Read by Millions–Forgotten by All–Elsie Robinson

If you were asked to name the most popular woman author of the early twentieth century, what names would you recall? Perhaps it would be Edna Ferber, author of Showboat and Giant, Pearl Buck, who wrote exotic stories about China, or Betty Smith whose novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn topped the best-seller list for weeks.

But what about Elsie Robinson? Her name is unlikely to spring to mind, yet during the first half of the 1900s, she was the most widely read female author in America. Why has she been forgotten?

Elsie Robinson was born in 1883, in Benicia, California, a town at the outer edge of the San Francisco Bay area. The community had been developed during the last years of the California gold rush and was still filled with the adventurous spirit of the miners who had built it. Elsie was sent to the only public school in town and was an excellent student, but when she graduated, her parents did not have the money to send her on for higher education.

There were few opportunities at that time for an ambitious girl to get education or to find work, so Elsie turned to the traditional option of marrying an educated and prosperous man. Elsie felt that she was lucky when the pastor of her church introduced her to Christie Crowell, a young widower, who had come to California to visit friends and recover after the death of his wife. He was introduced to Elsie by the pastor of her church and soon found they had many interests in common. After months of courtship, Elsie and Christie became engaged, but their path to marriage was not smooth. Crowell’s family refused to sanction the marriage unless Elsie travelled to their home state, Vermont, and attended finishing school. Elsie agreed, so she took the train across the country by herself, to spend a year at the boarding school. After graduation, she and Christie had a quiet wedding at the Crowell family home. Elsie’s own family was not at the wedding because they could not afford the long trip across the country.

Elsie tried to fit herself into a traditional married life, but there was trouble from the start. She did not feel at home with the Crowell family and had difficulty fitting in with their conservative ideas, while her husband accepted their views completely. In those days women were often told that having a baby would ensure a happy marriage, but even that didn’t work for Elsie. Her only son, George, was born in 1904 with severe asthma, which he did not outgrow. Even after he started school, he was frequently confined to his home when he should have been in the classroom. Elsie, of course, was confined with him.

During her long, quiet days at home, Elsie began writing and illustrating stories to entertain her son and soon realized that she was good at the work. She began to search out opportunities for publishing her stories. When she gathered her courage and sent a story to the local newspaper, they published it and asked for more. Finally she found an agent who specialized in publishing articles and stories for children and distributing them by mail. At last she had an outlet for her energy. Before long she was hired to illustrate two books for children and she began to believe she might have found a career for herself.

But still she and her husband continued to drift apart and George continued to suffer from bouts of asthma. Eventually, Elsie made up her mind to take George to California where she believed his health would improve.

Elsie took George to California in 1912 and was able to find several jobs in writing and editing. Her ability to illustrate her own work made her more valuable than most other writers. Unfortunately, she was not able to earn enough money writing books to support herself and her son.

But Elsie would not give up. In 1915, she moved to a mining community and started working as a laborer in the gold mines. Few other women would have attempted such hard, physical labor, but Elsie was determined to survive. It was a difficult life, and she was the only woman working in the mine. As months went by, she was able to succeed and to earn the respect of the other miners. Gold mining, however, was a dying industry in California and the mine closed in 1918.

Elsie moved back to San Francisco, more determined than ever to find a career in writing. She persisted, sending material to newspapers and publishers. She wrote articles for newspapers in both Oakland and San Francisco and her readership grew with each new column. Her most famous column was called Listen World, which soon became known nationwide.

By 1921, she was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write for his string of newspapers. She signed a contract for $20,000 a year, making her the highest paid journalist in the country. After that, Elsie Robinson did not have to worry about being able to earn a living.

A few years after reaching this goal, however, in 1926, Elsie lost her son George. He had never completely overcome his asthma and died of a respiratory illness. Elsie never got over his loss. Her life then became filled with work. Having lived through a scandalous divorce from her first husband, Elsie wrote a memoir that sold well. She had two other husbands, both of whom seemed better at spending her money than in earning their own.

