Friday, July 3, 2020

Desperately serious living

‘I am giving the girlhood which I remember, the dominant feelings, the most earnest efforts. As I look over the diaries of the time, the first one is for 1876, the records are trivial enough, hardly anything is shown of the desperately serious “living” which was going on.’ This is from the youthful diary of Charlotte Perkins Gilman - an American writer, lecturer on social reform and early feminist - who was born 160 years ago today. Her diaries were published in two volumes in the mid-1990s; in 2010 the Radcliffe Institute (Harvard University) made all the original diary manuscripts freely available online.

Gilman was born on 3 July 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. She had one older brother, but her father (a relative of the influential Beecher family, including the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe) left when she was still an infant, and her childhood was spent in poverty, with little formal education. Later in her youth, however, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design (with financial help from her father). Subsequently she supported herself by designing trade cards, and through tutoring. In 1884 she married Charles W. Stetson, an artist, and they had one daughter. Family life, though, did not suit her. In 1888, she moved to Pasadena, and by 1894 she had divorced her husband. When he remarried, she sent their daughter to live with him.

Gilman began writing poems and short stories. One story in particular - The Yellow Wall-Paper published in The New England Magazine in 1892 - brought her much attention (and has remained highly popular, being the all-time best selling book of the Feminist Press). She moved to San Francisco, where she edited Impress with Helen Campbell (published by the Pacific Coast Woman’s Press Association).

During the early 1890s, Gilman earned a reputation as a noted lecturer, on topics such as labour, ethics, and women’s place in society, and by the second half of the decade was spending much time on national lecture tours. In 1896, she was a delegate to the International Socialist and Labor Congress in London, where she met George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, and other leading socialists. Two years later, she published Women and Economics, a radical manifesto arguing for the economic independence of women - this brought her international renown. In 1900 she married a cousin, George Houghton Gilman, with whom she lived in New York City. Further books followed: Concerning Children (1900), The Home (1903), Human Work (1904) and The Man-Made World (1911) in which she attributed the ills of the world to the dominance of men.

From 1909 to 1916, Gilman published the monthly Forerunner, a magazine of feminist articles, views, and fiction. She co-founded, with Jane Addams, the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915. In 1922, she moved from New York to Houghton’s old homestead in Norwich, Connecticut. Following Houghton’s sudden death in 1934, she moved back to Pasadena, where her daughter lived. She was already suffering from cancer by then, and as an advocate of euthanasia, she committed suicide in August 1935. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Radcliffe Institute.

Gilman’s paper are held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and all of them have been scanned and made available online as part of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection. Under ‘Diaries’ for example, the collection lists 6501 items. They seem to come from about 70 manuscript volumes - although a few of the scanned calendar pages are empty. The first volume - dated 1883-1918 - is called ‘Thoughts and figgerings’; the last volume (72) dates to 1935. Transcriptions of the digital images are not available on the website, however, the University Press of Virginia published two volumes of The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman back in 1994 (as edited by Denise D. Knight); and a one-volume abridged edition came out in 1998. (Unfortunately, without my usual library sources available, I have been unable to access these volumes.)

Nevertheless, a few examples from Gilman’s diaries can be found in various biographical works. In her own work - The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (which can be previewed at Googlebooks or borrowed briefly from Internet Archive) - there are references to her diary sprinkled throughout. Here are three.

‘I am giving the girlhood which I remember, the dominant feelings, the most earnest efforts. As I look over the diaries of the time, the first one is for 1876, the records are trivial enough, hardly anything is shown of the desperately serious “living” which was going on. It was my definite aim that there should be nothing in my diary which might not be read by any one; I find in these faintly scribbled pages most superficial accounts of small current events, an unbaked girlishness of no special promise.

Very occasionally some indication of the inner difference appears, as once while seventeen: “Am going to try hard this winter to see if I cannot enjoy myself like other people.” This shows the growing stoicism which was partly forced on me by repeated deprivations, then consciously acquired. The local life in which we moved seemed to me petty in the extreme. The small routine of our housekeeping, the goings and comings of friends and relatives, and the rare opportunities for small entertainment, have left almost no impression.

What I do remember, indelibly, is the cumulative effort toward a stronger, nobler character. At the end of the eighteen-year-old diary is written: “Goodby old Year! It has been one of much progress and considerable improvement. My greatest fault now is inordinate egotism.” A persistent characteristic, this.’


‘All those early lectures are written. I have them yet, a goodly number of them, for the two or three years before I took to notes, and then embarked on the purely extemporaneous. Opening the larger and fuller diary of 1891 I find on Jan. 3rd, Sat. “Begin lecture on Nationalism and Religion,” 4th, “Write 24 double pages on Nationalism and Religion.” Deliver same in afternoon. Mrs. Carr there, Dr. Channing and Miss Knight. Very successful. Got $4.30 - Mrs. Carr put in a whole dollar! Awfully tired with the day’s work.”

On the twenty-first was another good one, of which I made entry: “It was a great success. Some of the women cried, and they actually clapped at times! Then an attempt at organizing, lots of enthusiasm and introductions without number. Also an engagement there for next Wednesday fortnight, and one in Rosedale to be arranged. Also $6.20 in cash! That is worth while. And money more fairly earned I never saw - free gift for well appreciated honest work. It does me good.” ’


‘I left Chicago by train, then by boat from Toronto down the St Lawrence, through the Thousand Islands and the rapids, to Montreal, and sailed July 10th, on S.S. Mongolian, Allen Line, for $50.00. Before leaving Chicago my diary remarks, “Feel calm and happy. Cash low however, down to $10.00 in envelope. $20.00 in purse. Never mind.” And I didn’t.

The steamer was a “whaleback” cattle-boat, one “class,” pleasant people enough. Our bovine passengers grew steadily more perceptible as days passed, until the dining-room port-holes had to be closed, to keep them out, as it were.

“Get to the foremost prow and the rearmost stern and am happy,” says the diary. There is no such chance to be alone with the sea on the big liner. “Sit about contentedly with books, papers and writing things.” “Icebergs! Yes, lots of them. Just like the pictures and descriptions.” “Pleasant morning alone in the stern. Pleasant afternoon making paper dolls for the chicks.” Whose “chicks” I have utterly forgotten, but children were always a comfort. “Crochet a cap, close fitting, as my beloved hat blows somewhat.” “Crochet cap for one Mr. Roberts. Three men have lost caps overboard.” ’


And here are several more references to her diary from Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings by Carol Farley Kessler (also available to borrow from Internet Archive).

‘On the one hand, Gilman’s diary entries indicate a high-spirited individual who does not appear to be unduly burdened. Her energy and intelligence seem to have sustained her as a youngster, but the tendency to depression as an adult may well have had one source in these emotional deficits with her maternal relationship.’


‘Before long, pregnancy consumed her energy: after 13 October 1884, her journal is blank until New Year’s Day 1885, and that year’s diary is more blank than written. Her entries from 1 September 1884 through 4 October 1884 indicate that she was reading Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Dr. Zay (1882), a novel about a heroine pursuing her medical mission to serve women and children: exactly at the point when Gilman became unable any longer to focus upon keeping her diary, she encountered a model both for her own later life and for later utopian characters she would create.’


‘Gilman’s 1878 diary entry for 17 May notes: “Pleasing epistle from father stating that he can’t send us any more money for some months. ‘This is too redikelous [sic].’ Verily I must toil and moil”. Her journal for 1879 contains a class card for the Rhode Island School of Design for 1878-1879: these financial arrangements clearly were honored but her diary entries attest to unreliable financial support over time from her father.’

No comments: