Monday, June 1, 2009

who was anna dickinson?

in NY a few weeks ago, i saw a book on "America's Joan of Arc" selling for 98 cents. it was an advance copy not meant for retail sale, but turned out to be a fascinating look at politics and culture in civil war-era and reconstruction-era america.

she was a quaker from philadelphia drawn to reformist movements on the eve of the civil war, namely women's rights and abolitionism. she was 17 when the war started, a cataclysm which made her famous. she was a fiery speaker, advocating patriotism and condemning war opponents as potential traitors. her youth and militant ardor won her the sobriquet, "america's joan of arc."

after the war she was one of the top draws in the lyceum lecture circuit, which the writer describes as a form of entertainment for the educated elite. she stayed with serious topics such as rights for ex-slaves and more economic opportunities for women, resisting the urge for lighter entertainment.

by the mid-1870s, she was struggling to maintain her visibility and income, and turned for a while to the theatre. but by the early 1880s she was in trouble. her sister had her forcibly committed to an insane asylum in 1891, which set off a decade of lawsuits and a split in their relationship. she lived out the rest of her life quietly in a NY town.

i got lots of fascinating glimpses of an earlier america. in her day, photo portrait-cards of celebrities were a popular collector's item. there were stores selling them, and people kept them in albums alongside photos of their own relatives.

when she helped out the republican party in the 1872 election, she raised eyebrows when she let loose her fiery, war-era rhetoric at her candidate's political opponent. in just 7 short years, the style that had made her famous was already out of date. america was already slipping into the blandness of the guilded era.

there was significant struggle within radical reformist circles over the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. most women's rights activists like anthony and cady-stanton (or stanton cady?) opposed the amendment vociferously on the grounds that it left women out altogether. dickinson also wanted woman suffrage, but supported the amendment anyhow. this caused a rift between her and the women's rights leaders who had actively courted her.

these leaders opened a newspaper in the 1870s called "the revolution." it only lasted a few years.

on a visit to san fransisco in the late 1860s she upset her wealthy hosts by taking them to task in her speeches for the horrible living conditions and lack of rights of the city's chinese residents.

in our now-centric cultural and media milieu, it is always pleasantly shocking to look into the past and see that, long ago and long before we imagined, the battles for rights and justice were already taking place. i had learned in middle school that after the civil war the states persecuted and excluded chinese people -- but i never knew that any voices were raised for their interests.

in a southern city she visited in 1875 (maybe columbia, SC), she reported that only recently public entertainments had been recently desegregated by law. but the resident blacks agreed amongs themselves to preserve the peace by continuing to sit in their accustomed section in the theatre. however, she saw one brave man insist on sitting in the previously "white's only" section. it caused an uproar. the theatre manager closed the theatre rather than pay the fine for non-compliance.

one has to think about those black residents, only 10 years after the war, being given certain rights but so traumatized by violence and persecution and habit that they elected to submit voluntarily to their old racial limits. and yet -- one man insisted on asserting his rights. tragically, no one else, not even other blacks, were ready to back him up.

this reminds me of a story i heard, i forget where, from the turn of the century south. a youth sits in a the white section of a street car, inciting white anger. an older black woman intervenes, criticizing the boy and pulling him off the car. only then does the boy realize she had saved him, adopting the mask of dominant society to get him away from an ugly and potentially violent scene.

the book also delved into her complicated personal life, criss-crossing the country, staying in friends' houses (and usually causing several members of the household to fall in love with her) and hotels, keeping in touch with her older sister in philadelphia. susan managed her correspondence. the quotations from letters reveals a luxurious world of correspondence -- the effusions of feeling and passion were so beautiful, and little imaginable in the present age. our correspondence is dessicated on the computer screen, disembodied pixels, words as vehicles for information only.

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