Yanks and Rebs in the 1860s. But such commonly accepted accounts present, like all history, a revisionist history that excises the stories of the women who, despite the extraordinary obstructions of the era, took to the battlefields. In They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (public library), historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook chronicle and contextualize more than 250 documented cases of women who served in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies dressed as men, “the best-kept historical secret of the Civil War” — an act at once rebellious and patriotic, using this usurped male social identity to claim full status as citizens of their nation and access male independence in an age when neither was available to women. Blanton and Cook write in the introduction:

Popular notions of women during the Civil War center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining their home front in the absence of their men. This conventional picture of gender roles does not tell the entire story, however. Men were not the only ones to march off to war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.

To pass as a man, Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted with her husband in 1861 as 'Jack Williams,' took up gambling, cigar-smoking, and swearing.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Sarah Edmonds Seelye, one of the best-documented female soldiers, served two years in the Union army as Franklin Thompson and received a military pension 25 years after the war ended.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

So why did women do this? For some, like their male counterparts, the motivation was purely patriotic. Others did if for love, taking to the battlefields in order to remain close to a husband, lover, fiancé, father, or brother. But for many, the reason was economic — an army private made $13 a month, roughly double what a seamstress, laundress, or maid would make. At the time of the Civil War, women, unable to vote or have bank accounts and still subject to Victorian ideals of homemaking and motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence, had neither personal nor political agency. In fact, these female soldiers tended to come from particularly marginalized groups — immigrants, the working class, farm girls, and women living below the poverty line. The freedom to make and spend their own money, Blanton and Cook argue, was a source of unprecedented, if private, empowerment as they gained access to social opportunities and privileges previously unavailable to them. Blanton and Cook write:

Society placed enormous restrictions on females. While upper-class and educated middle-class women might find a small measure of independence through employment as teachers, writers, or governesses, working- and lower-class women had few appealing options outside of marriage. Their employment prospects were usually limited to sewing, prostitution, or domestic servitude. Statistically, the majority of unmarried working-class women chose the latter. In New York City in 1860, maids received received between four and seven dollars a month, ‘good’ cooks earned seven or eight dollars a month, and laundresses might earn up to ten dollars per month. … On the other hand, three months’ service as a private in the Union army yielded a hefty sum of thirty-nine dollars in an age when most monthly salaries for men ranged from ten to twenty dollars.

Union soldier Albert Cashier, who was really Jennie Hodgers, fought in dozens of battles during the Civil War. In 1913, she made headlines upon being discovered as a woman in an old soldiers home.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Though once found out, these female soldiers were discharged from the army for “congenital peculiarities,” “sexual incompatibility,” or the unambiguously termed offense of “unmistakable evidence of being a woman,” most of these women went undetected, at least for a while — a fact not all that astounding in the context of Victorian society where the single most revealing litmus test, nudity, was a rarity given bathing was a rare occurrence and people often slept in their clothes. (But today, in an age when the tip of the devastating iceberg that is sexual assault in the military is only beginning to emerge, one has to wonder what happened to the women who did get found out.)

Thanks to the poorly fitted uniforms, some women were even able to disguise their pregnancies until the very end, startling their male platoon mates with the delivery. Others chose to continue dressing as men after the end of the war, raising gender identity questions also not discussed in the book. But perhaps most interesting of all is the question of how women got the idea for this in the first place. Blanton argues that much of it had to do with cultural influence — cross-dressing female heroines permeated Victorian literature, with military and sailor women often celebrated in 17th-century ballads, novels, and poems.

They Fought Like Demons goes on to explore the complex motivations, realities, and untold stories of women who fought as, and fought like, men, reminding us that omission is as much a tool of political oppression in the construction of cultural mythology as propaganda.

Some images via Smithsonian Magazine

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28 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Age of Edison: Radical Invention and the Illuminated World

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A brief history of giving the people what they wanted, or why the lightbulb was a mere cog in the machinery of total illumination.

In 1880, a short segment of Broadway from Madison Square to Union Square was transformed into the “Great White Way” when twenty-three arc lights were switched on at nightfall, burning until sunrise the next day.

The light itself was overwhelming. The New York Times reported:

The great white outlines of the marble stores, the mess of wire overhead, the throng of moving vehicles, were all brought out with an accuracy and exactness that left little to be desired.

Women shielded themselves from the light using umbrellas. One person described the scene in horror:

People looked ghastly — like so many ghosts flitting about.

The harsh brightness of the arc lights required that they be hoisted between 20 and 50 feet in the air, throwing the city into dramatic light and shadow. People appeared gaunt and washed out, and the light exposed every skin imperfection. The experience of the arc lamp was like standing under a watchtower, and the street now had one on every corner. New York had been transformed into a prison, not a playground.

