(Host) Continuing with Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Philip Baruth reflects on how one woman’s idea became an obsession that in turn became a compelling legacy.
(Baruth) Somehow women in nineteenth-century photographs always look as though they’ve been herded at gunpoint out of a deep, dark prison to have their pictures taken, against their will, in the exercise yard. The faces are always solemn,
hunted, weary. The women look as though, when the picture-taking is over, they know they’re going to be herded back inside and given lots of back-breaking work and very little to eat.
Partly this effect has to do with the fact that sitting for a photograph took a long time in the 19th century. And let’s face it, women’s clothing of the period was not exactly what you’d call flirty or madcap: we’re talking long somber dark dresses, high prim white lace collars.
Still, every once in a while, you see in one of these photographs a woman with an odd urgent look on her face, a look as though she’s mentally timing the rounds of the guards. Abby Hemenway gives you that look, as though she’s standing there in 1865, behind her two more conventional sisters, her every other thought revolving around a single propulsive concept: prison break.
Hemenway was born and raised in Ludlow, Vermont, and her family allowed her ambition, in proper proportion: she was trained as a school-teacher, and she taught for a few years before discovering that it was a tough life where men were paid more, and women were sometimes bullied by students and their parents.
And in putting the book together Hemenway stumbled on what would become her life’s work: collecting the local histories that were in the process of vanishing with the state’s first generation of settlers. Several men had attempted to collect these settlement histories and statistics and bits of lore into what was then called a Gazetteer men like Zadock Thompson, who published a small volume in 1824 but none of them had made it beyond those early stages. It was an almost impossibly far-flung task in the years before good roads and fast cars, but Abby Hemenway was after all, a woman who saw visions of the Virgin Mary in her youth, and who thought seriously of the convent after converting to Catholicism later in life. If this Gazetteer was a fantastically draining task, with little promise of financial reward and active scorn from historians at Middlebury and elsewhere in the state, so much the better.
And so Hemenway did not marry; she passed her only suitor on to a younger sister and went back to sitting in a small upstairs room, editing copy for the massive five-volume set of the Gazeteer. When the money ran out, she set up her own storefront publishing operation, lolling on the floor with the gallies of the Gazeteer, her constant companion, her vocation, her obsession.
Abbey Hemenway did not invent the concept of local history; what she invented was the role of the modern woman historian, and in that role she preserved a staggering amount of the state’s post-Revolutionary past. She was a woman who literally thought her way out of the strange social prison in which she found herself. I see her face in my mind now whenever I think of the very greatest jailbreakers of all time: the smug smile of Cool Hand Luke, the anger of the Count of Monte Cristo, and the deep, abiding patience of Abigail Maria Hemenway.
Philip Baruth is a writer and novelist who lives in Burlington and teaches at the Univerity of Vermont.