It is not unusual to view nineteenth century Vermont simply, as an isolated rural paradise populated mostly by farmers. But as history repeatedly shows us, the Vermont of 150 years ago was far from simple, and nearly all of the suppositions we commonly make about it are mistaken. An antidote for this simple-minded view of our past is Deborah P. Clifford’s new biography, The Passion of Abby Hemenway, which recreates the complex social fabric of the time through the life of one outstanding Vermont woman.
Abby Hemenway’s life could be read as a tragedy. The grand idea that became her obsession and ultimately her life’s mission – compiling and publishing the history of every town in Vermont – was thwarted and hampered repeatedly because she was a woman. Even after her death, fate seemed to have it in for Hemenway: her last manuscripts and personal papers were consumed in a disastrous fire. Yet Clifford rightly presents her subject’s life not as tragedy but as a triumph, emphasizing Hemenway’s personal struggle and her great accomplishment – the compilation and editing of a massive, five-volume compendium of Vermont’s local history.
The problem, as Clifford points out, is that Hemenway chose a life for herself that did not and could not exist in nineteenth century America – that of an independent female professional. Emboldened by the early success of her anthology of Vermont poetry, Hemenway became determined to publish a gazetteer of Vermont’s local history, even though she had been warned by a group of Middlebury historians that the project was “not suitable work for a woman.”
Publishing is a difficult career choice in any circumstance, but one made even more dubious in the mid-1800s by the fact that, because she was a woman, Hemenway was expected to either marry or become a teacher. She apparently decided early on that she would remain unmarried in order to pursue her dream. Then she further marginalized herself from the dominant social class of the time – white Protestants – by converting to Catholicism, a stigma that Hemenway chose whole-heartedly to fulfill her deepest spiritual longings. In this exemplary piece of historical research and writing,Clifford makes clear the depth of the accomplishment of this one woman from Ludlow.
She presents a carefully detailed, fact-filled picture of nineteenth century Vermont that is quite distinct from the usual sentimental stereotypes, a busy, many-faceted place, very unlike the Vermont of today in many ways, yet recognizable in its complexity and happy turmoil. Hemenway’s compilation of local Vermont history has become invaluable material for the Vermont historians who have followed her. Her efforts also united Vermonters through their shared recollections of the past, nurturing the myth of Vermont as a “special place,” a white, Protestant enclave, rural, yet set apart by its heroic past. Ironically perhaps, Hemenway helped create that myth even as she transcended it in her personal life.
Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.