When Elsie died in 1956, she was still writing columns and influencing people. But today most of her work has disappeared from public view. Fortunately, we now have a biography, Listen World: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert (2022). It is good to see samples of Elsie Robinson’s columns available again.

Bad Girl Makes Good—Miriam Leslie, Scandalous Tycoon

During the 1800s, life for women was a constant battle to stay within the rules of society while still winning the battle for security and prosperity. For a beautiful girl born in poverty, this battle could be won or lost by one indiscrete kiss. Miriam Leslie, who is better known by the name of Mrs. Frank Leslie, was one woman who managed to escape this trap, but it was not easy.

Miriam Leslie

Miriam Leslie was born in Louisiana in 1836. Her father’s family had emigrated from France and settled in the area at some time during the 1700s. They started out as farmers, but by the time Miriam was born, they had lost their farm and were struggling businessmen. Miriam’s birth was never recorded. Her father was divorced at the time and we have no record of who her mother was; however, she acquired a stepmother when the family moved to New York a few years after her birth. It seems most likely that Miriam’s mother had been an enslaved woman, but no one has been able to prove that. (Many years later, that elusive mother became the basis for an attempt to keep Miriam from disbursing her fortune.)

Miriam’s life was never well-documented and she tried hard to keep much of it secret, so there remain many patches of uncertainty about her biography. She often made-up stories about her ancestors and her family, so historical sources differ. Where she was educated, and by whom, is not clear, but, somehow, she managed to get a better education than most women of her time. Her father encouraged the girl to read widely and Marion had a gift for languages. As an adult she spoke French, Italian, and Spanish fluently.

Despite giving Marion a good education, her father continued to pile up debts and neglected to provide for his family. It is not unlikely that both Marion and her stepmother engaged at least part time in prostitution, which was one of the few options women had for earning money. Eventually, however, Miriam’s skill with languages helped her to get a job with the dancer and actress, Lola Montez. They became a successful entertainment team and Marion learned how to dress and keep herself looking fashionable and attractive.

Miriam, however, fell out with Lola after their successful tours. She found other acting jobs but was not content to remain an entertainer. Her ambition was to become a socialite and join the highest ranks of New York society  As soon as she had a chance, she left the stage to marry Ephraim Squier (usually known by his nickname, E.G.) a scientist and businessman with plans to build a railroad across Argentina.

Unfortunately, like Marion’s other husbands, E.G. was not a successful businessman. He soon discovered that building an Argentinian railroad was not feasible and turned to other schemes. He started writing travel pieces for publication in the growing market of magazines in New York. Marion soon began to write for publication and both of them were encouraged by meeting Frank Leslie, editor of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine.

Leslie soon became a family friend. He left his wife and moved in with Marion and E.G. and the three of them continued to have an active social life. Marion soon found that her unconventional living arrangement meant that she was unable to gain entry into the highest New York society, but she had a wide circle of friends and entertained lavishly. Her writing and her editorial skills kept the family afloat for several years.  

Both Frank Leslie and Marion were eventually able to divorce their inconvenient spouses and get married. When they did, Marion legally changed her name to Mrs. Frank Leslie thus firmly leaving behind her birth family and her other marriages. After Frank Leslie died in 1880, Marion was able to take over his publications and keep her place in the ever-changing publishing world of the early twentieth century. She divided her time between New York and Europe and maintained her social contacts on both continents.

The greatest irony of Marion’s life was that despite having never supported the idea of women’s suffrage in any of her publications, she nonetheless left all of her money to Carrie Chapman Catt. Despite efforts by long lost relatives to break her will, it survived. The fortune was eventually spent on supporting the 19th Amendment that gave American women the vote and on founding the League of Women Voters to help women take advantage of their new rights.

Despite the limited documentation available about Marion Leslie’s life, we are lucky this year in having a valuable biography recently published: Betsy Prioleau’s Deadlines and Diamonds: A Tale of Greed, Deceit and a Female Tycoon (2022). Prioleau paints a vivid picture of Marion Leslie’s life and the times in which she lived. Reading it helps us understand how one woman managed to triumph despite poverty and the limitations placed on women. Marion Leslie deserves to be remembered.

