Cokie Roberts Inspired This Blog Post

FYI: NOT our boat.

Blogger’s Note: I originally posted this on July 6, 2019. However, today (09/17/19) I learned of Cokie Robert’s passing. So, I present to you my redux of the blog post that Cokie Roberts inspired.

My husband Jonathan and I recently purchased a 35 foot sailboat.

I didn’t grow up in a “boating family.” Neither did my husband. We both grew up in middle-class families with multiple kids and multiple priorities. About once a summer or so, my own parents rented for me and my sisters paddle boats, a rowboat, or perhaps a canoe from a PA State Park boat concession. My dad eventually purchased a used canoe from a boat concession auction.

When Jonathan and I were on our honeymoon, he purchased a kite. He flew his new kite on the beach. He told me that wind power fascinated him. He later confessed to me that sailboats and sailing actually fascinated him since childhood but that he was too shy to mention this to his parents.

We took a few sailing lessons on a Flying Scot at Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park in Western PA. We borrowed my parents’ canoe once. We purchased our own canoe / kayak hybrids.

Jonathan monitored Facebook for postings about boat sales. I learned that prospective boat buyers have no problem finding boats for sale at the end of summer, before prospective boat sellers need to store their boats for the winter. So, on one October Friday, Jonathan drove through several counties to meet the man selling a Flying Scot. By the end of that day, we owned our first sailboat.

That weekend gave us “hot” October weather. We took our “new” Flying Scot to Lake Arthur that Saturday. We rigged our new boat in the parking lot of Moraine’s public boat launch. We sailed and sailed. We noted that the sun started to set and that other boaters headed to shore. We headed to shore. Then . . . the wind died down.

Did I mention that our Flying Scot had no motor? Yeah, this is important. The wind powered our boat. After the wind died, we sat in the middle of the lake.

We sat there for about an hour. Then, Jonathan grabbed the boat’s sole oar and “paddled” us to shore. In the twilight. Then, we had to de-rig our sailboat in the dark, assisted by one flashlight.

That next summer, we returned to Lake Arthur with our Flying Scot and rented a slip at the marina’s dry dock. We sailed again. And again, the wind died on us. We found ourselves becalmed on Lake Arthur, with no motor, again.

Except, this time the wind died due to a very impending, severe thunderstorm. We saw the lightning as we sat, stationary, on the lake. Mother Nature mocked us.

I said a few angry things to Jonathan. He grabbed the oar and, once again, paddled us back to shore.

The storm’s downdraft actually pushed us the last few feet to the dock. We jumped off of the boat and ran through the rain to our truck. Then, we realized that our truck keys were still on our boat! So, Jonathan had to run back to the boat before we found shelter inside of our truck.

Jonathan is very lucky that I sailed with him again after this.

This summer we now have a sailboat docked in Erie, PA, on Lake Erie. I sailed with Jonathan ON THE OPEN LAKE. I have the experience of sitting becalmed on Lake Erie, covered in bug spray and swatting at biting flies. Thank destiny that we now own a motored boat!

After I first sailed, I collected the sailing mishaps noted in historical fiction AND nonfiction.

For instance, Aaron Burr’s only child, Theodosia Burr Alston, boarded the schooner Patriot in 1812. The ship sailed from South Carolina. It never arrived in New York City. History noted Theodosia Burr Alston as “disappeared” or “lost at sea.” Theories and folkore (see Wikipedia) abounded on the fate of “Dear Theodosia.” One famous legend involved pirates. In fact, one storyteller described Theodosia walking the plank to her death.

