Saturday, December 28, 2013

Simplicity

The week has been busy, but good.  A chance to rest and relax.  There have been several really wonderful sunsets--it's nice when you have a chance to see and savor them.  And not from an office window.

I've been reading and knitting and taking long walks.  I've taken two, five-mile walks this week, in fact.  That will keep the holiday calories under control (more or less).

I stumbled upon an interesting find: the diaries of Emily Hawley Gillespie.  I found out about them because I was reading a book called Midnight Assassin (2005) by Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf.   It's about a murder that occurred in Iowa in 1900 that subsequently formed the basis for Susan Glaspell's play, "Trifles" (1916) and her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917).  Glaspell was one of the reporters assigned to cover the story.

In early December of 1900, an Iowa farmer, John Hossack, was bludgeoned with an ax while he lay sleeping in his bed.  He died several hours later of massive head-trauma.  

His children were asleep upstairs.  His wife, Margaret, was (allegedly) asleep next to him.  

Margaret was tried for murder.  She claimed the murderer must have been an intruder and that she had heard nothing.  The Hossacks had a history of quarrels and conflicts but, oddly enough, things had been quiet between them for over a year.  Family and neighbors reported that, although the Hossacks had once talked of separating, they seemed to have reconciled.

John Hossack was known as a strange and difficult man, although he was also a prominent member of the Iowa community in which they lived.  At several points, he had assaulted his wife Margaret and quarrelled extensively with their children.  More than once, Margaret had requested neighbors' assistance in dealing with John Hossack's violent rages.  There had been talk of having him committed to a mental institution.  But all of this seemed to have died down in the year prior to the murder.

While reading about the Hossack crime, I came across the diaries of Emily Hawley Gillespie.  Gillespie was the wife of an Iowa farmer: she moved to Iowa from Michigan when she married in 1862.  She kept a daily diary for--get this--30 years.  It's nearly 2500 pages long.  She began keeping it in 1858, when she was 19, and she only stopped writing in it shortly before she died, at age 49, in 1888.

It's not the kind of reading that most people would find interesting, I imagine, but I'm enjoying it.  No one has published her complete diary (obviously), but I'm reading "A Secret to Be Burried": The Diary and Life and Emily Hawley Gillespie, 1858-1888 (1989) by Judy Nolte Lensink.  

It's interesting to think about how much has changed and how different an American woman's sense of her own life and purpose would have been 125 years ago.  At age 19, Gillespie is relatively certain she won't marry; she marries five years later, and although all indications are that she loves her husband--at least initially--there are hints that she may realize her economic and social situation as a single woman simply isn't feasible anymore.  

It was particularly interesting to read Hawley's entries for Christmas at a time when American consumerism was running rampant all around me.  No gifts.  No cards.  No tree.  No decorations.  No celebration.  No huge meals of fat and and salt and sugar, washed down with booze (Gillespie was an advocate of temperance).  No nothing, really.  In some cases, Gillespie spent the day with family, but not always.  In most cases, she mused about where she might be a year later; often, she wondered if she would still be alive.

Which may sound rather morbid, but as you read her journal, you begin to realize that Gillespie was quite justified in her thinking.  In more than one case, young friends of Gillespie's, who seemed hale and hearty one day, suddenly died the next.  Gillespie regularly mentions sitting up at night to keep vigil over the corpses of friends or the children of friends.  Life was in no way guaranteed from one day to the next.

During the Civil War, more soldiers from Iowa died from disease than died in battle: many never saw combat.  A little over 13000 soldiers from Iowa died in the war, nearly 8500 of them from disease, 3540 from battle wounds (Lensink, 407).

What Gillespie had that we seem to have lost, however, is a penchant for dialogue and company and community.  As a single woman, she went out,  she "dated," and she enjoyed talking and interacting with friends of both sexes.  She wrote letters to friends; she kept an extensive journal.  She earned a teaching certificate and, after she married, she endured a difficult life, raising children and maintaining a (solvent) family farm, as her relationship with her husband deteriorated.

I think many people would read Gillespie's diary and think that her life was dull and difficult, and that we clearly have it better than she did.  And yes, in many ways, we do.  But I wonder whether we appreciate that fact for what it's worth, and whether, in the end, we squander many of the things that Gillespie and others of her time period would have cherished.

For all of our idealization of "the siimple life," Gillespie's diary made me very aware of the fact that such a life is often a very difficult one.  And yet, in its simplicity, there is much to be valued and respected, precisely because it is so hard-earned.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."