Writing Poetry during Difficult Times—Anna Akhmatova

Even though it is only the beginning of April, this year of 2022 has already brought us startling news from around the world. Western media is focused on the fighting in Ukraine as Russian troops continue to bombard cities and force thousands of people to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere.

A hundred years ago, in 1922, things were much the same. Western newspapers were carrying stories of fighting, destruction, and hunger in Eastern Europe. The first World War had triggered a revolution in Russia. The Tzarist government fell and the Bolshevik party, under Vladimir Lenin, changed the face of Russia forever. During the early 1920s, as Lenin’s health declined, there was a struggle to take over leadership of the new government. The eventual winner of that struggle was Joseph Stalin whose power would determine the future of Russia and all of Eastern Europe for decades to come.

Russian writers and artists who had grown up during the Tsarist regime were deeply affected by this change in government; perhaps none more so than Anna Akhmatova. She had been hailed as one of Russia’s greatest poets but was to lead a very different and more difficult life under the new regime.

Anna was born near Odessa in 1889. Her father came from a Ukrainian Cossack family and was a stern, harsh man. He did not want poetry published under the family name, so at a very young age Anna chose the pen name Akhmatova, the name by which she was known for the rest of her life. Her father divorced his wife, Anna’s mother, and left the family while Anna was a child, so she grew up mostly in St. Petersburg. Her education was informal, but she soon joined a circle of young poets, artists and writers and began publishing poetry.     

When her second book of poetry,  Rosary, appeared in 1915, it became immensely popular. The poems she wrote were short lyric pieces filled with images of life and love:

Anna Akhmatova

The sun fills my room,

Yellow dust drifts aslant.

I wake up and remember:

This is your saint’s day.

(Translated by D.M. Thomas)

The poems were so popular that by 1916 many young people began playing a game called “Telling Rosary”. Someone would start reciting one of the poems and someone else would finish it. There was no shortage of fans who memorized her works.

Akhmatova flourished in the vibrant cultural world of St. Petersburg. She was young, beautiful, and fascinating to both men and women. In 1910 she married her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, two years later their son Lev was born. During the first few years of their marriage Akhmatova continued to write and publish poetry, even after the Russian Revolution started in 1917 and brought new turmoil to the country. Although many young writers and intellectuals left Russia and moved abroad during the years of revolution, Akhmatova refused to leave. As usual, she expressed her feelings in poetry I am not one of those who left their country/ For wolves to tear it limb from limb. (Translated by D.M. Thomas)

When the revolution ended in 1921 and Lenin became the country’s leader, Akhmatova and her friends hoped that a new, more democratic society would develop. Unfortunately, when Lenin died, his leadership role was taken by Joseph Stalin, who quickly became a harsh, unforgiving dictator. Soon after he came to power, Akhmatova’s poetry was denounced as “no longer relevant.” Akhmatova began to have difficulty finding a publisher and she was unable to continue giving the public readings that had been popular and an important source of income. For more than ten years her voice was almost silenced in Russia.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Akhmatova’s personal life was difficult. She was virtually penniless for many years; her former husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was imprisoned. Their son, Lev, was denied entry into schools. Eventually he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Northern Siberia. Akhmatova depended on the generosity of friends and lovers for her survival. During World War II she survived the 800-day siege of Leningrad, although her health deteriorated badly. Records of these years are difficult to find because she destroyed letters and journals so the authorities could not seize them and use them to justify additional punishment for her son or their friends.

Akhmatova’s health never completely recovered after the deprivations she suffered during World War II, but after the war, her reputation and fame began to return. In 1963, her masterpiece, a series of poems called “Requiem” was published in Germany, although it was not available in Russia until after her death. In 1965, Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and later that year she was allowed to travel to England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University. These tributes must have been precious to her as she neared her end, but by the time they came, she was very ill. She died of a heart attack in 1966.

