Monday, June 13, 2011

Second Funniest Thing Found In the Garrison Family Papers

In the Garrison Family Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I found a special issue of the British journal Anti-Caste.  This issue had been published in the spring of 1895 in memorial to Frederick Douglass, who had died in February. In this issue,  the editor, Catherine Impey, reprinted "Extracts from the Editor's Diary of a Visit to 'Cedar Hill,'" the visit in question having taken place in September 1892.

At one point in her week long visit, Impey described an excursion to the Art Gallery with Douglass; his wife, Helen Douglass; Helen's sister, Eva Pitts; Helen's friend, Miss Foy; and Douglass's granddaughters, Annie and Estella Sprague. "F.Douglass and six ladies," Impey parenthetically reported. Parenthetically, I am  surprised that she did not include an exclamation mark. Furthermore, on the way to the Art Gallery, they met with two other women, "a Mrs. Lee and her daughter, from Chicago (coloured)." Now, the party consisted of F. Douglass and eight ladies.

Understand that, in 1892, Douglass was 74 years old. Yet, he still had the physique to command this description from Impey as she, from her guest room window,  saw him strolling in the yard below. "What a grand majestic figure it is," she wrote. "Fine features, with a crown of white hair like the Egyptian monarchs of old." The magnetism of his youth was still present as he aged.

Yet, what struck me in this description, as in other indications of his life from the earliest accounts, including his own, was that he was surrounded by women and seemed most at ease among them. The only men who appear in this description of Impey's week at Cedar Hill were the carriage driver and Douglass's grandson, Joseph Douglass,who only appear to escort ladies off-stage. He is most jovial,  most relaxed, and most compliant around the ladies, and I am wondering why. Could this be his conservative or patriarchal streak? They are not a threat to him and generally in service (or thrall) to him; but is there something else there, something that carries me into the realm of "psychohistory"?

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