making connections

Making Connections is a Work of Art, and Love

Historians and researchers are often likened to detectives, and while certainly I think that is an apposite comparison, I'm more inclined to describe our work as akin to weaving and web-making. I picture the weaver at the loom throwing the shuttle back and forth to create cloth to display and adorn. I also call up images of the spider's delicate airy weavings devised to attract prey, all the while remembering that, though delicate looking, the arachnid's work is noted for its remarkable tensile strength. Finally, and most expansively, I think of the limitless connecting power of the World Wide Web, the internet—invisible and ubiquitous.

Whichever image or combination of images has the most resonance, notice that each way the word web is used suggests a social and not an isolated process. Even in the grand isolation possible as a weaver sits at a loom, or as the spider creates its airy architecture, or as the informavore's finger directs the Web search engine to find information, the process is social and even communal in intent.

For me as an historian, the desire to connect pieces of information, weave them into a patterned whole cloth that is informative and entertaining is consummately complicated. My current research project, a biography of Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1827–1903), began right here in Colby- Sawyer College's Archives, led me to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and then home again, dancing along webs of connections between Susan Colby (Colgate), Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (known to her family and friends as Lizzie), and, most recently, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners).

Susan Colby Colgate's papers at Colby-Sawyer are important because the letters between 1848 and 1852 from Lizzie to Susan Colby fill in gaps and provide an early glimpse of Lizzie's ambition at age 22: “…I have one great ambition and it is to write well…” (July 11, 1849). The letters sparkle with tender mutual admiration, expressions of affection and longing, reflections on love and courtship, mention of mutual friends, commentary on favorite books, and gossipy insights into Washington's political and social life. Lizzie writes a vignette to Susan on January 14, 1849, of the sort that later permeate her social instructions, journalism, and fiction: “We spend the morning generally at the House or Senate, and, tho' we have not yet heard much eloquence, we have heard much fighting, which is equally agreeable. On New Year's we made our bow at the White House – Mrs. Polk received very well and I fear we shall not see as elegant a mistress of the White House next administration. However, the old hero [Zachary Taylor] will doubtless summon some worthy representative thither.”

The letters at Colby-Sawyer provided an interesting bridge just as I was beginning to explore a cache of nearly 500 letters from Lizzie and her two sisters to their father newly departed for the Gold Rush. The correspondence chronicles the saga the motherless, and now fatherless, children faced as they built lives in Keene, N.H., Boston, and New York City, mustering the same pluck as their adventurous father. These letters, the subject of “Sisters of Fortune” (Heffernan and Stecker, 1994), are urgent, pleading, defiant, tender and cajoling all at once, and form a rich backdrop for understanding Lizzie's public voice. She would be a “somebody,” she vowed to her father in a letter in 1851. And soon she would teach others from her own direct experience. By the 1880s, she was an established social arbiter in New York City and the author of the wildly popular “Manners and Social Usages” (1884.)

How is it that Lizzie has continued to haunt and inveigle me into writing her life back into public view? How did Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, enter the web? On July 18, 2007, I ended a day of research at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, with this note to myself: “Why bother to write about Lizzie Sherwood and now Judith Martin in our current cultural climate so lacking in civility? Lizzie's was a life lived with pizzazz and vibrancy. Sherwood contributed significantly to the discourse of her times, and was active in a social world she embraced entirely. She was widely travelled. She was clever with language. And, in her fiction particularly, she created an alternate universe for herself. And Lizzie's life has been almost completely misunderstood in the unfolding historical record. Like Sherwood, Martin presumes to describe what Newland Archer in Edith Wharton's “The Age of Innocence” labeled the “hieroglyphic world” of manners. A briar patch for both! Carry on, Ann Page. And, so, I do.

Lizzie led the way in this project of resuscitation, refutation and celebration, and her story is now becoming a biography. The Chicago Daily Tribune on May 5, 1888 reports: “Mrs. John Sherwood lectured most agreeably last evening on 'Etiquet' in the banquet hall of the Richelieu. 'Etiquet,' Mrs. Sherwood said, originally meant 'ticket,' and nowadays was the ticket without which people could not hope to be admitted into good society.” I nearly jumped up from my desk the day I found that article. I had a ticket to ride. Together, Lizzie and I would explore the world of etiquette and manners.