Since her death, Akhmatova has been recognized as one of Russia’s most important poets. She is also one of the most popular. Her poems have been published around the world in many different languages. The translations that I have included above are by D.M. Thomas and are available in the Everyman Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Various translations of her work can be found in libraries and bookstores everywhere.

Details of Akhmatova’s life are still difficult to find, but a fascinating biography Anna of All the Russians: A Life of Anna Akhmatova (Vintage 2007) is available in libraries and bookstores. Feinstein gives a good picture not only of the poet, but also of Russia and Eastern Europe during the difficult years of the early twentieth century.

Happy Birthday to a Real Pro—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.

Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business.  Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.

Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.

Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh,  which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.

In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55. 

During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.

There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.  

You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.

Books across Borders—Constance Garnett and her Translations

Last Sunday (February 11, 2022), the New York Times featured an article about the growing importance of translated books in the United States. Now that many Americans are becoming used to watching international movies, television, and websites, it’s natural that books from around the world are also becoming more popular. The Author’s Guild and other writers’ associations encourage publishers to acknowledge this importance by including the name of the translator on the front cover of every translated book. We will no doubt see more attention paid to translators in the future, but today I want to pay tribute to a woman whose pioneering work in translation influenced some of the most important English-language writers of the twentieth century, including D. H . Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway.  

Constance Garnett was born in Brighton, England, in 1861. She was educated at Brighton and Hove High School and then studied Greek and Latin at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1883, she moved to London and worked as a governess and later as a librarian. In London she met Edward Garnett, who was a reader for a publishing company. The two married in 1889, and two years later, her husband introduced her to several Russian exiles with whom the couple became friendly. The exiles encouraged Constance to try translating some Russian writers into English to make them available to a wider range of readers. Before long, Constance started studying Russian and plunged into the work.

Constance Garnett with her son David

Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story was Garnett’s first translation to be published, and that was the beginning of a long, industrious career. During her lifetime, Garnett translated works by Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov. Works by these authors had been almost inaccessible to most English-speaking readers until Garnett translated them and they were published in England and then in the United States. By the time her career ended, she had translated and published 71 Russian books. Many of these versions still remain in print, although other translators have produced newer translations.

How did Constance Garnett manage to translate so quickly? She did it mostly by working incessantly. It was her habit to sit in her garden with a pile of Russian manuscripts beside her as she worked. She would translate quickly, seldom stopping to look anything up, and not planning ahead, but somehow she produced readable versions of  books that usually caught the spirit of the original. Her translations have been both praised and criticized by Russian scholars and still remain controversial. A 2005 article in the New Yorker “The Translation Wars” by David Remnick tells the story of some of the arguments and disagreements about her work.

The widespread availability of Russian translations had a dramatic impact on English-language literature during the 20th century.  One result, which is unfortunately no longer available to us, was the appearance of a play called “The Idiots Karamazov” at the Yale Repertory Theatre during the early 1970s. Starring in the role of Constance Garnett was a young student named Meryl Streep. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could find that show streaming on our TV screen and watch it before settling down to read Dostoyevsky? 

A Writer from a Different World—Bing Xin

As we celebrate the lunar new year and embark on the Year of the Tiger, it seems an appropriate time to turn attention to China and one of the women who had a large influence on modern Chinese literature.

Bing Xin was born in 1900 and died in 1999. She lived for almost the entire twentieth century, a time when China changed dramatically from a traditional empire to a powerful modern state. During her long, prolific career, Bing Xin wrote poetry, children’s books, and commentary on the life around her. 

Bing Xin as a young woman

Born in Yuhan, China, Bing Xin began writing short stories and poetry as a child and her early work soon attracted attention. After her conversion to Christianity, she read widely and became familiar with many European and American authors. She continued writing as she earned a bachelor’s degree at Yanjing University and then attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts for her master’s degree

The 4th of May movement in 1919 awakened Bing Xin’s  interest in political events. Many young Chinese students and others objected to decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles and became convinced that China must move away from traditional Chinese government and welcome change. Bing Xin’s studies in the United States increased her interest in learning more about the Western world. As a member of the class of 1926 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she served as an informal cultural ambassador, moving easily between the literary worlds of China and the United States.