Light had come to the American city. And it was just awful.

In The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (public library), Ernest Freeberg explains that the invention of electric light was not simply the invention of the light bulb — rather, it was the introduction of an entirely new way of life: the experience of illumination.

A night view of the Paris Exposition of 1900

Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Thomas Edison, in fact, wasn’t the first to invent the lightbulb — in one form or another, electric light had been in existence since the turn of the nineteenth century when Sir Humphry Davy — a British scientist who had previously intoxicated himself with nitrous oxide — demonstrated the first arc light to the Royal Society in 1810. The arc light was named for the brilliant white light that appeared when an electrical current jumped the gap between two carbon rods. Davy’s effect was brief but brilliant, and the scientist made no effort to distribute the light on a grand scale.

Sir Humphry Davy experimenting with a voltaic battery

Image courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation

The arc light was powerful and effective; it became the standard application for inventors who wanted to distribute light to small towns and big cities across the U.S. It could blast away the shadows in Grand Central Station and it could light up an area for miles with a single strobe. San Jose and Austin constructed “moonlight towers,” roughly the size of a modern cell phone tower, to cast a white-hot glow over their city streets and combat crime. For the civic-minded, darkness was the criminal and the arc light was the policeman.

The first arc light tower, constructed in San Jose, California in 1881

Image courtesy Wikimedia

The incandescent light bulb was much more fragile an invention, relying on a glowing filament whose lasting power was unreliable. It was, however, the glow that Edison obsessively sought out. Edison didn’t invent incandescence either, but his goal was to make a bulb that glowed steadily, and that could glow in tandem with others.

Edison the man was an emblem for his entire workshop: hundreds of engineers and patents, a mountain of discarded materials, a thousand promises and false starts, millions of dollars in potential profit and market domination.

Edison and his workshop always invented in full view of the public. He would throw open the doors of his laboratory in Menlo Park, ready to reveal another rung in the ladder of human progress, only to shut himself up again when the newspapers questioned the efficiency of his inventions. The news from Menlo Park, much like the news from Cupertino today — and from Bell Labs in the mid-twentieth century — could affect the stock market on a grand scale.

The gas companies had the most to lose from the invention of a successful Edison lighting grid.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

In late 1879, Edison opened the doors to his laboratory to introduce the prototype of his incandescent light, capable of burning for up to three hundred hours. The bulb itself was not particularly special — hundreds of bulbs with varying filaments had been invented and discarded over the years. What made Edison’s light different, however, was a quality that couldn’t be measured in dollars: it was beautiful.

According to one newspaper, the lightbulb was “a little globe of sunshine” which produced “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow glow of an Italian sunset.” It was also the first light that had a single sensory experience. For thousands of years, light had been the product of wood, tallow, gas, or coal — where there was smoke, there was light. A newspaper reported of Edison’s bulb:

There is no flicker… There is nothing between it and darkness. It consumes no air and, of course, does not vitiate any. It has no odor or color.

Cities and towns did not simply crave light — the arc light was the brightest and boldest light a person could experience — they craved the right light. Edison’s incandescent bulb was not the brightest, but it had the glow that the public desired. Edison devised a system of lighting, a string of incandescent bulbs that ran on parallel circuits — ensuring that one outage wouldn’t collapse the system — driven by an enormous dynamo that allowed an even brightness across a vast field. Edison didn’t simply envision a bulb, he envisioned a grid, and he hooked his lighting into the tangle of telegraph wires, phone lines, and police alarms that already ran through the city.

The Edison Electric Tower was a pillar of incandescent light designed to showcase the glow of the Edison bulb. It was a popular feature of the General Electric exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Image courtesy Field Museum

The great shift from darkness into light during the nineteenth century wasn’t due to the invention of the lightbulb, but the invention of illumination and the experience of light on a grand scale. A well-lit room was not a novelty. A well-lit street, a building sprinkled with light, a lighthouse with a brilliant beam — these were the signposts of an illuminated world. Men and women would begin to stay out later into the night. Constant illumination meant a longer workday, for some driven by economic need, while others simply craved it.

The illuminated world transformed the literary sphere, too. With more people outside during the night, there were more stories to cover, more life to unfold. Newspapers began to publish multiple daily editions, both because they could and because the public hungered for it. The factory worker and the newspaper reporter began to intensify their “night work” and the now-familiar 24-hour workday began to take shape.

The Great Search Light and Electric Tower at the Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo in 1901.

Image courtesy the New York Public Library

The Age of Edison is the story of invention and experience, in which the race to light America was not for the brightest light, but the best, and the smartest. In the end, Edison’s incandescent bulb prevailed — not simply because it was the most beautiful light, but also because it was the savviest.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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