Lizzie left a nearly unbroken record of public and private letters, articles and books from her adolescence to her death. Her first published article (at 17) was a glowing review of “Jane Eyre.” Her compelling observations about America's shift from an agrarian republic to a society stratified and defined by the immense accumulation of wealth appear in most scholarly discussions of the Gilded Age. As a social arbiter and author of the most successful etiquette book of her day, “Manners and Social Usages” (1884), Lizzie's instructions and the sheer amount of related material she published would seem sufficient evidence for any biographer. In addition to “Manners and Social Usages,” she wrote three books on entertaining, two memoirs, three novels, a volume of poetry, a gossipy collection of portraits of European royalty, several books for children, and hundreds of short stories and articles for the New York Times and every important journal of her day.

Still, at the time of her death and for some years after, in the eyes apparently of her sons and others, including Emily Post, M.E.W.S (a frequent pen-name), was thought to be a bit of an embarrassment. Why? Perhaps all writers of etiquette and conduct books tilt toward the fool's errand. Lizzie's obituary in the New York Times in 1903 describes a woman fully involved with New York society for 50 years and links her name with powerful men of her day—the New York Social Register's Chauncey Depew (to whom “Manners and Social Usages” was dedicated), John Hay (who would be Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State), and Lord Houghton, a fabled and aristocratic British diplomat with whom she had corresponded for years. It mentions her travels to many European courts, receipt of the French Legion of Honor, and presentation to Queen Victoria on several occasions. Yet, the obituary fails to mention her etiquette book, merely concluding that for “ten years she had been an invalid, though still a frequent contributor to the New York Times Saturday Review of Books.”

Lizzie's obituary in Pulitzer's juicier New York World unfolds a more complicated tale. Placed below a well-known portrait of her, the article's headline reads: “Noted Also as a Brilliant Society Leader and Censor of the '400.'” (New York's “chosen,” or the Four Hundred, were so-named and numbered because Mrs. Astor's ballroom could hold four hundred guests.) “Before the arrival of the Astors and Vanderbilts,” it notes, “her name was an 'open sesame' to the gates of all who were worth knowing, and she had for years numbered among her friends those diplomats and men of letters who recognized the highest type of feminine genius. In later years she boldly denounced in lectures and articles the modern Four Hundred, declaring that a great degeneracy had set in.” At the center of her influence, the World stated, was her authoritative voice in “Manners and Social Usages.” The obituary concludes: “She was a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, which work she continued up to within her last few days.” Most assessments of Lizzie's life have had all the restraint and redaction of the Times' assessment and none of the breadth of the World's view. When I discovered the second obituary, I remembered that I had promised to “carry on.” So Lizzie haunts me and instructs me still, asks me to write her back into the light of the 21st century.

A few examples of her voice should be convincing evidence of why I want her to have a wide audience once again. In the introduction to “Manners and Social Usages,” Lizzie acknowledges the complexity of her own project, writing: “And it is in no way derogatory to a new country like our own if on some minor points of etiquette we presume to differ from the older world. We must fit our garments to the climate, our manners to our fortunes and to our daily lives.” How practical and humane this front book-end, paired with an observation at the book's end: “Sympathy is the delicate tendril of the mind, and the most fascinating gift nature can give us.”

“The art of entertainment,” she asserts “should be founded first on good sense, a quiet considerateness, a good heart, a spirit of friendliness; next, a consideration of what is due to others and what is due to one's self.” Later in her book, “The Art of Entertaining” (1892), she writes a charming description of dinner: “Dinner is the open sesame of the soul, the hour of repose, of amusement, of innocent hilarity, the hour which knits up the raveled sleeve of care. The body is carefully appareled, the mind swept and garnished, the brain prepared for fresh impress. It is said that no important political movement was ever inaugurated without a dinner, and we may fancifully state that [there is] no great poem, no novel, no philosophical treatise, but has been made or marred by a dinner.”

