She read my diary!

April 15th, 2011 by billie

April 12, 1902

“Again rainy — part of the day” -Julia G. Brown

April 13, 2011

I woke up at 7:30, looked out at the gray, rainy day, groaned and rolled over for another five minute snooze. More April showers. Finally rolled out of bed to make coffee and feed the dogs, who were finding it hard to wake up themselves. Tried to make them go out, but they wanted to get wet about as much as I did. I turned on the electric stove to get a bit warm before venturing out to my cold car, shrugged on my sweater and rain boots and made the sprint from my door to the car. -Billie Hirsch

April 14, 1881

“Cloudy with a little rain.  Liz & Lene went to prayer meeting last evening– Emmie came home last eve.  I had a paper from my sis [Twetch?]”  -Hulda Greenwood

Diaries can provide insight into the daily lives, thoughts and feelings of a writer.  Two collections in the Maine Women Writers Collection that have recently been processed feature diaries.  Thank you to Travis McCafferty for beginning to process the Manuscript Volumes collection and to Maggie Mercer for her work on the Hulda Greenwood diaries and Fellows family papers.

We have a new collection of Manuscript Volumes which includes diaries, albums, scrapbooks, ledgers, day books, copy and commonplace books written by various unpublished Maine women writers.  The collection contains writings by over twenty Maine women illustrating various aspects of their daily lives including:  household chores, gardening and sewing, social events including birthday parties and getting ice cream during the summer, weather, farm life.  I have to say, I feel like a bit of a snoop peaking in at their daily entries.  Even though these women have not published their writings, they have a lot of valuable information to share with us.

Effie May Gray of Cooper, Maine, whose diary is shown above, writes about her daily life, her garden of both flowers and vegetables and going berry picking.  She also makes notes in her journal about when there are cars on the road– how remote must they have been? Her diary runs from 1932-1933 and illustrates the life of a farming family from household chores to days spent haying in the fields.

As the snow has finally disappeared from all but the shadiest corners by now, April 13, 2011, I cringe reading Hulda Greenwood’s diary entry for April 12, 1868: “Another snow storm- but it is warm…”.  Her diaries span from 1868-1892 and she frequently writes about the weather, her chores, going to church, the things she is thankful for and her family and friends. She appears to have been a very religious woman and comments on the church services she attends: February 2 “Went to church- heard a beautiful sermon from Mr. (N) in the forenoon and one from Father Rogers in the afternoon”.

In reading these women’s diaries, we can begin to understand how they lived their lives over a hundred years ago, and start to relate to them.

“Certainly one was a French cook in the Middle West…”

April 8th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Recently, I got an email from someone who is interested in donating some materials by Ellen James, a poet who lived in Boothbay Harbor.  She asked about biographical material in the collection, so I began doing some research.  As often happens to me, I got sucked into the lively correspondence Ellen James exchanged with other poets, her doctor, and Dorothy Healy (the first curator of the MWWC).  James’ correspondence and her life story drew me in, and I thought I would offer a glimpse of the life of this little-known Maine poet.

One of the first letters that got my attention was from James to Dorothy Healy.  Written on June 13, 1977, when James was about 92 years old, it begins:  “Dear Mrs. Healy,   I can’t tell you how happy I am that you are glad to have ‘Ellen’ live with you.  While I do not share Sue [McKonkey]’s special admiration for her, I did want her to have a good home permanently.”  It is a funny way to begin a letter about yourself, but as I went through her papers, I saw other examples of Ellen James writing about herself in the third person.  From the text of this letter, it also seems that she had an interesting relationship with her body, mortality, and the spirit world.

Later in the letter, she tells Dorothy Healy that she will “try to remember any more ‘remarkable’ things” in her life.  She finished, “Certainly one was a French cook in the Middle West in the latter part of the 1800s.  It never had occurred to me until just now how strange it was.  There were no French about mid Missouri at that time.”  This is the place where I became hooked and wondered about this woman’s life.  So I kept reading, and the letters just kept getting better.  The  next letter in the folder, written on a Wednesday in 1977, begins more cordially, describing her current circumstances.  The letter then drifts into a late-night insight of a very personal nature:

“I was thinking of all the piles of stuff I had collected and kept…. Now WHY had I kept that…all these years?  It was because it meant that Miss Juliette had cared for me…. Then the idea came that I had clung to every least sign of affection because I had never been cuddled as a child…. To wait until one is 92 to think of a thing like that, missing the outward signs of being loved, seems absurd, but it is true.”  She goes on to talk about wanting to put her arms around a woman she cares for, that she has been misunderstood in her life.  She refers to herself as “decidedly not a lesbian,” despite people’s perceptions of a woman who has lived with other women her whole adult life.

This photo is of James [standing, left] with her longtime companion Sidney Baldwin [seated] and their housemate Frances Seagraves.

It is a strikingly intimate letter, full of personal revelation and tenderness.  I felt as if I were peeking inside Ellen James’ diary when I read this.

Other letters are funny and irreverent about death.  Her letter to Dorothy Healy on September 26, 1977 begins cordially, and then asks, “By the way, why don’t you drop the ‘James’?  Is it a question of my advanced age?  One of my poet friends was shocked at the idea of 91, said she knew I was quite a bit older [than her], she thought about ten years.  That seemed a good idea, so I decided to be no more than ten years older than the person I was talking to.  Of course, when it is a question of something that happened to me say 50 or 75 years ago, one must be more explicit, like dancing at President Taft’s Inaugural Ball, for instance.”

