Monday, December 30, 2013

A Year in Books

Thinking back over 2013, I remember events leading to books—and books leading to events—and books leading to other books. By year’s end my choice of books has changed my course entirely, at least for the coming year.

I read a playful book (The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum), a laughable book (Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen), and an entertaining book (Unsinkable, a memoir by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway). I read several biographies, one or two political books, and some of historical impact. I read The Scarlet Letter, a woman’s emancipation book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was the Hemingway of his day.

My regular reading was varied, prompted mostly by a desire for fun, but as I found the year moving forward, a strong direction became clear. It started with a presentation I wrote about on this blog, about two women’s suffragists in upstate New York in the 19th century. I had heard, of course, of Susan B. Anthony, but this presentation included Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was totally unknown to me. Gage caught my interest, and I started reading her book Women, Church, and State, and made a trip to her museum in Fayetteville, NY.

There I learned, among other things, that Gage was the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, and she had some influence on him personally and on his writing. This led me to read L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz, by Katherine M. Rogers. I put both of Gage’s books on my kindle and began to read. She was indeed a passionate and well-informed writer, and, having been a Feminist since the early days of Friedan and Steinem, I read her call to arms—a shot from the bow from the 19th century—and was ready to arm the troops again.

Women who devoted their lives to the cause of enlightening others and were forgotten soon after their deaths have long touched my heart. Such a woman was Marietta Johnson, a progressive educator whose name is all but lost to history, whose work I have studied and written about. Now Matilda Joslyn Gage is on my radar, and I hope to write about her as I research more about the women in the early days of the women’s suffrage movement in this country.

I went on to read In Her Own Right/the Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Elizabeth Griffin, and Marmee and Louisa, by Eve La Plante. I’m beginning Margaret Fuller, by Megan Marshall. All of these have the backdrop of the 19th century, and involve women who were well aware of their lack of rights and determined to see that condition change. The eye-opener to me about this period of time was that the suffrage issue was closely tied to the Abolition movement. The women who were working to free the slaves, whatever it took, found was that they had much in common with the Negroes of their day—women not only didn’t have the legal right to vote, they could not own property, and in actuality they too were property. Of their husbands. From this awakening came another, equally great movement, and it is not yet finished. The brave women who took a stand for themselves were pushed aside when freedom was established for slaves, on the grounds that the “woman question” was insignificant in comparison to rights for black men.

I have started reading about this period. I must learn more about Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and read about Susan B. Anthony, Carry Nation, Frances Willard, and Lucy Stone. I want to read what they wrote, and learn what their lives were like.

It’s going to be a busy year. I am looking forward to another year of reading, and being surprised.

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