American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Isabel Greenwood

A Vital Issue

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Womans-Journal-Masthead2

Note the label: Chester Greenwood invented the ear muff; his wife, Isabel Whittier Greenwood, subscribed to several suffragist papers, now held by the Univ. of Maine. Click for larger view.

Leafing through Alfred Habegger’s Dickinson biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, I found a reference that made me curious: a letter by Louisa Norcross, Emily’s beloved cousin Loo, published in a suffragist newspaper in 1904. As Habegger notes, the letter defends “the dignity of domestic labor,” with a Dickinson anecdote marshaled in support. By this date, three volumes of poems had appeared and one of correspondence, so the poet was already a well-known figure, important enough to link with Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Norcross does. Dickinson and Stowe: two authors who managed to scribble while working in the kitchen.

Habegger quotes the anecdote in full and gives some of the context, but I wondered what else the letter might hold, and what else might be in the newspaper. As it happened, the original publication was owned by my university; a trip to special collections was in order.

Vital-Issues

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The newspaper in question, The Woman’s Journal, came out of Boston, edited by Lucy Stone (in later years, by Stone’s daughter, about whom I’ve written before). The letter is signed L.N. and appears on a page regularly edited by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.[*] In fact, the letter is a response to Gilman, who had a few weeks before on “Housework and Athletics” (images of the brief text here and here). The “and” of the title should really be “vs.”: Gilman’s subject is the obstacle of household labor to the development of grace and power. Some sample sentences:

People who are confined to a house almost all the time, either as performers or overseers of labor, and who find in that house their principal are of expression, do not care so much for physical expression….

Housework is not good exercise. It makes one tired, even exhausted, but it does not develop the body nobly and beautifully. Most of it is wearing to the nerves, but not to the muscles; and when you have the hard work, washing, ironing, and sweeping, you have the disagreeable and really injurious concomitants of heat and dirt.

The dealing with dirt is almost constant in housework, whether dust, grease, or stains; and the kind of exertion required to remove dust, wash dishes, or launder clothes is not the kind that makes for grace and beauty. When one is through with all this, there is no ambition left to add the wiser and more enjoyable exercises to the previous labors.

Women get tired out doing what is not good for them, and have no strength left to do what is. Those who do not do the work, but who merely oversee it, and who use the house to exhibit their things, their furniture, and clothes and pictures and vases, are not likely to consider the human body as a means of expression. It may be an admirable clothes-horse, but not in itself that exquisitely adjusted engine which is the best vehicle of the human spirit….

A larger, more dignified life, broader ideals, more rational habits, higher purposes — these may be expercted as women come out of their little monogamous harems and take part in the world’s work. Then, as human beings, they will want human bodies — human first, female second. And human bodies need human exercise to develop them; scientific and consistent work, exhilarating and delightful play, neither of which is to be found in domestic labor.

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“Vital Issues” page for The Woman’s Journal, 26 March 1904. Louisa Norcross’s letter is the second column from the right. Click for legible view.

The above lines were published in the March 5 issue. On March 26, the response from Norcross appeared:

HOUSEWORK DEFENDED

Editors Woman’s Journal

Please, please do ask Mrs. Gilman not to run down Housekeeping any more! Housekeeping, properly arranged and planned, is glorious. I have had some of my most “triumphant soars” while flitting about my little home and cooking-stove.

Of course, the abuse of it is wrong. But there must always be housekeeping, or the superintending of housekeeping (which I consider infinitely more wearing), unless we go back to dens and hovels.

Mrs. Stanton suffered mental agony in giving time to such tremendous claims materially, instead of to the thought children that were being conceived continually in her brain; but do you think Mrs. Blatch would say unhesitatingly that it would have been better that she and her brothers and sisters should not have been born, so that her mother could write continually for Mrs. Anthony?

I insist that housework is the most healthy stimulus for the whole feminine constitution, if not overdone. As far as grease and dirt go, I would much rather attend to those conditions in the proper way, than to pedestrian mud or painter’s palette; although I approve heartily of both.

I am an ardent crusader for women, a whole-souled suffragist, and a lover of every progressive “ism,” but there is no use in running down housework, for it is inevitable.

Mrs. Gilman is so splendid and rigorous and magnetic, beg of her not to be unsymmetrical in the slightest swerve.

Why will she not give her idea of a model home, as over against a “one woman harem”? For she must believe in a home.

And what are we going to say to the few staunch females who are still left to be willing to work in our homes for us? Are we to tell them that housework is inferior and injurious?

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her most wonderful sentences on slips of paper held against the kitchen wall while she was hovering over culinary formations. And I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me. The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about.

If domesticity is a characteristic with an individual, it must assert itself.

Concord, Mass. L. N.

As it turns out, the Dickinson anecdote is the least of it. The two views of housework Gilman’s and Norcross’s are more interesting. I may have to leaf through more issues.

Note

* [Back to text] I do wonder how Habegger identified this letter; it’s an excellent find. As far as I can tell, he was the first to cite it; a few others have since.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

June 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm