When I met Baylis John Fletcher, Sr., he was nearing the end of his life and recounting his adventures on a cattle drive in 1879. Fletcher had been nineteen years old, "above fryin' size," when he made the trip. He had never been far from his Texas home, so most of what he saw and experienced as he rode the Chisholm Trail was new. For that one trip, Fletcher was a cowboy.
Baylis Fletcher died a century ago, well before I was born. I made his acquaintance as a reader, as you may have guessed. I'm a curious biographer even when I'm not writing, so as I sometimes do when I meet an interesting figure from our history, I set out to learn more.
Here's what I discovered about Baylis John Fletcher. He began life on the fourth of July, 1859, in Lexington, Texas. He was the youngest of seven children, all born within a decade that must have been a wearying blur for their overworked mother, who died bringing Baylis into the world. His maternal grandparents and an unmarried aunt, Ellen Roddy, took the infant off his grieving father's hands, and in their care Baylis grew up riding, roping, and branding. It was a neighboring cattleman named Tom Snyder, owner of 173,000 acres, who hired Fletcher to help bring his animals north. In places like Abilene, Kansas, Texas cattle were being bought and loaded onto railroad cars headed for slaughterhouses in the East, but Snyder's cattle were bound for Wyoming, where ranchers were building herds. Aunt Ellen worried about her nephew facing the dangers of the trail, from bandits to Indians to stampeding animals, but Baylis was determined to go. He traced his sense of adventure to the pioneering spirit of his grandparents, who had migrated to the Texas wilderness from South Carolina and Tennessee.
The cowhands and animals began their trek on April 11, and covered ten to twelve miles a day. They moved north in the daylight, and the men took turns guarding the herd after dark. And of course they encountered some of the hazards Aunt Ellen had feared. One quiet night, as Baylis and a companion spun yarns beside a campfire, they suddenly heard a steady roar and saw a cloud of dust coming closer. The herd was stampeding, for no apparent reason. The two cowboys dove behind an oak--the only shelter in sight--and held on for dear life as the cattle thundered past, so close that their horns tore the bark from the other side of the tree. "It was a moment of supreme terror, but only a moment," Fletcher recalled. In seconds the stampede had moved past, and he was on his horse, racing to outrun the herd and turn the lead animals back. The party met Indians, too, but they were hungry rather than hostile and grateful for the gift of a steer.
Fletcher saw sights that stirred his heart and others that saddened it. By mid-August the men and cattle had reached a high plateau from which Fletcher could make out snow-capped peaks in the Rocky Mountains, a hundred miles away. He compared their creamy color to something familiar, "the yellowish thunderheads seen sometimes at a great distance in Texas." Another day, he came upon the carcass of a horse that had been killed by lightning, lying beside a newly made grave. "No explanation was needed," he wrote. "Some Texas cowboy had cashed in--had been killed by lightning and was buried beside the body of his faithful horse...without a woman's tears, without a single tribute of flowers, and doubtless without a coffin."
Cowboys and cattle reached their destination, Cheyenne, Wyoming, five months after leaving Texas. The men delivered the herd, sold their saddle horses, and proceeded to a bank to collect their pay in cash. Filthy and shaggy from their time on the trail, they bought new clothes, visited a barber, and found rooms in a hotel. In Cheyenne they took in things they had never seen, such as the shoeing of oxen. While they were dining at their hotel, a black man came in and sat down near them. This would never have happened in Texas, and one cowboy was so incensed that he picked up a chair and broke it over the man's head. He was promptly arrested and fined, to his friends' great surprise. Even more astonishing was the news that African Americans could stay in any hotel in Wyoming Territory if they had the money to pay for a room; it was the law. The cowboys spent a few days in Wyoming and then were ready to board a Union Pacific train that took them as far as Waco, Texas, where they bought horses to ride the rest of the way home.
Despite his early training and skill at driving cattle, Fletcher felt drawn to occupations that kept his clothes clean. After his first and only cattle drive, he became a clerk in Lexington's general store. He married Marie Louise Hester, one of his employer's nine daughters, and with her he would have five children. Fletcher trained to be a teacher and rose to be principal of Lexington's public school. A Democrat, he served one term in the Texas legislature, from 1895 until 1897, and he was treasurer of Lee County, Texas, from 1900 through 1911. He also made money trading cotton.
Baylis John Fletcher as a Texas legislator
He liked to attend reunions of Confederate soldiers, although he had been too young to fight in the Civil War. And as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Fletcher began to write historical articles for magazines, inspired by his childhood recollections of religious camp meetings and Indian raids. His longest, most ambitious piece of writing was an account of the cattle drive of his youth. It remained unpublished until 1966, when The Cattleman ran it as a serial. In 1968, the University of Oklahoma Press published it as a book, titled Up the Trail in '79. Fletcher's book is one of the longest and most detailed factual accounts of cowboy life ever written.
Baylis John Fletcher died on December 19, 1912, in Giddings, Texas, the seat of Lee County. He is remembered for his public service and for his book, but he is not the best-known person resting in Giddings City Cemetery. That distinction belongs to William "Wild Bill" Longley, a notorious outlaw if there ever was one.
Now I am curious all over again. What can I discover about Longley? I'll let you know.
A Texas cowboy from the period when Fletcher rode the range
On a night in 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture in in New York City. At the time one of the few American men of letters respected on both sides of the Atlantic, Emerson predicted that North America would nurture a great poet, one to rival England's masters. "The genius of poetry is here," Emerson said. "He is in the forest walks, in paths carpeted with the leaves of the chestnut, oak, and pine; he sits on the mosses of the mountain, he listens by the echoes of the wood; he paddles his canoe in the rivers and ponds." Luckily for all of us, Walt Whitman sat in the audience that night. A self-proclaimed loafer who had worked halfheartedly as a journalist and briefly taught school on Long Island, Whitman decided he would become that poet.
More than a decade of what Whitman called "simmering" followed, as he broadened his knowledge and experience, and thought about what this new American poetry should be. He spent a brief time in New Orleans, where he witnessed the slave trade. Back in the Northeast, he read books on religion and history and Darwin's new theory of evolution. He delved into phrenology, the "science" of reading the bumps on people's heads. He frequented Dr. Henry Abbott's museum on Broadway, where he viewed Egyptian artifacts and was taken with the myth of Osiris, the god whose fragmented body sprouted leaves and grass from the earth.
He carried a green notebook for jotting down ideas: "Make it plain. Lumber the writing with nothing--let it go as lightly as a bird flies in the air--or a fish swims in the sea." By 1853 he was finally ready to write, and amazingly, wondrously, he did what he set out to do. The slender volume that he published anonymously in 1855--the first edition of Leaves of Grass--set poetry on a new course with its long, chanting lines and its lack of rhyme. But technical innovation was not enough to secure Whitman's place in literature and in our hearts. He composed verses of profound grace, paradoxically pouring everything he had into his poems while exercising restraint. For the first time, readers encountered the sprawling, exuberant "Song of Myself," in which the poet links himself with all humanity, and human beings with every other life form, from tortoises, ganders, and prairie dogs to the grass, which is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." Some readers blinked more than once at the poem we know as "I Sing the Body Electric," and its unashamed celebration of "The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping...." Who else in the Victorian era had dared to mention body parts in anything louder than a whisper? "The scent of these arm-pits" Whitman called "an aroma finer than prayer."
For the rest of his life, Whitman added poems to Leaves of Grass. Later editions included a favorite of mine, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," in which he speaks across time to people yet unborn:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky, so I felt...
Later editions also featured the moving poems that chronicle Whitman's life as a soldiers' nurse in Civil War Washington and his great poem of mourning for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman inspired and influenced so many poets who followed him: Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg.
I am as touched now by the beauty of Whitman's lines as I was when I first read them long decades ago. I know his story well, yet it still holds me in awe. How did a man who had barely written a line of verse, who had demonstrated no special ability in any area, create this body of work? I couldn't begin to guess. But the fact that he did--doesn't it cheer your soul?
In a 1958 letter to a friend, Flannery O'Connor predicted that no biographies would ever be written of her, for the simple reason that "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Writing is solitary work, and for some dedicated writers, springs fade uneventfully into autumns as they sit at their desks, putting words on paper.
It's true for some writers, but not for all. Others venture beyond home and chicken yard to engage in the world. Biographers love them, because their lives do make exciting copy. Moreover, they offer the chance to present history from the viewpoint of one participant. Walt Whitman, for example, stepped onto the world's stage during the Civil War, when he went to Washington, D.C., to search for his wounded brother. Witnessing the aftermath of battle and "what sick men and mangled men endure" impelled him to be a nurse in the city's wretched military hospitals. John Steinbeck became a voice for the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, and he later spoke out against the government's persecution of suspected communists in the 1950s. During the period of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, he traveled to Southeast Asia to see the fighting there for himself. The experience transformed him from an unqualified supporter of the war to a doubter of his nation's ability to achieve success in it. "If I could shorten this war by one hour by going back to Vietnam, I would be on tonight's plane with a one-way ticket," he said. For Ernest Hemingway, experience was a necessary part of writing. He came under fire in three wars and found the inspiration for a novel each time. Clearly, these were lives of action.
Yet for every Whitman or Steinbeck or Hemingway there is a retiring writer like O'Connor, or like me. To an observer our days may pass uneventfully as we study and care for our birds, or marry and raise a child, but we live active and satisfying lives of the mind. Thinking, researching, and wrestling with words are daily challenges, sources of frustration at times, but also of joy. We make our mark on the world through our work, battling ignorance and intolerance every single day. At least I hope we do. We try.
In the end, Flannery O'Connor was wrong. Books have been written about her, and good ones, too.
I'm a diligent, productive writer, so I hear the question often. I also ask it of my writer friends, because I am interested in them, and because I am intrigued by the great variety of ideas that appeal to people's creativity. I find it curious that after I answer, my questioners tend to respond in the same way. In other words, a particular book-in-progress yields a particular response. When I was writing about Whitman, for example, people wanted to know, "How are you handling his homosexuality?" No one asked how I was presenting his poetry, which is the more important question, but I always answered straightforwardly: I mention it, but I don't dwell on it.
The loveliest responses came when I was writing about Cummings. Many people spontaneously recited a fragment of poetry, whether it was by Cummings or someone else:
as if as
somewhere i have never travelled...
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...
More recently, when I told my questioners that I was writing about Jane Austen, a number of people asked, "In your book, what do you say was the cause of her death?" I told them that I wrote the truth: we don't know. But I would have given the same answer if they had asked about Austen's appearance, or her religious views, or how she spent the months between January and August of 1796. The fact is, we know surprisingly little about this major figure in world literature.
Because biography is so much about character, these gaps presented the biggest challenge I faced when writing Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. I chose to address them head-on, beginning with one of the most intriguing mysteries, her unfinished novel Sanditon. The fact that there are limits to historical and literary research is a useful lesson for young readers to learn.
The biographer of Austen works with precious little. The only authenticated portrait of her is a watercolor by her sister, Cassandra, but people who knew the author said it failed to do her justice. When friends and family described Austen's appearance, they contradicted one another. Her hair was long and black or curly and brown, and she was pretty or plain, depending on which eyewitness we choose to believe. She wrote an estimated three thousand letters, but her relatives destroyed all but one hundred sixty, and we don't know why. As Austen's fame grew, they presented her to the world as they wanted her remembered: always considerate and forgiving, and certainly never unkind. Then there are the six published novels and a small body of lesser and unfinished works.
Yet from it all a woman emerges. She is brilliant, witty, and occasionally nasty. She is devoted to her large, active family and loyal to her few close friends. She is also an astonishingly perceptive student of the human heart and, of course, a gifted writer. We who live two hundred years removed from Austen must accept the fact that our view of her remains somewhat obscured.
And what about her death at forty-one? The prevailing opinion among historical medical detectives is that Jane Austen died of Addison's disease, which was untreatable in her day, and that it was possibly triggered by tuberculosis. This diagnosis best matches the symptoms that Austen and others recorded, which included skin discoloration, intermittent fever, weakness and fatigue, but no real pain. Still, we don't know for sure.
Ernest Hemingway courted death, but he also embraced life. He loved travel, adventure, physical activity, the company of others, and good food and drink. Handsome and robust, he attracted many friends. He wrote from experience, so exploring new territory yielded raw material for his stories and books.
The man who sought isolation in Ketchum, Idaho, prematurely old at sixty, was once the smiling, ruddy-cheeked youth who went to Kansas City as a newspaper reporter, having outgrown at eighteen the constricting morality of Oak Park, Illinois. Working for the Kansas City Star, he mastered the reporter's vigorous, brief-sentenced style. He practiced being on the scene when news was made and disciplined himself to limit his accounts to what could be observed. These lessons were key to his development as a writer, because applying the journalist's craft to fiction would be one of his great contributions to literature.
Why stay in Kansas City, though, when the world was at war? In May 1918, Hemingway enlisted as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. He went to Italy unprepared for the dreadful realities of battle, and encounters with body fragments and suffering, bleeding soldiers scarred his psyche. The many wounds he received from an exploding enemy shell healed more easily. Yet he slapped on his irresistible smile and pushed ahead.
Before long he was living in Paris as a young husband and father and starting to write seriously. He found in the city's cafes the quiet and privacy that he needed for composition. When he was not writing, he might be seen heading for Sylvia Beach's famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, with his little son toddling at his side. Jack Hemingway, whose doting parents called him Bumby, always insisted that Ernest was a wonderful father. From Paris the Hemingways explored Austria, Italy, and Spain, and Ernest went as far as Turkey.
Hemingway was still young and living in Paris when he first achieved success. He gained the admiration of many readers, but never of two who mattered: his parents. After his mother, Grace Hemingway, called The Sun Also Rises "one of the filthiest books of the year," Ernest said, "You cannot know how it makes me feel." But I think we can.
His story ultimately is a sad one. When I reflect on his decline into alcoholism and paranoia, I can't help but bring to mind the buoyant youth who was full of talent and eager to make his mark on the world.
E. E. Cummings grew up in a cultured home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had a traditional upbringing and a classical education, which meant that when he entered Harvard in 1911, he knew the work of the great English poets, the writers of Rome and ancient Greece, and such established American literary figures as Longfellow and Emerson. He had started writing poetry as a child, and his verses took traditional forms.
Then he saw the Armory Show, the groundbreaking 1913 exhibition of painting and sculpture that brought abstract art, and especially Cubism, to the public's attention. Innovation in one artistic field influences trends in others, so while Picasso and Duchamp were experimenting on canvas, Stravinsky was composing The Rite of Spring and Stein was applying the ideas of abstraction to literature with mixed success.
Exposure to modernism opened a world for Cummings and set him on the path of innovation, yet throughout his career he drew on his traditional background. For example, when writing his prose work The Enormous Room, which chronicles his experiences in a French prison during World War I, he chose as his model The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's seventeenth-century Christian allegory. Later in his career, he found the title of his book on the Soviet Union, Eimi (promounced A-mee, and meaning "I am"), in classical Greek. He also continued to write in established verse forms. (The poem that begins, "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished soul"s is a sonnet--check it out.) In fact, traditional cadences and rhymes are often a signal that Cummings is about to deliver a powerful emotional punch.
Cummings loved the poetry of John Keats, the great English Romantic who died in 1821, on the brink of life. Keats's ringing vowels inspired Cummings to write lines such as "mOOn Over tOwns mOOn." And it was in one of Keats's letters that Cummings found what might be termed his world view, at least as it pertains to his writing. Keats wrote, "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of the Imagination." When Cummings read these words, "an unknown and unknowable bird began singing," he said. For Cummings, "the holiness of the Heart's affections" translated to the need to follow his heart, particularly as an artist. It meant believing that if he were honest with himself, then his feelings were true and good and deserved to be expressed honestly through his art. Being certain of the truth of the imagination indicated a great respect for and dedication to the creative process. Keats's statement would serve any writer well.
E. E. Cummings permitted no radio in his home, and no vacuum cleaner either, because their noise distressed him. He mistrusted technology, and even science, believing that too much awareness of the workings of the world sullies our wonder at its beauty. As he so bluntly asked, "who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch / invents an instrument to measure Spring with?"
When I was writing E. E. Cummings: A Poet's Life, and my word-processing program silently "corrected" Cummings's capitalization and marked as errors his stretched and broken words, I understood that he would have hated computers, too. Cummings's ideosyncratic use of capital letters and punctuation, his tearing apart and jamming together of words can seem capricious, as though he broke rules simply for the sake of doing so, but in fact he was deliberate. Like a gardener coaxing bulbs to blossom at Christmas, he forced words to bloom unexpectedly, to communicate more than they might have if left alone.
In the style that he developed for his poetry, a capital letter could indicate the start of a new idea, so that the word rendered "mys / teriouSly" is both mysterious and sly. A capital could also signify a sound to be emphasized when the poem is read aloud:
hing had,ever happ
That final "D" is like the solid, concluding chord of a musical work. The reader has reached the poem's end, there's no mistaking it. Of course, Cummings's used the lower case intentionally, too. His lower-case personal pronoun--the "i" so familiar to his readers--stands for his private self.
For Cummings, the placement of words on a page mattered much. How much space separated words (or did not separate them) had to do with the flow of language, or how the poem sounded when read aloud:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man....
Can't you just hear the old eyewitness describing Buffalo Bill's feats of marksmanship?
Cummings also had no fear of taking words apart and inserting phrases inside them to present two actions that were occurring at the same time or were to be considered simultaneously:
pigeons fly ingand
whee(:are,SpRiN,kLiNg an in-stant with sunLight
Here are pigeons wheeling in the sky and briefly sparkling in the sunlight, all at once. And what are we to make of Cummings's treatment of sprinkling? It seems to me that this might have been a way to communicate through typography what this speckling with light looked like. Cummings was a painter as well as a poet, and poetry was a visual as well as a literary medium for him.
Recently someone asked me about Cummings's significance to poetry. I responded that although he gave readers much joy through his writing, his significance to poetry refers to how he broke new ground, or moved poetry forward. His significance therefore has to lie in his use of language, in his exploration of what might be possible on the page.
Ask an American child or teen who A. Philip Randolph was, and you are likely to hear, "I don't know." This is unfortunate, but if you ask the same question of the child's parent or grandparent, you may very well get a shrug and a slight shake of the head, and this is downright sad. Randolph's efforts led to significant gains in the quest for racial equality, and he deserves to be remembered.
Asa Philip Randolph was thirty-six years old and living in Harlem in 1925, when a Pullman porter approached him and asked for help forming a union. Randolph at first said no; he was a journalist, a publisher of a socialist newspaper called the Messenger, and not a labor organizer, he said. But he had the vision to foresee that this union might benefit not only the porters but all African-American workers, so he accepted the challenge, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was born. Randolph would serve as the union's president for forty-three years.
The porters needed representation. They were paid less and put in longer hours than other railroad workers. Existing unions denied them membership because of their race. Randolph spent ten years traveling from city to city, speaking to porters, and building a national network. As soon as the Brotherhood represented a majority of porters, he went up against their employer, the powerful Pullman Company, which was notoriously no friend of organized labor. "Undainted and unafraid," he forced management to meet the porters' demands and recognize the union as their bargaining agent. This was a significant step in the history of American labor. Once the porters were unionized, union representation would only spread to African Americans in numerous other trades, who had been similarly shut out. And in time the mighty American Federation of Labor would be forced to reverse its exclusionary policy.
In the 1940s, Randolph used his status as an African-American leader to further another cause: equal employment in defense plants. U.S. factories needed workers to produce the arms and vehicles that would be used to win World War II, but the great majority of these manufacturing jobs went to white workers. This was no secret. The president of North American Aviation said flat out that "Negroes will be considered only as janitors and in other similar capacities." When a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to bring results, Randolph made plans to bring thousands of African Americans to march in the segregated city of Washington, D.C. Fearing embarassment in the eyes of the world, Roosevelt issued an executive order requiring companies with defense contracts and the federal government to hire workers without regard to race. Some discrimination remained in these sectors, but many African Americans found opportunities that had previously been denied to them.
Segregation persisted in the U.S. armed forces, however. African Americans had tolerated this policy during World War II, when the need to defeat the Axis Powers overrode other concerns, but when President Harry Truman announced a draft in 1947, the war had been won. This time Randolph proposed a peaceful demonstration in Philadelphia, where in 1948 the Democratic Party was holding its national convention. Truman, worried about losing the African-American vote, signed another executive order, this one calling for the armed forces to integrate as quickly as possible.
Randolph was a dignified, thoughtful, well-spoken man. He never made much money, and he lived in the same Harlem apartment for much of his life. An early proponent of nonviolent change, he was a role model for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, he finally put into motion his long-held plan for a gathering of African Americans in Washington, D.C. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is remembered as a bright moment in a turbulent decade. It was A. Philip Randolph's gift to us all.
A life is spread before me, a deck of cards fanned out on a table. Which one do I pick up first; where do I begin?
I have a strategy as I draw my hand. I want to capture your interest right at the start, so my opening bid must be compelling. I also want to create a quick picture of the subject without giving too much away, so the cards I lay down must convey something of his character and accomplishments, of her time and place.
Sometimes luck is on my side, and I know right away where and how a biography will start. As soon as I read a small piece in E. E. Cummings's book 73 Poems, for example, I knew that my Cummings biography would lead off with some of its lines. Here was the poet writing late in life about being a child in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. What a perfect way to enter his story, when and where it began:
who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset....
It can work well to start at the beginning, but at times I like to introduce readers to a subject at a later point in life. I had them meet the grown-up Sigmund Freud in his consulting room, analyzing a patient. The appearance of Freud's workplace--the antiquities lining his shelf and the heavy nineteenth-century decor--were clues to his character. Also, I hoped that his open-ended suggestion, "Say whatever goes through your mind," might appeal to readers' imaginations, causing them to think about how they might respond if they were reclining on the famous couch. It's part of the fun of reading about Freud.
It can happen that the ideal opening eludes me, and then trial and error can help, as it did when I was writing Walt Whitman. The first beginning that I wrote for this book had Whitman in Washington, D.C. The Civil War was raging, and he was nursing wounded soldiers in the city's makeshift hospitals. This was a fine opening, really. It showed Whitman involved in an activity for which he is famous and revealed his love for humanity and for America. Whitman's Civil War experiences inspired some of his most affecting poetry, so I had made a good start for this reason as well.
But then, if I listened carefully, I could hear Whitman's voice: "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence...." Here was the poet speaking directly to me--and to my readers--from New York City in 1855. I knew immediately that this was how to begin, with Whitman composing the beautiful "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." So I scrapped my opening chapter and found the poet within the crowd on that ferry, dressed in his workman's clothes. I made the right choice.
To complete the card-playing analogy, I will say that I play to win. Yet I am anything but competitive, because the one I want most to win, throughout the whole game of writing, is the reader: you.
The book was already ten years old in 1901, when Florence Whitin inscribed her name inside the front cover, employing a fine-pointed fountain pen, black ink, and a graceful hand. It was a typically well-crafted volume from 1891, clothed in a textured navy cloth that pleases the fingertips, its chapters and verses printed on gilded pages so thick and sturdy that you knew when you'd turned one. I bought Florence's book secondhand, while shopping for works by the Brontës. It contains some of Charlotte's lesser-known writing: a novel titled The Professor; another, left unfinished, called Emma; and poems.
I love old books for their age, for their old-book smell, and for the links to previous owners that I discover in them. These are often markings, such as Florence's autograph or the alphabet that an anonymous person carefully etched into my 1910 dictionary (a souvenir of a trip to the beach). I also find artifacts tucked between pages: train-ticket stubs, recipes, a brittle, cryptic list of accounts paid or received in April 1884. These small gifts are treasures.
A name written in a book usually remains a murmur from the past and nothing more, but Florence whispered loudly enough to awaken the biographer in me. After a few minutes of online searching, I was able to sketch her life.
Florence Whitin was born in Northbridge, Massachusetts, on October 6, 1878. She graduated from Smith College in 1900, and on June 4, 1902, in Northbridge, she married a lawyer, Theophilus Parsons. The bidegroom was the son and grandson of men also named Theophilus Parsons who both had distinguished careers in law. For a time the couple lived in Hempstead, New York. Mrs. Parsons continued to value books, serving as secretary of the Hempstead Library Association and as president of a literary society, the Hempstead Woman's Club. She and her husband raised four children; the family was Presbyterian.
By 1920, the Parsons family was living on P Street in Washington, D.C. (I bought Florence's book not far from her Washington home.) Theophilus Parsons had become a lawyer in the Patent Office and was an amateur painter who favored landscape, marine, and figure work. A son, a fourth Theophilus, attended Cornell University. Another son, Paul, planned to enter Harvard in the fall. Florence's husband died in 1952; the year of her own death is unknown to me.
I have more in common with the Florence of 1920, but the one who reads along with me is Florence Whitin, age twenty-two, recently graduated from college and on the cusp of married life. She is the Florence who wrote her name in a book in 1901. I wonder whether she opened this volume again years later as a harried mother seaking peace: whether her children, as adolescents, curiously turned its pages; or whether it sat unread until I picked it up in 2010. I will always wonder and never know.
The same technology that allowed me to learn so much about Florence Whitin Parsons promises to make books obsolete, or at least less commonplace than they are today. I have no wish to halt progress, but I do regret that small pleasures may be lost. A reader can't slip a recipe for pumpkin soup within the pages of an e-book for a future reader to find, or inscribe it on a starlit night.