Monday, August 28, 2017

Emancipation Eclipse

We just experienced a "totality" eclipse…the moon and sun rolled across the sky, locked in an embrace, entrancing and spooking a new generation of sky-watchers. This celestial happening is the perfect onramp for my final August discussion and premiere cross-century duet: The Hall in the Grove (1881) and Hidden Figures (2016).

If you’ve been under a (moon) rock for the past year, you might not be familiar with Hidden Figures, an inspiring chronicle of NASA’s heretofore unknown black women mathematicians who helped the US win the space race. Their story is a contemporary echo of the social-barrier-busting power of education that’s celebrated in The Hall in the Grove. Isabella Alden’s Hall in the Grove examined the elite-fostered social pressures that kept ignorant slackers and illiterate factory workers firmly entrenched in their “proper” places; Hidden Figures author Margo Lee Shetterly deftly explores the tragically familiar phenomenon among 20th-century African-Americans who struggled their way up academic and government corporate ladders towards respectability and peer-recognition.

(We interrupt this post for a brief shout-out and testimonial: Huge thanks to the author of Isabella’s tribute page blog…she suggested this book would be the perfect counterpoint to The Hall in the Grove and she was dead right! I LOVED this book and highly recommend it to anyone—it’s wonderfully well-written, truly inspiring, and offers a peek into a hitherto unknown chapter in aerospace history. Run out and read it! Now, onto our regularly scheduled blog post…)

Both books drive home the crucial role played by social advocacy champions. Isabella’s CLSC scholars and Shetterly’s “unlikely” math whizzes were sponsored by superstar advocates for higher education for previously ignored populations. Isabella makes real-life Chautauqua founder Dr. Vincent a character in her book; he tirelessly promoted equal-access higher education in Chautauqua’s open-air, lakeside forums and campaigned vigorously for “daughter Chautauquas” across the nation to open even more doors. Shetterly introduces us to dozens of fascinating, unsung black advancement advocates and activists like 1868 teacher Mary Peake, who taught freed slaves in the open air under the shade of antebellum Virginia’s majestic Emancipation Oak.

Emancipation, the release from spiritual, mental, or physical bondage is winsomely embodied by plucky, attractive females in these volumes. The first of Shetterly’s cohort of amazing women we meet is sloe-eyed, brilliant Dorothy Vaughn (pictured above). Dorothy is remarkably akin to Caroline Raynor, Isabella’s educationally ambitious, humbly bright maid-of-all-work. Both are encouraged by wise and watchful mothers to take advantage of every open door. A virtually illiterate washerwoman mother gives Caroline her life motto; “Pick ‘em up, Car’line” when she urges baby Caroline to learn the alphabet from the discarded blocks of a wealthy playmate; it’s the beginning of Caroline’s catch-as-catch-can “pick up” education. Dorothy’s stepmother, also a charwoman, encourages young Dorothy to go as far as possible with her education. Shetterly’s description of Dorothy’s trademark characteristics: “…her intelligence, her work ethic, her naturally kind disposition, and her humility” are shared by the fictional Caroline.

Mirroring personalities and youthful circumstances—poverty, innate intelligence, working class but ambitious mothers—are the springboards to these women’s eventual fulfilled adulthoods. Like Caroline, Dorothy trusted that her brave, often sacrificial hard work and determination would enable her to better her lot (very Horatio Alger-esque!), an unthinkable attitude for any Victorian black women. Unlike Dorothy, Caroline relied on her deep-seated faith in Christ as the key that unlocked her future. Human effort, however admirable, cannot outstrip or overturn God’s will in Caroline’s worldview.

Prejudices against 19th century low-born/working class whites crippled employment and educational opportunities in ways that rivaled the underground and flagrant racist attitudes that flourished then and provoke violent outcroppings that horrify our self-satisfied society even today. Today’s web-based info glut tantalizes with the allure of universal accessibility but the daily headlines indicate there’s a need beyond mere cultural instruction, no matter how mind-boggling the results.