She continues on to discuss her cat, writing, and her thought process.  She ends her letter with a very candid look at mortality, “And besides, I don’t have any extra time right now, to wait around and make friends as…a lady should.  My doctor … says I’ll live to be a hundred.  Maybe so….  I must admit that all this about the poetry and meeting you makes me want to postpone the start of the new phase of life I was looking forward to so eagerly.  I know I’ll still be in contact with you afterward, but you may not know it, and besides I want more on this plane!”

In several of her letters to Dorothy Healy, Ellen James discusses “messages” coming to her from the other side, or from people who come to her.  James writes about her spiritualist beliefs without any fear of judgement from Healy, but she attempts on numerous occasions to explain her experiences of contact with spirits.  In other letters, she describes experiences that might be frightening to others in such beautiful detail that you can tell she has made her peace with death.

In the above letter to her doctor, James mentions seeing him yesterday and offers a beautiful account of what she believes might be a stroke: “I struggled to speak at all, the words were wrapped up in something that I at last identified as transparent gelatine.  Each word in my mind was wrapped up in it, and there was a little hole in the side or I could not have spoken the word.  The lower part of my mind looked like an attic that had been cleared out and was in perfect order and clear, but the upper part was full of dust and fog and a lot of confusion so one could not see anything clearly.  That was where the words were, It was queer.”  Reading this reminded me of a TED talk I saw by a neurologist who was aware of what was happening to her while she had a stroke.  It was quite moving and amazing.  This letter had a similar effect on me.

James’ poetry was less interesting than her letters, but it wouldn’t be fair to do a post about a poet and not include some of her poetry.  She participated in what she called a “Round Robin” with a number of other poets, where they sent each other work and everyone in the group made comments about the poems to help the poet revise her work.  There were some nice samples of this process in the collection.  The connection of the group made it possible for people to offer both praise and criticism.

“It gives me the greatest pleasure to tell you…” Installment 2 in our publishing series

April 4th, 2011 by Catherine Fisher

So, here it is. The author has toiled, possibly for years, on her story, article, novel or other manuscript and it’s now time to find a publisher for her creation who will launch it into the world. From even a quick skim of some of the correspondence contained in our collections, we can see that making and maintaining publishing connections can be at once rewarding and frustrating. Finding the right fit of work and publisher determines whether or not a manuscript makes it into print in the first place, and then to what degree it will be promoted and seen.

Sometimes an author will establish a lifelong relationship with one publisher, and in other cases an author of three books might work with just as many different houses. It’s clear that acceptance of one piece of an author’s work does not by any means guarantee that all future submissions of hers will get the green light. One example picked from the archives gives us a glimpse of such a road block. Blanche Willis Howard, who published many novels and plays in the 1890s, received a disappointing letter from her attorney/representative, saying,

“I regret very much to say that Mssrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. do not feel like undertaking the publication of your new novel. Mr. Mifflin came to see me himself for the purpose of explaining to me how great a personal disappointment it was to him…They are very anxious to have a novel from you, but the subjects of the last two have evidently not commended themselves and in the last case there is something also in the treatment which they find objectionable…Mr. Mifflin evidently feels that the book will not help you in future work…”

That had to sting a bit. Sadly, we do not have a copy of Howard’s response to this news, if there was one, but we can find a similar rocky patch in the papers of Mary Ellen Chase. In a 1948 exchange, Chase did not take the news Good Housekeeping’s reversal of an acceptance lying down. To the editor’s letter of the news of their decision not to publish her story The Plum Tree after all, she replied with a demand for a reason and got one:

It all turned out well in the end, however, because The Plum Tree found a great home at Macmillan a year later, almost to the day. They were thrilled to publish the story in book form and keen to promote it.

The novel, set in a home for aged women, eventually went into four printings and received critical acclaim. And considering the substantial file of fan mail Chase received, the efforts certainly were well-placed. One woman wrote,

“If you were a mind reader (and in a larger sense you are!) you could tell how difficult it is for me to tell you just how much your Plum Tree means to me. It is, in the first place, an answer to a personal prayer…All my grown life I have visited old ladies’ homes, hospitals and rest homes and so I prayed for years, ‘Please God, have someone someday write a great book about these forgotten women.’”

For some, especially authors whose genre is the short story, article or poem and whose target outlet is the periodical, submitting work can be as time consuming and challenging as the writing itself. It’s rather exhausting to take in Elizabeth Coatsworth’s record of submissions and their responses, imagining her maintaining relationships with many publications at once and determining the best bet for each story or poem’s acceptance. And keep in mind she wasn’t achieving this constant exchange by the grace of email. Hopeful submissions were enclosures, not attachments, and one waited for the mail to go and come, to be sure.

Turning to the language of some of these letters, I’m struck by how solicitous and even genteel publishers can sound in their correspondence. To Coatsworth in 1944, for example:

No matter how elegant their rejections, though, in the end their motives are clearly all business. And just as fickle as are the whims of the clothing and art worlds, publishing fashions also come and go with the stroke of a pen. Authors can experience sudden and dramatic shifts in their desirability in the eyes of publishers. Elizabeth Akers Allen, when rumors of her supposed ill health got around in the mid-1800s, noted that publishers became more interested in her work when they believed she would soon be dead.

It’s perhaps no wonder that many authors today are choosing to publish their work themselves.