Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”
OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.
Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said that Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the often-impoverished British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”
The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.
Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. And Eliza Scidmore’s world intersected with that of Mary Leiter.
American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon
I discovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s free online service of audiobooks recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. And the readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.
LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.
I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). My latest listen is one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading →
My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress
Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s officially in a “non-essential” job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown today looks like from my little spot in the universe.
It’s my “study desk” at the Library of Congress, a tiny room down a long, dimly lit corridor. From the single narrow window, there on the fifth floor, I can gaze across the rooftops on Capitol Hill and see the faint blue-grey ribbon of the Potomac River on the horizon. I’ve spent tons of hours there, sometimes working late into the evening.
And now it’s shuttered.
The 50 or so books I have in reserve on a bookshelf are off limits for the time being. No online advance ordering of any more books, either, since the library’s Website has also gone dark.
A lot of people today seem to think you can do all the research you need to online. But I’ve found the resources of the Library of Congress indispensable to my project. Continue reading →
When I started this blog more than a year ago, my first post was a photo of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama, sent to me by a Japanese friend. I knew at the time I would eventually have to travel to Japan to do research for my book on Eliza—and to see her grave site.
Today I joined members of the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-no-Kai) at an annual memorial service at her grave.
Kaoru Onji places flowers at Eliza Scidmore’s grave in Yokohama. “Eliza Catherine” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: D. Parsell)
Kaoru Onji, a retired professor of organic chemistry, coordinates the activities of the Eliza Scidmore Society. Assisting her is Mina Ozawa, director of the Yamate Museum. This year about three dozen members of the Society and other guests gathered amid fierce winds for the brief ceremony, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon.
The society grew from a group of people who shared an interest in Eliza Scidmore‘s story after her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan was translated into Japanese. In 1987 they visited her grave during cherry-blossom season to pay tribute. The ritual has continued. Today the group has about 50 members. Continue reading →
Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo (Photos: D. Parsell)
On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore‘s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at a place called Mukojima. A mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River, it was the chief inspiration for Eliza’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
It wasn’t just the trees that Eliza wanted to import. She found herself captivated by the spirit of cherry tree viewing, and it was that experience she wanted to see re-created in Washington. She described, in the late 19th century, the Japanese turning out in many parks to see the trees at peak bloom.
The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking. The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.
It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect! Continue reading →
By the Tidal Basin in Washington with reporter Miki Ebara, in front of the first two cherry trees from Japan planted on March 27, 1912, and a 300-year-old lantern from Japan (Source: NHK TV)
A busy Saturday. I just spent five hours with a film crew from the New York bureau of Japan’s NHK television, talking about my research on Eliza Scidmore.
Miki Ebara, the chief correspondent in New York, first contacted me a year ago not long after I launched this blog. She covers disasters as part of her duties and was familiar with Eliza Scidmore’s reporting on the great tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan in 1896.
Miki and I reconnected several weeks ago when I started thinking about making a trip to Japan for some necessary research. Cherry blossom season seemed the best time to go, so things have moved along very quickly. I’m off early next week. First trip to Japan.
Because she shares my fascination with Eliza, Miki decided to do a news feature on the cherry trees in Washington with a segment on my research, especially details I’ve uncovered about Eliza’s early life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.
Eliza has become increasingly well known in Japan because of her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan and her role in bringing cherry trees to Washington, so there’s much curiosity about her. There’s even an information sign about her posted outside one of Yokohama’s metro stations, near the cemetery where she’s buried. Continue reading →
Last Friday a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck in the seabed of the Pacific Ocean about 150 miles off the northeastearn coast of Japan. It caused severe shaking, but no reported deaths, along a coastal area known as Sanriku.
That’s near the region devastated in March 2011 by the catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed about 19,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Aftermath of earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s Sanriku coast, 1896 (Photo from “National Geographic”)
Sanriku lies in an area of the world prone to earthquakes because of the underlying plate tectonics. More than a century ago, Eliza Scidmore reported on the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast on the evening of June 15, 1896. Her article appeared in theSeptember 1896 issue of National Geographic.
Chilkat women and girls in Alaska, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Remember back in the ’60s and ’70s when travel was such a big deal that everyone took hundreds of slides? And insisted on sharing them. As you sat for what seemed like hours watching poorly cropped and focused images projected on a white sheet hung across a wall in the living room. Today, with cellphones, digital cameras, TV shows and relatively cheap air fares, we’re all so jaded about the wonders of distant places.
In Eliza Scidmore‘s day, travel was still exotic. The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives has a collectionof photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading →
Of all that I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska, in the summer of 1883. Maybe her story speaks to me so powerfully because I see in her life echoes of my own early hunger to leave home and know the world. At 26, Eliza was smart and ambitious and probably headstrong and already fiercely independent when she traveled across the country from Washington, D.C., and boarded a mail steamer in Port Townsend, Wash., for the journey north.
Although Alaska had been a U.S. territory for 16 years, it was still a remote wilderness. To Eliza, a young newspaperwoman in search of the next big story, it had the smell of opportunity. When her ship, the Idaho, veered off the known course that July, Eliza and her fellow passengers were the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. Writing about it brought her fame, and laid the foundation of her long career as an author and travel writer. I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic voyage in this video, which I made in a recent Technology Tools for Writers class at Johns Hopkins, offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate). I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her assistance.