Last night I finished reading J. Matthew Gallman’s new biography America’s’ Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson. I’ve been following Gallman’s Dickinson project over the past few years through essays in various edited collections so it is nice to see it all come together in this book. Gallman is a first-rate historian; he manages to pack a great deal of information and analysis in just over 200 pages. Dickinson is a remarkable subject for study. Born in 1842, Dickinson became one of the nation’s most popular and influential orators by the Civil War. As a teenager she maneuvered in social circles which included some of the most prominent abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the time. Rather than take the common approach of appealing to her audience’s emotions during her anti-slavery speeches, Dickinson provided sharp political readings of the Constitution as justification for her specific stands on the issues of the day. Throughout the Civil War Dickinson spoke tirelessly for the preservation of the Union and against the “copperhead” threat. Dickinson also spoke out against Lincoln during a famous speech to Congress in 1864. Following the war Dickinson continued on the Lyceum circuit, but owing to tough financial times took to the stage in the 1880′s. In 1891 her sister Susan had her committed to a state insane asylum. She died in 1932.
Gallman’s analysis is both careful and revealing. He does an excellent job connecting both Dickinson’s behavior and her political views to broader issues of gender. A case in point is Gallman’s diligence in trying to understand the numerous personal letters between Dickinson and both men and many women with whom she apparently had intimate relations.
For the contemporary reader this is complex terrain. Nineteenth-century Americans routinely adopted flowery, sometimes effusive, language that sounds peculiar to the modern ear and can confuse our understanding of relationships. But there is ample evidence that some women within this separate female world expressed their mutual affection with varying degrees of physical intimacy. Prior to the end of the century, these women lived in a society without rigidly defined notions of sexual preference. That is, various degrees of homosocial intimacy, even explicit genital contact, did not necessarily suggest any particular label to either participant. Rather, the very absence of rigid definitions–or any culturally delineated sense of homosexuality as a distinct category–left nineteenth-century women with unusual freedom to experiment and experience without being forced into a complex act of self-definition, and without, at least in the immediate post-Civil War decades, necessarily confronting social stigmas. Many of these women went on to marry men, while often maintaining their loving relationships with their female friends. Others never married, or eventually abandoned unsatisfying marriages, and many of these women ended up living in households with their female partners. (pp. 114-15)
Given the recent flurry of books on Lincoln’s sexuality such careful analysis is a breadth of fresh air. Gallman’s interpretive talents also help to clarify the complex post-war debates within the suffrage world between those women who remained loyal to the Republican Party (such as Dickinson) and the cause of black rights and those like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton who abandoned the party to concentrate on women’s suffrage. Dickinson comes across as someone who would not allow herself to be easily labelled or manipulated. Gallman also does an excellent job balancing his analysis with Dickinson’s own words; after all, this is a story of a woman who had an incredible talent as a public speaker. Her sarcasm and sharp wit emerge time and again in this book. One example stands out:
During her southern travels the sharp-tongued Dickinson occasionally clashed with prying or hostile strangers. When she crossed swords with unreconstructed rebels, Dickinson gave as good as she got. In Georgia she happened to mention that she had seen “Valentine’s statue of Lee” in Richmond. A Southern lady, the wife of a Confederate general, objected to Dickinson’s informal tone, reminding her that “‘You mean Gen[eral] Lee’” Rather than deflecting a potentially awkward moment with a quick pleasantry, Dickinson rose to the bait. “‘No, madame,”” she retorted, “‘I mean Lee–Robert E. Lee–Lieut. Col. Lee. I know of no legitimate legal authority to make him more than that.’” (p. 138)
Given that I will be teaching an elective next year on late 19th and 20th century women’s history I may use part of this book or one of Gallman’s essays to get the course rolling. Dickinson led both a rich and tragic life. Gallman’s book is well worth your time, and if you don’t know much about 19th century women’s history this is a great place to start.