Wednesday, 10 June 2009
One of the serendipitous pleasures of being a Philadelphia in-migrant is discovering noble souls from its past. For example, today, reading TLS of all sources, I first became aware of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932), the so-called American Joan of Arc. I felt like Keats’ Balboa “silent on a peak in Darien”, getting his first glimpse of the broad Pacific. What a tempestuous life she chose.
Her merchant/abolitionist father John died when she was two, throwing her Mother Mary and her siblings into a fiscal ditch. Her mother, a teacher, schooled her first at home, until she entered Friends Select. Anna started work as a copyist at 15, but herself soon became a teacher. A job at the United States Mint, alas, didn’t last long-- as she was canned for having the youthful audacity to allege that General George B. McClellan’s military policy was “treasonable”. She was all of nineteen!
William Lloyd Garrison published her first abolitionist piece in the Liberator when she was 14! About five years later she began her career as a feminist “liberator”. She soon had a national reputation both for her anti-slavery and pro-female rants. Her style has been described as vituperative! Her Joan of Arc rep derived from her slender build, and an intensity and eloquence combined with youthful energy.
Nathaniel Parker Willis, a kind of Walter Winchell of that era, described her thus:
Miss Dickinson is a symmetrical young creature, every movement showing well-knit agility of frame, and her build and action altogether being just what would be picked out for a daring horsewoman. The Napoleonic mold of her jaw expresses the energy which is her leading characteristic. Her features are otherwise well chiseled, her forehead and upper lip of the Greek proportion, and her nostrils thin. The men would all call her beautiful—the women would admit it with their usual reluctance. But how, under the delicacy of a girl of eighteen, could be gathered the strong wisdom which she poured forth so volubly that night was to us a wonder.
Her own correspondence with friends reveals a cocky self-confidence that might easily tire an audience hearing her snap judgments repeatedly. On Boston’s people: “. . .charming--a little pedantic & self-satisfied perhaps--thinking that as they know a great deal, they know all--& that Boston being a great place--must--therefore be the hub of the universe, but very social, warmhearted people nevertheless--And for the ‘means of grace’--culture, etc.--lectures, concerts, operas--music & book stores, libraries & the like, it is surely unsurpassed.” She singled out Theodore Parker’s 28th Congregational Church as a blessing for any community--“he being dead yet liveth & speaketh.”
She lobbied for Lincoln throughout the Northeast, and three days after the Gettysburg Address, she was whipping up enthusiasm for “colored regiments”. "Pennsylvania & especially Phila have a terrible record of disgraces to wipe out--It was shameful that we should allow whole regiments from R.I. and N.J. to pass through before we had raised a company.” Heh, Quakers are not your most war-prone enthusiasts!
She told her girl friend that she was “at present exceedingly interested in the work of raising color regiments--That just now seems the chief attraction to almost everyone--& we are undoubtedly improving in Phila. When the most aristocratic names in the city are signed to the call for recruiting--Their meeting too, & when companies of white volunteers cheer--in the streets--the black volunteers passing by.” The “colored regiments” she went on have a fine camp--“Camp Wm.Penn”--at Chilton Hills--some ten miles from the city--nice, clean, orderly--The officers say they are the best troops enlisted.”
After the war, she also lectured around the country on prison and labor reform. When her lecture career dwindled, she turned to writing and acting. She wrote “What Answer” (1868) on interracial marriage, “A Paying Investment” (1876) on needed social reforms like compulsory education, better treatment of prisoners, assistance for the poor, and technical training for workers.
Then she turned to the stage, writing “A Crown of Thorns” (1876) and the more successful “An American Girl”. And she started a career as an actress, but flopped. Indeed, she committed to the Danville State Hospital for the Insane in 1891. She took her case to court and won, but it ruined her financially. A sympathetic Goshen, New York couple gave her a place to stay, where she lived the rest of her life, dying a week before her 90th birthday.
Surely, she deserves a steady place in our historical memories, for both her far-sightedness and her commitment.