In 1929, she married Wu Wenzao, an anthropologist who also studied in the United States. The two of them visited countries around the world and met many leading intellectual and cultural leaders. Bing Xin wrote about her travels and published reports of her journeys in China, making many young Chinese students aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. Bing Xin became a national figure and was a prolific writer all during the war with Japan during the 1930s. Her works were very popular, but as a writer for children as well as for the general public, she was not always considered an important intellectual influence.

During the Cultural Revolution, both Bing Xin and her husband were sent to the countryside for re-education, even though both of them were in their 70s at the time. They were allowed to return to the city after one year.

Despite her importance as a writer, Bing Xin’s work is not widely available in English translation. Her poetry was much influenced by modernist poets of Europe and perhaps her most widely available English-language work is A Maze of Stars, a collection of her poetry.    

Why not love,

mankind?

We all are travellers on a far journey,

returning, to the same country.

(Xin, Bing. A Maze of Stars and Spring Water (pp. 15-16). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

Readers who do not understand Chinese have missed learning about the work of Bing Xin and other  important cultural figures. The importance of translations is often underestimated, even by people who love books and reading. Perhaps this year would be a good one to seek out and honor some of the translators who help us to broaden our view of the world. After all, as Bing Xin writes: We are all travellers on a far journey.  

Frances Trollope—a Troublesome Visitor

We often hear stories of immigrants who came to America hoping to find a country superior to the one they left. Many settled in the new land and became enthusiastic American patriots. Some histories, however, tell the stories of immigrants who came for practical reasons and some who discovered that America did not live up to their expectations. Frances Trollope was one of these disillusioned immigrants. She came, observed, and then went back home. Worse than that, she wrote about her experiences in a book that outraged many Americans.

Frances Trollope, born Frances Milton in 1779, was a well-educated Englishwoman, daughter of a minister, wife of a barrister, and the mother of five young children. Her husband was not a wealthy man, and when Frances heard about a new idealistic community being set up in America, she decided that she could educate her sons inexpensively there and live a comfortable life. In 1827, she packed up several of her children and headed off for the new country. The plan was for her husband to follow later with their younger children.

Frances Trollope

Trollope’s idea had grown out of her friendship with Fanny Wright, a radical reformer who planned to build a new settlement in Tennessee where enslaved Americans could earn money to buy their freedom. The hope was that slavery would disappear and that slaveowners would not suffer any great loss of income.

When Frances Trollope arrived in America, she had learned enough about slavery to be a strong abolitionist. What she did not know, however, was that she would be surprised and shocked by the everyday habits of many Americans. She observed, took notes, and later wrote about what she had seen. Several years later, she published her first book: Domestic Manners of the Americans, which became both a best seller and one of the most hated books of the time. Her comments on the dining habits of the men she met on a river boat journey were often quoted by both friends and critics:

…the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured …the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife…

None of Trollope’s plans for life in America worked out as she had hoped. Fanny Wright’s community in Nashoba, Tennessee, was a failure and Trollope was not able to settle there with her family. She took her sons to Cincinnati, Ohio and tried to earn a living by writing and lecturing but was not successful. She was not sympathetic to the American culture and offended many people by noting the discrepancies between American ideals and the behavior she observed.  

In 1831, Trollope moved back to England and lived the rest of her life in Europe. She traveled around the continent and wrote travel books about Belgium, France, and Germany. She also began writing novels and by the time she died in 1863, had published 100 books.  Her books were very popular, and during her lifetime she was considered one of the outstanding novelists of the 19th century. Modern critics, however, have been critical of her work, and most of her books have become unavailable except in specialized collections.

Two of Frances Trollope’s sons became writers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope was a well-known historian and respected in his time, but Anthony Trollope, the younger son, outshone him. He was the author of several series of books that have been turned into BBC drama series. His Barchester Chronicles and The Pallisers have made him the most famous Trollope of them all.