Higher education certainly offers greater prospects of glory, but Isabella’s heroines avow it can’t supply the moral foundation or framework necessary for the human soul to flourish. That suffocating stone won’t roll away without divine intervention. The not-so-hidden figure revealed in Pansy’s works? The nimbus-rimmed shadow of Jesus, His blinding radiance no longer occluded by Death and the frailty of human flesh.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heaven and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. Psalm 19: 1-6

Monday, August 21, 2017

Meek is not a dirty word

Leaning-in rainmakers and change-agents charged with spiritual ferocity, adopters of controversial social platforms…which century brought forth Christian women like this? If you’re thinking 21st, think again. The female Bible-believing Temperance workers of the 19th century could teach their contemporary sisters a few things about tenacity, courage, and determination. Isabella Alden celebrated such women, only a very few of whom made it into the history books. But Pansy’s lowly, unsung, Spirit-led female Christians only care that their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

For all their meekness, however, Isabella Alden’s heroines are constantly crossing invisible social barriers, led on by their unconventional Master. They pray aloud in coed meetings (gasp!). They kneel in prayer in filthy saloons, beseeching the Lord to close the doors of this den of vice and imploring angry, mocking men to go home to their wives, mothers, and children. They make themselves conspicuous by calling out sin where they saw it (a definite no-no in that age). They brave drunkards in full tide of violence, invading unspeakable slums to rescue destitute innocents within. They mop the fever-wet brows of dying urchins with their immaculate hankies. They rejoice when prodigals return, even if God uses terminal illnesses to foment delayed conversions.
Every time I read one of Pansy’s books, Temperance-centric or not, I get a humbling education on what it means to truly be a Christ-follower. Caroline Raynor in The Hall in the Grove is such a one. She, like all Pansy’s serious 19th century sisters, walks out her Christian experience in the simplest, most sincere ways imaginable. For Jesus, Caroline joyfully sews patches or arranges dinner dishes neatly and attractively. For Him, she ignores hateful taunts from upper crust snobs, not ashamed to be thought meek. Why? Because Scripture tells her giving in to temper is a sin. Yes, a sin. When was the last time you heard THAT from the pulpit?

These women inhabit a spiritual world so far above our current self(ie)-promotional one that it’s barely recognizable. And save your stamps; her heroine’s attitudes are not cultural mandated just because she’s a Victorian. She’s deliberately taking God’s word for what it says—Biblical inerrancy was a hotly debated subject even in the 19th century! These are concepts and convictions our generation of Christian women has all but forgotten in our quest for more “likes.”

Earnest believers in Pansy's books, rich or poor, follow Jesus to the Cross and there lay down their ambitions, their goals, their lives. Because Jesus laid down everything for Caroline, she rises above the petty torments and trials of this life. Caroline has been crucified with Christ.

This dedicated, wide-awake Christian life, even though lived out in fiction, inspires me to regard my obnoxious neighbor in a different way—I see a soul that is perishing. An opportunity, not just an annoyance. The straightforward, beautifully committed sisters in Isabella's works reroute me from self-satisfaction to the humility of the Cross. The view is pretty different from there.

 “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart…” Matthew 11:28

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nature, nurture or new nature?

Education was the 19th century engine that transformed the American Dream into reality for many. So, it’s no wonder that the era’s Horatio Alger fan club whole-heartedly adopted Chautauqua’s mission of bringing the social and personal benefits of higher education and culture to the masses. Heralded by some as the salvation of the nation, these bootstrapping idealists were feared by those who sincerely felt untrammeled social reform was harmful to all involved. Why raise hopes in a chambermaid’s heart when, no matter how well-educated and culturally trained, she’d never be accepted in the right circles? (My Fair Lady, call your office). In 1881’s “The Hall in the Grove,” author Isabella "Pansy" Alden’s heart for the invisible underserved is delicately bleeding all over the pages. But rather than pooling in sticky sentiment, her pen’s blood pumps vivid, beautiful life into 19th century stock characters, like the small-town slacker. Let’s look at Paul Adams, today’s case study. (Backstory for Pansy's marvelous books--and my project--here.)

Chronic loafer Paul joins the CLSC at the invitation of Dr. Monteith, a childhood friend of Paul’s now deceased father. Paul stuns everyone, including and especially his bewildered mother, when his trademark mule-headedness is directed towards plowing through the massive, impenetrable Merivale’s History of Rome. No one is more shocked than Paul to discover a raging thirst for knowledge waking in his sleepy mind and shambling heart. Pansy delicately hints this could be a heritage from his scholar father, but leaves it uncertain as to why some low-born folks have an innately ravenous curiosity and simply MUST study. It’s a mystery.

