J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elizabeth F. Ellet as Historian and Busybody

Elizabeth F. Ellet holds a significant place in American historiography for writing The Women of the American Revolution in 1848-50. No previous author had bothered to study the first generation of American women, even the best known.

Furthermore, Ellet was a good historian, given the standards of the time and the obstacles she faced as a woman. She sought out descendants and documents. She wrote about both the wives of prominent men and women who gained prominence in their own right. Historians continue to rely on her work, though recognizing it as a secondary source shaped by the values of its time.

I hadn’t known the darker side of Ellet’s career until I came across her name on Rob Velella’s Poe-a-Day Calendar. She inserted herself into two nasty feuds and scandals in America’s nineteenth-century literary world—which didn’t lack for feuds and scandals. While Ellet never let her own reputation for purity droop, her reputation for honesty and beneficence suffered. According to Rob, bitter people blamed her machinations for hastening both Virginia Poe’s death in 1847 and Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s in 1857.

Wikipedia offers a clearer picture of the scandal involving letters to Edgar A. Poe. Rob offers details of the Griswold’s divorce. Griswold has previously shown up on Boston 1775 as the first author to claim that George Washington said, “So help me God,” after taking the oath of office, though without citing any credible source.

Next week, at 6:00 in the evening on 29 and 30 October, Rob Velella will lead “Voices of the Night” tours of Longfellow House, which was once Gen. Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge. These tours will focus on how the house’s décor and stories reflect Victorian ideas about death and mourning. Phone the house to reserve a spot.


Rob Velella said...

Both Ellet's and Griswold's books on the Revolutionary figures clearly show that this was a generation fascinated by the Founding Fathers (and Mothers). This is also the myth-making era, especially if you throw in Longfellow's poem about Paul Revere and George Lippard's books about Independence. Even Washington Irving wrote a biography of George Washington. Do you have any good theories as to why the sudden interest?

J. L. Bell said...

Any society is bound to be interested in the history and mythology of its founding, of course. I think the mid-1800s were especially interested in the Revolutionary era because of:

1) The fiftieth anniversary of independence in 1826 produced a revival of interest, with new memoirs, biographies, and other publications. That gave authors more to work with, and work off of.

2) The last veterans of the war were dying out. Originally common soldiers without serious wounds received no pensions, but in 1819 Congress began to change that system. The process of applying for pensions required reminiscing, and the lists of pension recipients were public records. As a result, Americans could see that generation passing on, and wonder if their own generations were up to the same standards.

3) The constitutional arguments of the ante-bellum years over nullification and slavery prompted more attention for the founding era.

The post-Romantic authors paid attention to aspects of people’s lives that eighteenth-century Enlightenment figures preferred to keep hidden or quiet. And the new authors emphasized individual feats over the collective actions that people of the 1770s lauded.

I have another pet theory about how Revolutionary storytelling changed in this period. In the mid-1800s, people who had grown up on family lore about the Revolution began putting those tales into print for the public. They believed in those stories as important aspects of the nation’s history. In fact, they probably believed more strongly than the relatives who had originally told those tales for the purpose of moral guidance or entertainment, not as strict history.