Adelaide Crapsey—Scholar and Poet

Some poems seem to be spontaneous outbursts of feeling—“My heart is like a singing bird…” (Christina Rossetti) or “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages:” (Shakespeare). But poetry is not easy. Most of the poetry that we continue to read and to love is the result of many long hours of careful work.

One of the scholars who spent years studying metrics—the way words can be put together to achieve art—was a young American poet named Adelaide Crapsey. Although she died young and her work is often forgotten, she was an important writer of the early twentieth century. Her work continues to influence many poets today.

Adelaide Crapsey

Born in Brooklyn in 1878, Adelaide Crapsey and her family soon moved to Rochester, N.Y. where her father was pastor of an Episcopal Church. She was raised in a family that valued women’s education and Adelaide was encouraged to attend Vassar College. There she had a happy and successful educational life. She was president of the Poetry Club and graduated as valedictorian in 1897.

Two of Adelaide’s sisters died while she was in college, and Adelaide herself became sick with a severe illness that was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. After recovering and spending some time teaching, she went to Europe in 1904 to study at the American Academy in Rome. Although she was very happy in Rome, family problems prompted her return to the United States in 1905. Her father was accused of heresy by the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese, and he was brought to trial in 1906. He was found guilty of refusing to support the doctrine of virgin birth and lost his position with the Church after an unsuccessful appeal. He and his family had to leave the rectory.

Despite her desire to return to Europe, Adelaide chose to stay close to her family to offer support and encouragement. She taught at a private school and also continued to work on her scholarship and writing. Eventually she was able to return to Europe for a few months and while she was there she completed her book,  A Study in English Metrics, although it was not published until after her death. She returned to America when her tuberculosis became more severe and died in 1914 at the age of 36.

Adelaide’s study of metrics led her to investigate various poetic forms such as the Japanese haiku and tanka. She invented a new form of poetry called the cinquain and much of the poetry for which she is remembered uses this form. One example is this well-known piece:

November Night

Listen…
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

Although Adelaide Crapsey’s poems are no longer included in many anthologies, you can find a good sample of her work at the website of the Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/adelaide-crapsey

Another legacy of Adelaide Crapsey’s life is the effect her poetry has had on the teaching of poetry to school children. A simplified version of the cinquain has been introduced in many classrooms, for example:

Cinquain: (This is the format used in many schools—didactic cinquain)

  1. One word (subject)
  2. Two words
  3. Three words
  4. Four words
  5. One word (synonym for line 1 or five words to sum up the poem)

Many students, both children and adults, enjoy following this pattern and producing verses that can be satisfying both to write and to read.

Summer Beach

Ocean

Creeping waves

Tickling children’s toes,

Hurling broken shells against bare legs,

Triumph.

Adelaide Crapsey’s early death deprived the world of a notable poet, but it is some comfort to know that her work is still inspiring other writers.

Gwendolyn Brooks—A Poet for Our Times

African American women have been writing and publishing poetry since colonial times but have not always been known and acknowledged. One of our earliest poets published in the United States was Phillis Wheatley. One of the best known, and most often studied African American women poets of the 20th century has been Gwendolyn Brooks whose birthday is celebrated this month.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, Gwendolyn moved with her family to Chicago before she was a year old, and her work and success are closely identified with that Midwestern city. From early childhood, Brooks had few doubts about her career. Her first poem was published in a children’s magazine, American Childhood,  when she was thirteen years old. She continued to write and publish poems until she died at the age of 83 in 2000.

After graduating from a community college in Chicago, she worked for the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and continued to publish poems eventually appearing in the prestigious Poetry magazine. She was invited to join a poetry workshop where she met several other important African American poets including Langston Hughes who became a lifelong friend. She married Henry Lowington Blakely, Jr. in 1931 and the couple had two children. And year after year she continued to write poetry, which met with continuing success.

Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. Her poems were admired by critics, and they were also read and cherished by a large popular audience. Brooks was able to write about the people of Bronzeville with warmth and an acknowledgement of the struggles of their lives.  In her poem “Kitchenette Building”, for example, she wrote of the difficulty of dreaming big dreams in a stunted environment:

But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms.

The list of Gwendolyn Brookes achievements is a long one: She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African American to be so honored. She added many other prizes too. In 1986 she became the Poet Laureate of Illinois. She also served as a consultant to poetry in the Library of Congress and was the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Now, almost 25 years after her death, she is still honored and, more important, still read. You can read many of her poems on the Poetry Foundation website. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks, and her books are available in almost all public libraries.

Playing Poetry with the Big Boys—Amy Lowell

What does a woman poet look like? They are frequently pictured as frail and waiflike.  Think of Emily Dickinson floating about her family home, a recluse dressed always in white; or Elizabeth Barrett Browning retreating to her sickbed to write her poems. Often these maneuvers have helped women to find time to do their writing and achieve the art they wanted. But not all female poets fit these stereotypes.

Today, to celebrate Poetry Month, we will talk about a poet who turned all these stereotypes around. Amy Lowell was never frail, seldom shy, and looked nothing like a waif. She was a strong, heavy woman who used her strength and power to influence the course of poetry in America and all of the English-speaking world.

Amy Lowell

Born in 1874 into an old New England family that had provided leaders for generations, Amy never suffered from a lack of money or influential friends and relatives. She attended private schools but was not popular with other girls. She grew up believing that she was ugly and of less value than her four brothers. She was not sent to college because her family believed that college was inappropriate for girls.

Instead of a conventional education, Amy turned to books and later to travel. When she was in her twenties, she started writing poetry. Her first work was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910 when she was in her mid-thirties. She may not have been an early bloomer, but once she started writing and publishing poetry, she had a major impact on the literary world. Her most famous poem, “Patterns” is still widely taught in schools today. The opening stanza introduced many American readers to a new type of poetry—free-flowing and often unrhymed.

I walk down the garden paths,

And all the daffodils

Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden paths

In my stiff, brocaded gown.

With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,

I too am a rare

Pattern. As I wander down

The garden paths.

Source: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

Amy Lowell was soon recognized as one of the most prominent modern poets of the early 20th century. She travelled to Europe and met Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and others who were part of the imagist movement. She conceived the idea of publishing an anthology of imagist poetry, which she did in 1915. Unfortunately, she ruffled the feathers of some of the early leaders of the postwar literary scene, especially Ezra Pound, who suspected she was trying to take over the imagist movement. The ruling men of the poetry world did not welcome a woman intruding on their ranks.

Lowell not only wrote poetry and published anthologies she also went on speaking tours throughout America and England. She was a vivid presence on the stage and introduced many audiences to modern poetry. Her poems continued to be popular with the public throughout her life, although reviews by literary critics were mixed. Many of the men who dominated literary criticism found it difficult to accept a spinster who wrote about love and sexuality as easily as about more ladylike subjects. Lowell never married, but she had a long and loving relationship with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell. The strength of their bond and what it meant in Lowell’s life was seldom mentioned, however, because of the prudery of readers and critics during that time.

During the early 1920s, Lowell took several years off from poetry to write a biography of John Keats, one of her favorite poets. During these years, unfortunately, her health deteriorated, and she died of a stroke in 1925 at the age of 51. The Keats biography was published after her death and in 1926, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can read a detailed account of Lowell’s life and death in Carl Rollyson’s biography Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013).

It is almost a century now since Amy Lowell died and she is often ignored or treated as a minor figure in the history of American literature. During the 1930s and 1940s her achievements faded from public notice as tastes in poetry changed. But critics are not always right in their assessments and, as many readers have found, Amy Lowell’s poems are well worth rereading. They speak to modern concerns just vividly as they spoke to the people of her time—like these final unforgettable lines of “Patterns”.

And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace

By each button, hook, and lace.

For the man who should loose me is dead,

Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,

In a pattern called a war.

Christ! What are patterns for?