Now, for the promised 1779 sailing mishap, here is a passage from Chapter Five of “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation” by Cokie Roberts. This recounts John Jay and his wife Sally’s voyage to Spain after Congress named John Jay as Minister to Spain during the Revolutionary War:

“ Two months later, still aboard the ship and nowhere near Spain, Sally recounted their adventures to her mother. After being at sea a couple of weeks, she heard a terrible noise on the deck in the middle of the night: “We had been deprived of nothing less than our bow-spirit, main-mast and missen-mast . . . however our misfortunes were only begun, the injury received by our rudder the next morning served to complete them.” The ship was dismasted and rudderless, the seas were high, and winter was on the way. A council of ship’s officers concluded tht there was no way to reach Europe under those conditions, so they set course for the island of Martinique. It took a couple of weeks for the winds to get them going in the right direction, but, Sally cheerfully reported, “we are now in smooth seas having the advantage of trade winds which blow directly for the island . . . while our American friends are amusing themselves by a cheerful fireside, are we sitting under an awning comforting ourselves with the expectation of being soon refreshed by some fine southern fruits.”  . . . What she didn’t tell her mother was that she was pregnant. Stranded at sea, Sally and John threw a party, surprising and delighting fellow passengers. Finally, at the end of December, the ship limped into port in Martinique, where Sally was able to send off her letter home.”

Cokie Roberts, “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.”

Just imagine drifting around for several weeks on the ocean in a ship that lost most of its sails. And its rudder. Just hoping that the trade winds would blow the ship to Martinique before winter. With a navigation system from the late 1700’s. And no motor!

Maybe, if this happened in 2019, Sally Jay would tweet a selfie of herself on the disabled ship. “Can’t believe where I ended up. LOL.”  Followed by an interview with Anderson Cooper. (Or Cokie Roberts.)

Stay tuned for my next sailing update.

Fates and Traitors

This spring, author Jennifer Chiaverini released Resistance Women, a novel about the German Resistance in World War II. The protagonists in this novel included Mildred Fish Harnack, a Wisconsin native whom the Nazis arrested for spying. Adolf Hitler personally ordered Harnack’s execution. Resistance Women reached bestselling lists and garnered accolades this summer.

I didn’t read Resistance Women (yet). Instead, I read Chiaverini’s 2016 historical fiction Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth.

In case you’re not an American, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, in April 1865.

Fates and Traitors” told the story of Booth and these four women who “loved” him (according to the book jacket):

1.) his mother Mary Ann Booth;

2.) his sister Asia Booth Clarke;

3.) his secret fiancée Lucy Hale (the daughter of an abolitionist Republican senator from New Hampshire); and

4.) boardinghouse owner Mary Surratt. The United States government executed Surratt over her alleged role in the Lincoln assassination.

Now, before I get into too much detail about Fates and Traitors, I want to use Chiaverini’s work to explain one reason that I love historical fiction so much.

Chiaverini’s published historical fiction highlighted these families (among others): the Booths, the Lincolns, the Chases (Salmon P. Chase and daughter Kate Chase Sprague), the Grants, and the Byrons (Lord Byron and daughter Ada Lovelace). 

The historical characters in Chiaverini books discussed the characters from other books.

For instance, several of the historical figures from Chiaverini’s other books (including Abraham Lincoln) went to see the Booth brothers perform prior to the Lincoln assassination. Several of the historical figures from these books enjoyed reading Lord Byron’s poetry. Several of the historical figures from these books gossiped about Kate Chase Sprague’s political ambitions for her father. Several of the historical figures from these books observed Mary Lincoln’s fine wardrobe. In Fates and Traitors, John Wilkes Booth stalked both the Lincolns and the Grants prior to the Lincoln assassination. In another Chiaverini book, Mrs. Grant observed John Wilkes Booth stalking her.

 I learned from my reading that nobody’s family dynamics are perfect.

I personally enjoyed Fates and Traitors. However, the first part of the book moved slowly. I learned about the large Booth family. Family patriarch Junius Brutus Booth Sr. was named after one of the assassins in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Junius Sr. established a highly successful Shakespearean stage acting career in London and Europe. Junius Sr. and Mary Ann fled to the United States to avoid a scandal. Junius Sr. reestablished his acting career in America to great fanfare and acclaim.

The Booth family struggled with one family crisis after another. (Pardon the cliché, but the Booth family created a lot of family drama!)

Three of Junius Sr.’s sons (Junius Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes) followed their father into acting. I’m under the impression that historians considered Edwin to be a more accomplished actor than his famous father.

