An Historic Event IV

The opening event of the Ellen White Conference in Portland, Maine was a public lecture by Joan Hedrik, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor at the University of Southern Maine. Hedrik received the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a contemporary of Ellen White. The lecture took place at the University of Southern Maine, which is also in Portland. Her lecture was entitled, “The Art of Biography.” I take it from the title (and the lecture by Grant Wacker the following night) that the organizers of the conference wanted these renowned biographers to help the group understand what it takes to write a successful biography of a significant historical figure such as Ellen White was.

According to Hedrik, there is no such thing as a truly objective biography. Biographies by definition must select from the body of evidence, skip over many important things, and view the person from a particular point of view. The biographer needs to be aware of the angle they are taking and be open with the reader about it. They must do more than just tell a story, they must also tell the significance of that story. So great biography cannot be divorced from interpretation.
It must also strike a balance between being didactic (where the reader learns new things) and entertaining (so potential readers will buy it and actually read it).

When it comes to writing a biography, the first step is a matter of plot. How do you find the right plot for a stereotypical woman’s life in the 19th Century? Most 19th Century American women were perceived to have spent the first part of their lives sitting around waiting for the right man to sweep them away. Then the rest of their lives were lived in relation to the goals and interests of their husbands. Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ellen White ended up breaking that mold to a degree. The stereotype may also help to explain some of the challenges Ellen and the strong-minded James (her husband) faced in their marriage.

Hedrik then asked a fascinating question. What “authorized” Ellen White to write? Most Adventists would glibly answer “her call from God.” But Hedrik suggested the answer might be a little more complicated than that. She illustrated from her work on Harriet Beecher Stowe. What authorized Stowe to write in a world where women largely remained at home? Three things. Her family, her education and her religion.

First of all, family. The typical role for the women of Stowe’s day involved four things related to the home: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. But Harriet Beecher Stowe transcended her domestic world through writing. The central social activity of mid-19th Century America was gatherings in the parlor. To write from the parlor was not out of keeping for the role of women at that time. They often wrote occasional poems for family occasions. So while woman’s role was largely domestic at the time, writing was an important feature of home life.

Second, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s education broadened her world beyond the parlor. It threw her together with girls from all over North America. Most women did not go to college then as they were expected to marry after high school. But Stowe did go on to prepare herself at a higher level. This was in contrast with Ellen White, whose formal education was limited to third grade because of illness associated with an accident around the age of 9. Imagine a woman with three grades of education founding medical schools and other institutions of higher learning! (The last line is mine not Hedrik’s)

An influence related to the first two was her involvement in the “Semi-Colon Club” where the writings of members were read anonymously and critiqued, which would have been greatly valuable to a budding young writer. This literary parlor culture (to which women had as great access as men) might be invisible to the typical historian yet it was critical to her development. The roles of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ellen White were shaped in the 19th Century world, yet both women clearly transcended the roles that were typical for women at the time.

A third foundation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing was her religion. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent minister, a major public figure. He was deeply concerned about the cultural diversity being introduced into American society by Catholic immigrants, who brought their saloons and carnivals over from Europe. So Stowe grew up in the home of a major “culture warrior.” Perhaps on account of her education, Harriet was much more open to diversity than was her father.

If the subject of a biography was married, the biographer must determine the weight that relationship should have in the biography. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband, Calvin Stowe, was one of the top biblical scholars in the country (JP note: Calvin Stowe was the source of Ellen White’s wording on biblical hermeneutics in Selected Messages, vol. 1: “It is not the words of the Bible that were inspired, but the men that were inspired.”). So Harriet and Calvin were intellectually compatible. On the other hand, they were psychological opposites. He was very ordered and she was spontaneous. He delighted in permanency and she delighted in eternal change.

Another important aspect of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s experience was losing her child by illness (something Ellen White also experienced). This helped Stowe to understand how a slave woman felt when her child was put on the auction block. Theologically, Harriet (like most people of the time) believed that the death of her child was a punishment from God for not learning the lessons to be gained from the illnesses of her older children. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was her way of redeeming the punishment which she felt God was placing on her in the death of her son. She wrote out of her sorrow. She felt that God’s wrath would be poured out on the United States of America if it didn’t abolish slavery. The plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was conventional, but the subject was extraordinary.

In a related detail, all nine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brothers became ministers. In those days women couldn’t preach or vote, so novels were the only way they could express themselves politically. Harriet used the pulpit that was available to her, her writings. (JP note: Ellen White ended up adding the traditional pulpit to the one she gained through writing.)

One final note. Ellen White has often been criticized about leaving her children for long periods of time in order to travel and preach. But this was not unusual in that time and place. Families then were much more extended than they are today and so mothers were not expected to be as consumed with their children as mothers in our society. Children were often left with aunts and grandmothers for periods of time. (JP note: Ellen White herself wrote against the practice, but was torn between her own mothering and the call she felt from God to impact her wider world.)

Thank you, Joan Hedrik! The last blog in this series will address the Friday night lecture by Grant Wacker on the challenge of biographical research. That lecture was delivered in the venerable Unitarian Church, one of the few buildings in Portland that was around when Ellen White was a child. Most of the city center was destroyed by a fire in 1866.

For photos of the conference see http://www.flickr.com/photos/ellenwhiteproject/.

 

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