(PS – if any of you saw an earlier version of this post, I updated to add a little more luminosity, and lines.)
Events in Wisconsin continue to be deeply troubling. After attacking public employees, and historic open meeting laws for legislators, Wisconsin Republicans now appear to be targeting William Cronon, Frederick Turner and Vilas Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin. Cronon’s offense, seemingly: speaking out in his blog about right wing state legislative tactics and writing an op-ed piece in The New York Times about how the crackdown on public unions deviates from Wisconsin’s historical traditions promoting both fair play and fair pay. The specific means of attack (so far): a request by a Republican state official for access to months of emails written by Cronon on his University email account, highlighting buzz words such as Republican, Scott Walker, unions.
I was lucky enough to know Bill Cronon many years ago when he was on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University (studying at Jesus College.) He was one of the most hardworking and intellectually honest people I had ever met. He was diligent, curious, creative, and kind. I have not been in contact with him for years, but these characteristics were fundamental personality traits, and they continue to mark his work. (Bill even looks somewhat the same as he did at Oxford, with the same hair style and beard, only greyed, and inquiring eyes behind dark-framed glasses.)
Cronon is a distinguished scholar, an early winner of a MacCarthur grant for groundbreaking work on the interplay between ecology, nature, culture, history. He is a great and creative student of American history, of the colonies (and pre-colonial America) through the American West. Recently, he was elected president of the American Historical Association.
My guess is that he is in a pretty strong position to weather almost any type of attack. But what about professors at state universities who have not had such celebrated careers? What about state non-academic employees?
“Don’t know much about history,” sings Sam Cooke at the beginning of his 1959 song, “Wonderful World.”
My admirable friend and Canadian author, Marthe Jocelyn, in contrast, knows quite a lot about history, and, in her new book “Scribbling Women” True Tales From Astonishing Lives, does her best to impart its wonders.
“Scribbling Women,” published by Tundra Books, outlines the lives of eleven extremely different yet remarkable women, each of whom set pen to paper (or fingers to typewriter) in ways that literally made history–their lives defying the boundaries of their circumstances, their writings serving as actual historical records of their times. In this series of short and insightful biographies, Jocelyn includes hefty, but digestible, chunks of these records–that is, the actual writing of each of her subjects–allowing readers to savor each woman’s unique voice.
The “scribbles”–ranging fromThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, written in Imperial Japan, to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a 1112 page tome by Isabella Beeton of Victorian England, to the diary of Ada Blackjack, written on Wrangel Island, in the Eastern Cape of Siberia, in 1923–cover a vast range of time, geography, and style. Some of the texts were originally intended for publication, others, such as the diary of South Vietnamese physician, Dr. Dong Thuy Tram, seem to have been written simply to relieve an overburdened heart. To accommodate this range, Jocelyn deftly provides a context for each tale, inserting brief and friendly asides that explain important bits of political and social history, and also past cultural norms and vocabulary. In an age in which some would opt to bowdlerize Mark Twain rather than deal with historic complexity, her matter-of-fact approach to difficult and outmoded tags is incredibly refreshing.
Jocelyn writes primarily for the young adult reader, but the book is great for anyone interested in writing, women and writing women. Despite their “astonishing lives”, many of these women have received little popular attention (at least I hadn’t heard much of them): there is Margaret Catchpole, transported from England to New South Wales for horsestealing and prison escape; her letters now provide one of the few written records of early colony life; Harriet Ann Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who spent seven years living in an attic cupboard at the edge of her master’s plantation; Nelly Bly, American jounalist, who, with (dare I say it?) crazy bravura, arranged a confinement an 1880‘s women’s insane asylum in order to get the inside story. (Nelly’s findings were reported in two articles in Joseph Pultizer’s The World, and later in the book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.)
Some of the women are more directly involved with the act of writing than others. (Sei Shonagon, for example, worries terribly about coming up with quick poetic responses.) The life of each, however, is fundamentally marked by her womanhood, in terms of both the dangers that threaten her and the opportunities that may avail. The particularly feminine suffering of some of the women, such as slave Harriet Jacobs, and aborigine Doris Pilkington Garimara, is sobering. But Scribbling Women offers lighter moments too, as when Mary Kingsley, English adventurer of the mid-19th century, writes of walking through West Africa:
“…the next news was I was in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit. It is at these times you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England…and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.” From Mary Kingsley, author of Travels in West Africa, as quoted by Marthe Jocelyn, a scribbling woman.
Get your copy today!