Asia raised her own large family and also established herself as a writer and poet. She produced several memoirs about the Booths.

I recommend this book to readers of Civil War historical fiction.

Betrayed by Technology?

I promise you that I actually blogged today about a woman writer and history. However, if you wanted to read straight history right now, you could just go to Wikipedia or something. So today, I took a page from Sarah Vowell’s playbook and wrote about myself for a few paragraphs before I got to my actual topic.

I grew up without internet access as a country girl in Somerset County, PA. At some point, I got the idea that everyone from Fox Chapel (a Pittsburgh suburb) was rich and sophisticated. When I was in high school, I met this guy who actually lived in Fox Chapel. I thought that the guy was All That because he came from Fox Chapel. (Looking back, he was probably just trying to get by in teenage life, like me.) Anyway, one day he and I and a bunch of other people our age had a discussion about how to keep in touch. The Fox Chapel Guy said something to the effect of, “And of course, there’s always email.” Well, I had never before heard of email. However, I didn’t want to look like a bumpkin. So, I didn’t say, “What’s email?”

In the years since high school, I changed from the girl who had never heard of email to the woman who felt betrayed whenever Technology did not behave the exact way that she expected Technology to behave.

Case in point: my mother-in-law passed away in 2016, and then my own mother passed away in 2018. Both losses devastated me. I announced both deaths on Social Media shortly after they each happened. I felt betrayed by Social Media when I decided that the Social Media reaction to my mother’s death was not as strong as the Social Media reaction to my mother-in-law’s death.

Here’s another example of how Technology let me down: I don’t use Twitter extremely often. However, I thought that I was brilliant because I curated my Twitter feed to follow the PA Turnpike, the National Weather Service, the Pittsburgh Port Authority (since I take public transit to Pittsburgh for work), the local emergency management office, etc. (Also, whenever we travelled through Ohio, I followed the Ohio Turnpike’s Twitter feed that day.) However, on the day that we had a major flash flooding event and I depended on Twitter to plan my trip home, Twitter broke.

(Technology doesn’t always betray me. I’m shy, so I hated it whenever I showed up for a social event and I didn’t see anybody that I knew extremely well. I used to sit alone and feel like a loser. Now that I own a smartphone, I can sit alone, play on my smartphone, and not feel like a loser.)

When I read about history now, especially history from the Industrial Revolution, I pay a little bit of attention to the ways that Technology changed the story. Especially communication-related Technology.

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegraph to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegraph received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Grant, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

Do you wonder about this?

I forgot about Jessie Benton Fremont!

In my last blog post, I completely forgot to mention Jessie Benton Fremont (1824-1902).

She was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton and also the wife of John Fremont.

My high school history class didn’t teach me this story about Thomas Hart Benton: Benton served as an aide-de-camp under General Andrew Jackson in the war of 1812. Benton got into a dispute with Jackson over something.

One day in September 1813, Jackson was in Nashville. Benton and his brother Jesse Benton (not to be confused with Jessie Benton) arrived in Nashville. Jackson found out. Jackson headed towards the hotel where the Benton brothers were staying. Jackson reportedly yelled, “Now show yourself, you damned rascal!”

Jackson ended up in a gunfight against the Benton brothers. Jesse Benton (Jessie Benton Fremont’s uncle) shot Andrew Jackson twice. Jackson almost lost his arm in this gunfight. Jackson survived. Jackson’s arm also survived.

Jackson later won the Battle of New Orleans and eventually became POTUS.

Thomas Hart Benton later became a United States Senator for Missouri.

Jessie Benton eloped with John Fremont when she was 16 or 17 years old.

John Fremont was the Republican party’s very first presidential candidate and also a governor of California. He served as a general in the American Civil War. Fremont emancipated all of the slaves in Missouri without authorization, before POTUS Abraham Lincoln issued his own Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln removed Fremont from his command.

Decades later, Jessie Benton Fremont wrote several books about her husband’s adventures and her own in the American west. Her earnings from her career as a writer supported her family during a financial crisis.

