Archive for the ‘Letter-writing’ Category

“Thus … the qualities … are left to moulder in ruin”

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne is a delightful collection of letters Eliza Southgate Bowne (1783-1809) wrote to family and friends during her lifetime. The daughter of a well-to-do physician and and his wife Mary King, whose brother Rufus King was a lawyer, politician and diplomat, Eliza received an excellent education, having attended Susannah Rowson’s Young Ladies Academy in Medford. See other posts on Eliza Southgate Bowne here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Eliza’s letters to her cousin Moses Porter, the son of one of her mother’s sisters, are among the most thoughtful and interesting. While her letters illustrate the domestic life of the country, their chief value, as Clarence Cook, who has written the introduction to the book, says “lies in the picture they give of the writer”—a young woman who defends a woman’s right to think for herself, reflecting the beginnings of a change in attitude about the abilities of women and their right to engage in activities hitherto thought to be within the sphere of men. Referring to this miniature, which is the frontispiece of the book by a noted painter of the day Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807), Cook penned this verse.
“A hair-brained, sentimental trace
Was strongly marked in her face;
A wildly witty, rustic grace
Shone full upon her;
Her eye, even turned on empty space.
Beamed keen with honour.”

Scarborough, June 1st, 1801As to the qualities of mind peculiar to each sex, I agree with you that sprightliness is in favor of females and profundity of males. Their education, their pursuits would create such a quality even tho’ nature had not implanted it. The business and pursuits of men require deep thinking, judgment, and moderation, while, on the other hand, females are under no necessity of dipping deep, but merely “skim the surface,” and we too commonly spare ourselves the exertion which deep researches require, unless they are absolutely necessary to our pursuits in life. We rarely find one giving themselves up to profound investigation for amusement merely. Necessity is the nurse of all the great qualities of the mind; it explores all the hidden treasures and by its stimulating power they are “polished into brightness.” Women who have no such incentives to action suffer all the strong energetic qualities of the mind to sleep in obscurity; sometimes a ray of genius gleams through the thick clouds with which it is enveloped, and irradiates for a moment the darkness of the mental night; yet, like a comet that shoots wildly from its sphere, it excites our wonder, and we place it among the phenomenons of nature, without searching for a natural cause. Thus it is the qualities with which nature has endowed us, as a support amid the misfortunes of life and a shield from the allurements of vice, are left to moulder in ruin. In this dormant state they become enervated and impaired, and at last die for want of exercise. The little airy qualities which produce sprightliness are left to flutter about like feathers in the wind, the sport of every breeze.

More of Eliza’s letter in the next post.

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne With an Introduction by Clarence Cook (New York: Scribner’s sons, 1887), pages 58-61. The miniature is by Edward Greene Malone (1777-1809).

posted April 13th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Bowne, Eliza Southgate,Education,Letter-writing,Women's Rights

“Letters written in the domestic intercourse of families”

Breaking my own guidelines for this blog, which usually consists of the writings of women from the years 1765 to 1799, today’s post includes some lines written by John Quincy Adams after reading some of his sister Nabby’s correspondence in 1841. (She died in of breast cancer in 1813.) I do think he expresses well how family correspondence conveys the spirit of the writers and the times in which they lived.

Letters written in the domestic intercourse of families are necessarily much diversified as to the subjects upon which they are written, as to the circumstances to which they relate, to the incidents which they record, and to the state of mind, of health, and of temper with which they are composed. Strangers or even members of the family of the writer, who after a lapse of years, read several of them in immediate succession, can scarcely enter into the spirit with which they are animated, but by reading a few of them at once and by alternately laying by and taking [them] up again.

Paul C. Nagel The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters (Oxford University Press: New York, 1987), p 300. The engraving of John Quincy Adams is from the 1869 $500 series of U.S. currency.

posted October 20th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, John Quincy,Health,Letter-writing,Smith, Abigail "Nabby" Adams

“the service I have been enabled to render my country”

George Washington replied to Annis Boudinot Stockton’s letter in which she enclosed the poem (see previous post) she wrote in 1783 honoring him. Her letter has not survived but Washington’s charming and somewhat humorous response has. I love it because it shows a side of Washington not generally acknowledged or appreciated.

ROCKY HILL, Sept. 24th, 1783.
You apply to me, my dear madam, for absolution, as though you had committed a crime, great in itself yet of the venial class. You have reasoned good, for I find myself strongly disposed to be a very indulgent ghostly adviser on this occasion, and notwithstanding you are the most offending soul alive (that is if it is a crime to write elegant poetry), yet if you will come and dine with me on Thursday, and go through the proper course of penitence which shall be prescribed, I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory. Nay, more, if it rests with me to direct your future lucubrations, I shall certainly urge you to a repetition of the same conduct–on purpose to show what an admirable knack you have at confession and reformation; and so without more hesitation I shall venture to recommend the muse not to be restrained by illgrounded timidity, but to go on and prosper. You see, madam, when once the woman has tempted us and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetite, whatever the consequences may be. . . . Before I come to a more serious conclusion of my letter I must beg leave to say a word or two about these fine things you have been telling in such harmonious and beautiful numbers. Fiction is to be sure the very life and soul of poetry. All poets and poetesses have been indulged in the free and indisputable use of it—time out of mind, and to oblige you to make such an excellent poem on such a subject without any materials but those of simple reality would be as cruel as the edicts of Pharaoh, which compelled the Children of Israel to manufacture bricks without the necessary ingredients. Thus are you sheltered under the authority of prescription, and I will not dare to charge you with an intentional breach of the rules of the decalogue in giving so bright a colouring to the service I have been enabled to render my country, though I am not conscious of deserving more at your hands than what the poorest and most disinterested friendship has a right to claim: actuated by which you will permit me to thank you in a most affectionate manner for the kind wishes you have so happily expressed for me and the partner of all my domestic enjoyments. Be assured we can never forget our friend at Morven [the Boudinot house near Princeton] and that I am, my dear madam, your most obedient and obliged servant,

Washington’s letter to Stockton can be found HERE..

posted March 3rd, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Letter-writing,Poetry,Washington, George

“the vividness of impression . . . of the recording hand”

Clarence Cook, from whose book A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago (1887) the recent posts (here, here, here, here, and here) of Eliza Southgate Bowne’s letters are taken, expressed in the Introduction his pleasure in reading Eliza’s letters. “[They] are not . . . the letters of a practised writer, nor was there ever in her mind any thought of publication. It was the age of ‘epistolary correspondence’: all the girls of [her] acquaintance were writing letters to their friends, long ones, often, made up in the manner of a diary, with a week’s doings recorded day by day; for postage was dear, and to send blank paper an extravagance. . . .” Cook also expressed regret that letter-writing was in decline. His remarks resonate today and are worth reproducing.

No doubt we have gained much, so far as the material convenience of the great public life is concerned, from the invention that, for all practical purposes, have reduced time and space to comparative insignificance. We have, however, lost some good things, which those who lived in younger days must always regret, and for which there is small compensation in the material gain we have received in exchange. Among these losses, that of letter-writing is perhaps the most serious. A whole world of innocent enjoyment for contemporaries and for posterity has been blotted out, and, so far as appears, nothing is taking its place. Is it the newspapers? But how scattered, how disjointed, how impersonal, the record they contain! . . . Nor do memoirs or biographies give us what we want. They are too formal, too self-conscious; they want the spontaneity, the vividness of impression, the lightness of the recording hand. These things letters give us, and letters alone. . . .

To the readers of successive generations, they speak with the living voice of the writer; they recall the fugitive emotions, the joys, the sorrows, the whims, the passions, as we read we persuade ourselves that we are part and parcel of the times they record. . . .

Nowadays no one writes letters, and no one would have time to read them if they were written. Little notes fly back and forth, like swallows, between friend and friend, between parent and child, carrying the news of the day in small morsels easily digested; it is not worth while to tell the whole story with the pen. when it can be told in a few weeks, at the farthest with the voice.

Do take some time from tweeting and texting to write a long letter to someone. For inspiration check out the many blogs dedicated to renewing the art of letter-writing. This question posed by one strikes me as wonderfully apposite: “What will we leave our grandchildren? The username and password to our email accounts?”

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne, with an introduction by Clarence Cook (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), pages viii and ix. You can download a free e-book of this work HERE.

posted February 24th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Letter-writing

Jane Mecom gets her due

Jill Lepore, professor of American History at Harvard and a contributor to The New Yorker, has written a biography of Jane Franklin Mecom titled Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Jane was the sister of Benjamin Franklin, “my peculiar favorite” he called her. The two kept up a correspondence throughout their lives. She kept most of his letters; most of hers to him have been lost. In fact Lepore was quite discouraged because the “paper trail is miserably scant.”

Lepore’s title comes from the record of births and deaths of Mecom’s children, a “litany of grief” Lepore calls it, and rightly so. Jane had twelve children and since all but one died before she did, she had the care of many grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. “Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea,” she wrote. Yet she somehow managed to come to terms with her lot in life. She was not an educated woman, but she had an interest in and opinions on the great questions of the day. Her poor spelling and grammar did not prevent her from expressing herself. She was proud of her brother, and he was supportive of her, sending her money and books, and providing her with housing.

Mecom is one of my favorite women of this period. Posts about her on this blog can be found here, here, here, and here. A review of Lepore’s book appeared in “The New York Times” on September 26, 2013 and can be found here.

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