In a serious vein, she prophesies at the end of her memoir in 1897 “An Epistle to Posterity”: “Those cooler intelligences which, in older and more aristocratic societies, can stand on their glass pedestals, isolated from the common herd, have no existence here; our institutions forbid them. We are all mixed together—a sort of social blueberry pudding, no one berry any better than the other berry.” The memoir ends with the following reference to women's education becoming available at Columbia: “In this great outlook for women's broader intellectual development I see the great sunburst of the future. I have not lived in vain if I have done my mite to help it along.” Now, that's my Lizzie.

Finally, how does Judith Martin fit into my thinking, and how does she figure in my biography of Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood? During my sabbatical leave at the Schlesinger Library in 2005, I read every etiquette and conduct book written by a woman, concentrating on the 19th century so I could place Lizzie's work and success in a context. Soon the 20th century beckoned and its titans of the field—Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and Letitia Baldridge—ambled into the fray. No single writer in that new tribe, however, caught my imagination as fully as Judith Martin. She seemed to me (taking a page from Virginia Woolf) to be Lizzie Wilson's “sister”— displaying the same signs of worldly perspective, arch humor, wide reading and delicious word play. And then, what to my wonder should appear but a trail in the Schlesinger's extensive collection of advice literature that led to a newly arrived collection of 1,700 letters from Miss Manners' correspondents to her. First, elation—I could read the other side of the conversation; I could look for patterns of interest. Then, dejection—the collection was sealed until 2010. Then, action—the research librarians encouraged me to write to Martin, explain my project, and ask for permission to read the letters as soon as possible. A handwritten response from Martin confirmed that “of course” she knew Lizzie's book, was complimented by my comparison of her with Lizzie, but wasn't sure what use the letters would be. A month later I flung myself her way at a lecture she gave at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and pled my case again. She agreed and, so, with the generous assistance of a research grant from the Radcliffe Institute, I began last July what I estimated might be a two month research project of taking notes on what turned out to be 1,760 letters. I just finished in the spring of 2008 in the interstices of teaching and other college work.

What a boon—an amazing cache of letters—stretching over two decades. Martin's work in general, and the concerns and questions in these letters in particular, will be the coda to Lizzie's biography. Just as Lizzie had lamented a rising tide of what she had labeled American “spreadeagleism” in the 1890s, Martin, in her many books, lectures to the American Philosophical Society, and, in a prestigious lecture at Harvard, tackles the particular pressures on America's practice of civility. She observed in 1985: “From its birth, America has badly needed to express equality, individual freedom, social mobility and the dignity of labor in the language of human social behavior. The charge is often made against etiquette that it is artificial.” Martin continues, “Yes, indeed, it is. Civilization is artificial. When people extol the virtues of naturalness, honesty, informality, intimacy and creativity – watch out.” She concludes: “The lack of agreement about manners results in an anger-ridden, chaotic society, where each trivial act is interpreted as a revelation of the moral philosophy of the individual actor, who is left standing there naked in his mores.”

Lizzie (ever one to craft a vivid image and show-off her erudition) described the hazards arbiters of taste and civility face when she wrote: “The Scylla of barrenness and the Charybdis of garrulity are before any author who tries to speak upon a familiar theme. Let us hope that, through the kindness of our readers, we may not have wrecked our little bark on either.” (“Home Amusements,” 1881) This was not the first time Lizzie described the writer's predicament in Homeric terms. Thirty-two years earlier, the young and less sophisticated writer had confessed to Susan Colby that she intended “to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of young authors—publishing too much and writing privately too little.” (July 11, 1849).

As for me, I'm counting on these two writers and other friends who have made a difference in my life to give me courage, to send me fair and following winds, and to continue to teach me to steer my scholarly bark through treacherous waters while I study etiquette and conduct books. I'll reach for “sympathy, the delicate tendril of the mind” as the cornerstone of civility. Lizzie Sherwood and Judith Martin have certainly been generous about sharing their tickets—their “et-ti-quettes”—and their wisdom with me. They've certainly taught me to “mind my manners” and to speak my mind while weaving webs of connection.