As I mentioned in my prior blog post, I’m curious about the events and “influencers” who made it acceptable – trendy, even – for the high-status women of the Civil War to strive for their own writing careers. After all, Dolley Madison didn’t write a memoir about that time that she fled the British.

Presidents’ Wives and Generals’ Wives

I wrote this blog post about privileged married women from elite families who wrote about their experiences during the American Civil War.

I recognize that women of color, women across the socioeconomic spectrum, unmarried women, and LGBT women also wrote stuff. However, this specific blog post is about privileged married women from elite families.

Now, in this earlier Parnassus Pen post, I blogged about Juliette Magill Kinzie. Kinzie wrote several books about the Kinzie family’s role in the history of Fort Dearborn and the founding of Chicago. (Here’s a magazine article that mentioned the controversy regarding Kinzie’s book about the Battle of Fort Dearborn.)

(This article from the Chicago Tribune speculated that Kinzie’s father-in-law, the trader John Kinzie, committed Chicago’s first murder. Kinzie’s granddaughter, Juliette Gordon Low, later founded the Girl Scouts of the USA in Savannah, Georgia.)

Kinzie lived from 1806 – 1870. She published her first work in 1844. I bookmarked Kinzie as an example of a woman from a well-connected family who upset the status quo as a woman writer BEFORE the Civil War.

(Incidentally, Kinzie’s husband and sons were Union Army officers during the American Civil War. Her son-in-law was a Confederate Army officer. Her family knew General William T. Sherman socially.)

Then, I came up with a list of elite wives and widows who wrote their own memoirs and first-hand accounts in the decades AFTER the Civil War.

For instance, Mary Boykin Chesnut (wife of former U.S. Senator and Confederate Brigadier General James Chesnut, Jr.) revised her Civil War diary several times, hoping to see it published. Chesnut passed away in 1886. She didn’t live to see her diary published. However, the diary was published decades later to great fanfare.

Varina Howell Davis (wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) was friends with Mary Chesnut. According to Wikipedia:

Davis became a writer after the American Civil War, completing her husband’s memoir. She was recruited by Kate (Davis) Pulitzer, a distant cousin and wife of publisher Joseph Pulitzer, to write articles and eventually a regular column for the New York World. Widowed in 1889, Davis moved to New York City with her youngest daughter Winnie in 1891 to work at writing.

Then, Wikipedia had this to say about Varina and Jefferson Davis’ daughter, Winnie Davis:

Later in the 1880s, she appeared with her father on behalf of Confederate veterans’ groups. After his death, she and her mother moved in 1891 to New York City, where they both worked as writers. She published a biography and two novels .

In 1899, Julia Dent Grant (the wife of Commanding General of the United States Army and POTUS Ulysses S. Grant) finished her own memoir. She became the first First Lady to write such a thing.

(Per this Washington Post article, Mrs. Grant couldn’t find a publisher for her memoir during her lifetime. The memoir was published decades after her death. I purchased it in Kindle form, so I can read it on my iPad.)

I know that Varina Davis became acquainted with Julia Grant after both women became widows.

So, I wonder how much of an influence the elite woman of both sides of the Civil War had on each other in regards to their individual writing careers.

Here are some other elite women who wrote books after the American Civil War:

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Elizabeth Bacon Custer (the widow of United States Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer) wrote several articles and books about her husband’s military experiences.

LaSalle Corbell Pickett (the widow of Confederate General George Pickett) wrote three books between 1899-1913 about her own husband’s military career.

Now, I realize that in earlier time periods, society didn’t look favorably on women who wrote books – or even drew attention to themselves! I read one novel about the antebellum south which noted that respectable women expected to have their names in a newspaper only three times: at birth, marriage, and death. As far as I know, Dolley Madison never wrote a book about that time that she fled from the White House before the British burned it down. (Also, if you have time to kill, Google “Rachel Jackson” and “presidential election of 1828.”)

I know that U.S. Grant finished his memoir less than a week before he passed away in July 1885. I know that quite a few of the prominent men from the Civil War wrote their own memoirs. However, in this blog post, I don’t care greatly about the books that the men wrote. I care about the books that the women wrote.

I’m curious about the events and “influencers” who made it acceptable – trendy, even – for the high-status women of the Civil War to strive for their own writing careers.

You readers are all fabulous. Please come back soon.

Edit: I forgot all about Jessie Benton Fremont! See my next post.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” By Maria Semple

I committed to blogging this month about women writers. Then, I realized that the movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” will finally be released this month.

This movie was based on the book of the same name by Maria Semple. The movie was supposed to be released over a year ago, but the release date was pushed back twice.

The story actually took place mostly in Seattle. However, the actual movie was filmed in Pittsburgh and my current town, New Kensington. In fact, one scene was filmed down the street from my house, at the former Bloser’s Jewelry building. I pasted above a photo that my husband, Jonathan Woytek, took of this same building in 2009.

I read the book a few years ago. I didn’t care for it. I took the book too seriously. This novel was a dark comedy. Just about every adult who appeared in the story was a jerk. The protagonist’s husband was a fancy schmancy developer at Microsoft. The protagonist (Bernadette) was an award-winning architect who dropped out of her own life after professional and personal setbacks. I personally believe that “untreated mental illness” was another main character in this story. I think that I would have enjoyed the novel more had I read it with a “tongue-in-cheek” attitude.

I’m interested in seeing which scene or scenes from the movie were shot in New Kensington. I’m also interested in seeing how well the novel’s dark comedy translates to the big screen. I might possibly watch this movie.

Check out this link to the blog post that I wrote about the book two years ago, on my old blog.

She Finished the Oregon Trail: Abigail Scott Duniway

I have a confession.

This month, I committed to “inundating” my blog with posts about women writers before I had a complete list of blog subjects.

I have certain women that I will name by the end of the month.

In the meantime, I brainstormed a list of places and events that interest me so that I can develop more blog post topics for you readers.

I wrote on this list “Oregon Trail.”

The Oregon Trail existed in the 1800’s to connect Missouri to Oregon. The over 2,000-mile trail served wagon travelers as they journey from the American Midwest to the Pacific Northwest.

Now, once upon a time, developers created a computer game titled . . . The Oregon Trail. This game intended to teach school students about the real Oregon Trail. From what I understand, developers released several versions of this game.

Now, keep in mind that when I was a kid, I didn’t know anybody who had internet access in their own homes. My own family owned no video gaming system or computer except for a Texas Instrument TI 99/4A.

My dad taught high school. Each summer, he brought home the Apple IIc from his classroom. He permitted us kids to “work” on this computer.

Well, my sisters and I spent hours using this Apple for two particular programs . . . Print Shop and The Oregon Trail.

(I shall henceforth refer to The Oregon Trail computer game as “OC.”)

Here’s a brief explanation of OC for those not familiar with the game:

From what I remember, OC competitors played as a fictional family traveling in a Conestoga wagon from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. At the beginning of the journey, the family received a budget of “points” and used these points to purchase supplies. The family made decisions on when to cross rivers (such as the Burnt River) based on river depth, and how fast to travel based on family health. Incorrect decisions could result in family members dying on the trail. If the competitors didn’t reach Oregon by winter, the family faced starvation in the mountains. Incorrect decisions resulted in the deaths of family members. Family members could die from cholera, snakebite, typhoid fever, dysentery, diptheria, measles, and broken bones. Competitors could purchase more food at such places as Fort Laramie and Fort Walla Walla. Competitors attempted to leave Missouri in the spring and reach Oregon before December.

If we competitors lost every single family member before the wagon reached Oregon, then we got to create a tombstone for our family along the trail. During future game attempts, we could travel past the tombstones that we created during prior games.

We played OC so often that we learned how to get our entire family to Oregon alive, and receive high final scores. We played OC so often that I got bored with bringing my entire family to Oregon alive.

So, then I purposely played OC with the sole intent of killing off my OC family as quickly and efficiently as possible. I created a series of tombstones along the trail on my dad’s classroom copy of The Oregon Trail.

Since I have such fond memories of playing OC, I decided to see if I could discover any women writers who actually travelled on the real Oregon Trail.