Attending the Centerville CLSC meetings in nicely decorated parlors with finely cultured people leaves its mark on Paul. To earn money for texts, Paul hires on to the local carpenter, a job that sands off rough edges in his soul while providing the opportunity for him to travel to Chautauqua. As he studies, Paul’s attitude toward life in general changes and he comes to respect others—and himself. He becomes the pet project of several Chautauquans, including his boss’s. He takes Latin, daydreams of greatness in the Hall in the Grove, and eventually scolds his benevolent, godly patron, Dr. Monteith, for de facto indicating that CLSC texts are more foundational than the Bible. Dr. Monteith is horrified to have given that impression and begs Paul’s forgiveness, wisely assessing Paul’s motivators by challenging him to read the Scripture with the same zeal he brought to his secular texts. (And if you think creating a zealous character named Paul whose boss is a carpenter isn’t intentional, you’re not yet hep to Isabella’s MO.)
Divine nature
Friend, family, and foe alike acknowledge that Paul’s unquenchable drive and remarkable mind betoken genuine genius. But it’s only after the young man’s spiritual awakening that he’s universally recognized as belonging to a new social stratum. Unlike Dr. Monteith, Isabella makes it crystal clear that secular education can only go so far. Without the light of Christ shining on every subject, the mind is only stocked with information, not truly enlightened. Created by God, for God, humans can only achieve their full potential as they look to the pure radiance of Christ. And that’s only accessible by divine regeneration and renewal. 

“And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2

"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new." 2 Corinthians 5:17

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sneaking into Mrs. Fenton's parlor

The historic CLSC kickoff, “Reading Day,” is October 1 (aka “Bryant Day,” celebrating American romantic poet and literary lion William Cullen Bryant’s support for the premiere CLSC of 1878), but last year, the reading list was announced in late August. So, I feel somewhat excused in setting my own inaugural date for commencing my own reading—which is right now.

I’m starting my year of 19th C/21st C crossover literary exploration (see my first post for more details on this little project) with the book that started it all for me, Isabella “Pansy” Alden’s wonderful 1881 novel, The Hall in the Grove. This riveting, beautifully written page-turner was chosen for the CLSC Class of 1881-2 booklist—quite a high honor, given the limited number of choices and the rigorous selection process. The Hall in the Grove lovingly and captivatingly describes the elevating, ennobling effects of Christ-centered higher education in the lives of several disparate characters who gather around the lamp of learning and light of Christ’s love.

The book opens in a tidy living room where we encounter Mrs. Fenton, mourning that her limited schooling will soon build a wall between her intelligent, better-educated 14-year-old son and herself. The crisis comes when young Robert asks when a certain Roman general rebuilt a wall (Brava, Isabella!) with no real expectation that Mother can help him. She unexpectedly finds an answer to her worries in the form of a small pink CLSC book at her friend Mrs. Chester’s house, property of visiting Chautauquan booster Katie Wells. The light begins to dawn for Mrs. Fenton; she needs a CLSC in her town!

It’s also at Mrs. Chester’s house we meet my favorite character Caroline Raynor, deft-handed, gray-eyed maid-of-all-work: she’s studying the CLSC booklist as her meager means and minimal leisure permit. We meet “the Butler girls” next, two featherheaded young women and their equally witless, dandified brother, Jack. Mrs. Fenton urges them to help her launch a local CLSC, but they regard literary clubs as the apex of all that is dull, dreadful, and dreary. (All these folks show up again, if you’re keeping score.)

Somewhat daunted, Mrs. Fenton forms her modest circle with her own family and Caroline. Not for long, thanks to the Rev. Gilbert Monteith, DD, eminent professor, linguist, preacher/teacher, scientific man, well-traveled, deeply cultured…and a hometown hero. He asks to join her circle and invite some friends. Stunned and delighted, Mrs. Fenton eagerly consents. Enter our final major characters: The Ward boys—Jim and Joe—and their buddy, Paul Adams. Pansy trots out scathingly subtle Victorian insults for these boys, noting their downhill progress towards being “common street loungers and loafers.” But even while making her readers’ lips curl in disgust, Isabella knows how to evoke sympathy. We learn the Ward brothers are motherless; Paul, fatherless. They all receive invitations to Mrs. Fenton’s parlor for the first CLSC gathering; the boys’ from Mrs. Fenton (who worries about their influence over her son) and Paul’s from Rev Monteith, who knew Paul’s father and wishes to save the son of his boyhoodfriend. We’re introduced to Paul’s surprising stubborn streak—once he makes a decision, it’s done. He’s going and by golly, so are the Ward boys. What kind of mischief are they up to?  Will Mrs. Fenton’s first CLSC meeting be wrecked upon the shoals of Victorian class war?

It’s fascinating to watch the delicacy with which Pansy’s crusading characters navigate the quagmire of the rigid 19th century class system. They reach into that murky world, holding out a hand of help and love, but somehow remain untouched. Pansy attributes it to Christ’s protecting and keeping power; as they are doing His work, He allows them to move among these social lepers—drunkards, loose women, the desperately poor—without besmirching their innocence or compromising their characters. While the upper crust snobs in Pany’s works fret that lower class folks are venturing dangerously outside their proper spheres, her Christ-following heroes and heroines extend God’s grace to everyone in their path, keeping each divine appointment with grace and graciousness.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10