“A sense of place.” I think it’s crucial to understanding the influences that shape an individual. The master biographer Robert Caro agrees.
That idea took me to St. Louis this fall looking for traces of Eliza Scidmore. Early in her career Scidmore wrote frequently for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which at that time was one of the most influential papers west of the Mississippi.
St. Louis Mercantile Museum Library
Scidmore wrote for the paper from Washington. But did she spend much time in St. Louis?
That’s what I hoped to find out when I accompanied my husband on a business trip. The St. Louis Mercantile Museum holds all the historical records of the Globe-Dispatch, which ceased publication in 1986. I knew from advance research that the newspaper’s business records only dated back to about the 1920s, but I wanted to poke around and see what I might find in other archival resources.
Benton Park in St. Louis
Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover much that was useful for the book. But I enjoyed the trip for other reasons.
For one thing, I’d never been to St. Louis, even though I attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. Bruce and I stayed in the Benton Park area and enjoyed some of its many great restaurants. Maybe it’s because I was raised in midwestern Ohio, but I felt really comfortable in St. Louis.
St. Louis Botanical Garden (Photo: D. Parsell)
A highlight of the trip was spending a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Beautiful fall weather, lots of still-colorful plants, and a terrific Japanese garden, one of the largest in North America. That amused me for some time, since Eliza Scidmore wrote a great deal about Japanese gardens and gardening.
A nice fall getaway with new sights.
From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)
Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmore to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”
On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past. Women like Eliza Scidmore.
Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading
In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.
Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.
But she persisted. Eventually, she got her way by securing as an ally another gutsy woman of her day: First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.
Eliza Scidmore has made her debut appearance on LibriVox.
I discovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s a free online service of audio books recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. 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 on the treadmill. 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). A recent listen was 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
Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington
I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.
The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.
Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington a few years ago. He talked about the importance of place and setting.
[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character …
The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.
The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.
While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.
The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19, writing for a Washington newspaper.
Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition
Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Eliza was at that event too. But the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents. Continue reading
How seductive historical research can be. You start out looking for one thing and end up down a rabbit hole that takes you along a path to some other delightfully unexpected connection.
I’ve just encountered that while researching the Civil War record of Eliza Scidmore’s older half-brother, Edward P. Brooks. Soon after the shelling of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 Union volunteers in April 1861, Edward Brooks joined the Wisconsin 6th Volunteer Infantry. It left Madison in July and spent the first six months on guard duty in Washington. They camped for a while at Arlington Heights, on the grounds that today make up Arlington Cemetery.
The 6th Wisconsin regiment became part of the famed Iron Brigade, distinguished for their bravery in battle. (And for their unusual black hats, different from the blue kepis that were part of the regular Union Army uniform.) The regiment was commanded in a string of important battles by Rufus Dawes. Edward Brooks was his adjutant. During a furlough late in the war Dawes went to Marietta, Ohio, to marry his sweetheart.
Marietta is my hometown.
The special cherry blossom section in today’s Washington Post had a good article about Eliza Scidmore by staff reporter Michael Ruane. Includes quotes by me based on a phone interview.
Hand-colored photo of cherry trees in Japan, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: 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 collection of photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading
Women’s History Month begins this week. The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress is helping to kick off things with a presentation Friday afternoon, March 2, on a new scholarly work, Right Here I See My Own Books, about the special woman’s library assembled for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
I seemed to recall from my research that Eliza Scidmore reported on the fair. Revisiting my notes, I found an article she wrote for the Aug. 19 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine she was contributing to regularly at the time.
It also made me wonder whether her work was represented in the woman’s library. I checked an online list of the titles. And yes, Eliza Scidmore was included!
The library contained copies of the three books she had published by that time: Alaska and the Sitkan Archipelago, Jinrikisha Days in Japan and Westward to the Far East. Continue reading