So this week, I Googled “Oregon Trail,” “woman,” and “writer.”

I found . . . Abigail Scott Duniway.

Duniway was born Abigail Scott in Illinois in 1834. In March 1852, when Duniway was a teenager, she travelled with her parents and eight siblings along the real Oregon Trail. Her mother died of cholera near Fort Laramie. Her younger brother, three-year-old Willie, died along the Burnt River. Duniway’s remaining family reached the Willamette Valley in October.

Duniway’s Oregon Trail diary now resides with the University of Oregon.  Duniway later wrote several fiction novels about pioneers, including pioneer women.

Duniway married Benjamin Duniway. Through a series of misfortunes, Abigail Duniway ended up as the breadwinner in a family that included her disabled husband and several children. She learned the struggles of trying to make ends meet on an uneven playing field. She published her own weekly newspaper, The New Northwest, that addressed women’s issues, including women’s suffrage.

Now, Duniway’s own brother, Harvey W. Scott, worked as the editorialist for The Oregonian newspaper.  I learned that the brother and sister butted heads through their respective newspapers on the issue of women’s suffrage.

I found a website, the Oregon Encyclopedia, A Project of the Oregon Historical Society, that includes an entry on Duniway. This website includes the following quote:

“Writing always was our forte,” Abigail Duniway announced in her first issue of The New Northwest. “If we had been a man,” she added, “we’d have had an editor’s position and handsome salary at twenty-one.” 

Touche.

I’m sure that students in Oregon know all about Abigail Scott Duniway.  However, I’m from Pennsylvania. I just learned about Duniway this week.

I’m glad that I did a five minute Google search to learn about a woman who actually lived The Oregon Trail!

This blog has kept me motivated ever since I learned last summer that my mom was sick. I’m glad that you readers have reached out to me with kind words. Please continue to reach out.

Barbara Chase-Riboud

Monticello, Virginia. Photo credit: Katie Nicholson, Everyday Adventures with Katie

I start off my series on woman writers with one of the strongest voices that I ever read.

Barbara Chase-Riboud was born in Philadelphia in 1939. She is now 80 years old. Wikipedia knows her as a sculptor, poet, and novelist. (She is highly accomplished in all three of these.)

I know her as the woman who wrote the historical fiction novel Sally Hemings in 1979.

POTUS Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemings. Various historians allege that Thomas Jefferson fathered Heming’s children. 

Now, scholars already wrote several non-fiction books on the topic. (For instance, Fawn Brodie wrote a Thomas Jefferson biography in the 1970’s that discussed the Jefferson-Hemings theories.) You can read these non-fiction books, and you can also spend the rest of today reading about this on the internet.  So, I won’t attempt to tackle this with one blog post.

However, when I was a kid, I didn’t have access to any non-fiction books that mentioned Sally Hemings. I didn’t have access to the internet. I heard brief mentions that “people think that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with one of his slaves.”

Then one day, when I was a young teenager, I found my Grandma Hilde’s copy of Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud. A stylish African American writer appeared on the book’s jacket. I read the book.

Now, Sally Hemings IS a fiction novel. Just like any historical fiction novel. However, Sally Hemings caused me to think about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to ALL of the men, women, and children that he enslaved.

Chase-Riboud wrote several other celebrated works. However, I specifically mention Sally Hemings here because it’s one of the first adult books that I read.

Beyond the Circular Staircase: Women Writers

We are coming up on the third anniversary of the day that my mother-in-law, Fran, passed away.

Fran loved mystery novels, books of all genres written by Pennsylvania authors, and books written by women.

For instance, she loved to tell friends and family that mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was a native Pittsburgher.

Fran took Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase on vacation. Then, she downloaded a Rinehart travel memoir onto her tablet and read that during the same vacation. She paused multiple times to tell my husband and myself about the her favorite parts of the Rinehart memoir.

For instance, Fran read us a page in which Rinehart talked about the household staff that Rinehart brought along on an African safari.

Fran said, “Can you imagine? Bringing servants with you? To go camping?” She laughed. She got quiet and read more for a little bit. Then she told us about another story in the Rinehart memoir that tickled her fancy.

