Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Elmira Female College 1855- present

      One blog post will never be able to tell the story of this innovative and venerable institution. Let this serve as an introduction to an immense topic, and establish the distinction of Elmira's role in pioneering education for women.

      I’ve just read a fantastic book published in 1955 on Elmira College’s centennial called Elmira College: The first 100 years by E. Charles Barber. Written in an engaging and at times almost deadpan humorous way, it chronicles this historic institution which was the very first to offer women a baccalaureate degree equal to that of a man.
       Although Oberlin offered women a baccalaureate in 1837, the difference lies in the academic rigors which Elmira demanded of its female students. From 1855 Elmira offered two courses of study, classical and scientific. In the classical curriculum, a young lady would have studied Greek and Latin, and in the scientific course, only Latin. Both would include mathematics, rhetoric, English literature, philosophy, history and the natural sciences such as botany and astronomy. Add to that optional courses in music and studio art, as well as modern languages.
      Vassar, often cited as another first to offer women a man’s degree, didn’t open until a full decade after Elmira in 1865, and in fact, according to Barber, drew much if its curriculum from Elmira’s. They shared a professor, Charles S. Farrar, who also served as chief architect of the original building in Elmira, Cowles Hall, as well as an observatory which came shortly after. A clear connection exists in the exchanging of ideas between Elmira and Vassar. The chief difference seems to be that Vassar’s patron and namesake funded it far more lavishly than Elmira’s founder Simeon Benjamin could, and therefore earned Vassar greater notoriety.
        Filled with amusing and poignant anecdotes and biographies, Barber’s book brings to life the early college and early Elmira itself. A canal and rail town, Elmira boasted connections, commerce, and culture, but also transient laborers and their seamy amusements. The dual nature of the town demanded a delicate balance for its fair student body, which was achieved under the artful direction of its first president Dr. Augustus Cowles.
        Over 280 pages, this book pays homage to the times in the mid 19th century when progressive ideas fought their way through a white-dominated, patriarchal society, but makes a point that “enlightened” modern historians fail to notice. These progressive ideals were championed by men of deep Christian faith, soft-spoken men of great educations and fine minds who believed deeply in causes such as abolition and equal educational opportunities for women. Here the Victorian standards of modesty and charity for women are treated without the disdain of modern viewpoint.
         This experiment on Prospect Hill in a burgeoning mid-nineteenth century New York rail town proved once and for all that women were capable of great intellectual accomplishment. For women everywhere, Elmira has become a light to the world, a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Giveaway: Wedded to War by Jocelyn Green

I am giving away my gently used copy of this fabulous Civil War novel to a random name draw. Leave a comment with your name and email addy. Contest ends Wednesday Sept 26th.

Jocelyn Green is on my figurative dart board. She has written the consummate portrait of a Civil War nurse, and that riles me, as a long-time student and writer of Civil War era fiction. Her attention to detail and stellar research truly saturate each page of this story. Her debut fiction novel is based on the diary of Georgeanna Woolsey, a young lady of privilege from Manhattan who leaves behind her posh salons and world-class dining and theater to forge the way for women to serve the war effort. So my first dart aimed at this author is, I admit, aimed in pure jealousy, because I long to write with that level of immersion.

But the next dart I aimed, instead of jealousy, is all admiration. She has set the bar high, and I aim to meet it. Her heroine Charlotte Waverly has all the pluck necessary to not only leave her pampered life behind, but to take on the most odious work for the Union Sanitary Commission, all under intense persecution from men who view women like her as interlopers, inept and easily dismissed. the background story of love interests, courtship, social and gender prejudices, and of course epic war, keep the tension sizzling on every page.

My dart arsenal fires again for the romance thread--a dead bullseye. She creates a wonderful hero in Caleb Lansing, Charlotte's long-time friend who now serves as a Federal army surgeon. Though we don't get to see him much due to Charlotte's engrossing story and a full cast of characters and subplots, Caleb's presence is felt throughout. He is the one she longs for, the one who represents comfort and goodness and the pursuit of her dreams. His acceptance and encouragement of her avocation in a world dominated by men makes him truly heroic--the reader will keep going to the very end to see how they overcome courtship rivalry, war logistics, sickness, and their own insecurities to find their happily ever after.

And finally, one last dart aimed at Ms. Green's way of making each character three dimensional and sympathetic--even the antagonistic Mr. Phineas Hastings. I loved her treatment of the Irish immigrant, Ruby, whose husband serves in the NY "Fighting" 69th. Since my own great grandfather John Cronin served in the 69th it held personal interest to me. Glimpses into Frederick Law Olmsted, the head of the Sanitary Commission, and also the hospital chaplain Edward Goodrich add dimension to the story.

This really is a must read for any student of the Civil War, of women's rights, and of the advent of modern medicine. Meticulously researched and engaging, Wedded to War hits the mark on every score.

CONGRATULATIONS, Jes, your name has been drawn by generator to win our giveaway! I will be emailing you shortly.