I do the same thing every time that I blog here about something that I just read that excites me. You are all excellent people for reading the little tales that I recount from other people’s books.

My own mom, Shirley, passed away last October. Shirley also read voraciously. Even better, she read often to me. Finally, my grandma, Hilde, taught me to love historical fiction.

In memory of these three fabulous women, I have two special treats for you blog readers:

Special Treat #1.) I added the following new category to The Parnassus Pen: Women Writers. If you want to read any or all of my blog posts about writers who also happened to exist as women, you just need to do any one of the following:

A.) Click on the link that I provided in the above paragraph.

B.) Go to any post that I wrote in the “Women Writers” category. You will see the category label on the left side of that post. You can click on the actual words “Women Writers” on such posts.

Special Treat #2.) During the month of August, I will inundate this blog with short tales about women who wrote stuff.

I have no plans to blog this month about anybody that I studied in high school English class. So, you won’t see any posts this August about Jane Austin or the Brontes. (My apologies to you Janeites out there!) Futhermore, I will not mention any of the fabulous women writers whom I grew up loving. (Sorry, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maude Montgomery.)

I WILL mention several women who I didn’t even know were writers until very recently.

My series about women who wrote stuff launches next week. In the meantime, please check out all of my blog posts about Women Writers.

Local Woman Getting NYC Statue

I read today that a New York City-based organization is going to erect a statue of Nellie Bly on Roosevelt Island.

Have you ever heard of Nellie Bly? This was the pen name for investigative journalist Elizabeth Cochran. Bly was born in Armstrong County, PA, in 1864. Bly started her journalism career in Pittsburgh in the 1880’s. She got bored with her Pittsburgh gig, moved to New York City, and begged Joseph Pulitzer to give her a job at the New York World.

In 1887, Bly convinced law enforcement officers that she suffered from a mental illness in order to gain admittance to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York. Bly remained as a patient there for ten days. She reported on the institution’s abhorrent conditions in an expose for the World.

Bly also travelled around the actual world as a reporter for the World.

Here’s a link to the Washington Post story that I read today about Nellie Bly’s investigative work, and on her pending statue.

Even though Bly was a pioneering woman from Western PA, I didn’t learn about her at my own school in Western PA. I found out about her by accident when I was about ten or twelve and I read one of my mom’s old junior high textbooks from the 1960’s.

Years later, my husband and I travelled to Apollo, PA, to see the Victorian house where Jimmy Stuart’s maternal grandparents once lived. By coincidence, we parked along the street in front of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker for Nellie Bly. The marker commemorated Bly’s own childhood home.

You can read all about Bly and her remarkable career on Wikipedia.

Here’s the thing that first caught my attention about Nellie Bly when I was a kid: Bly was born into relative privilege. Her father was a successful merchant and community leader. Bly received an elite education for a woman of that time. However, when Bly’s father passed away, Bly and her mother struggled financially. Bly and her mother couldn’t easily go out and get their own jobs.

Now, I know of people who claim on Facebook that women didn’t work outside of the house in the “olden days.” Women certainly did work outside of the house in the 1800’s. Women earned their own incomes doing sewing, housekeeping, domestic work, laundry, childcare, nursing, teaching, acting, agricultural work, factory work, sex work, etc. (And of course, enslaved women worked for no compensation!) However, “privileged” women of a high social status had very few options for earning their own incomes without being ostracized by their networks.

(In fact, I read that after Dolley Madison’s first husband, a lawyer, died in Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 but before she married James Madison a year later, she had to take in sewing in order to buy food for herself and her young son.)

Nellie Bly talked (or wrote) her way into a Pittsburgh reporting job. Then, she gave it up at a great risk so that she could talk (or write) her way into a New York reporting job.

I bet that we can all name sports “heros” who were born in Western PA. So why isn’t “Nellie Bly” a household name in Western PA?

Thank you for sticking with me as I flesh out some of my thoughts about a woman who demanded her own seat at the table! Stay in touch for my upcoming sailing updates and stories from history.