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Eliza Calvert Hall

Eliza Calvert Hall: Kentucky Author and Suffragist

Lynn E. Niedermeier
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
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    Eliza Calvert Hall
    Book Description:

    In 1907, author, poet, essayist, and folk art historian Eliza Calvert Hall (1856--1935) publishedAunt Jane of Kentucky, a collection of stories about rural life infused with the spirit and gentle good humor of its elderly narrator, Aunt Jane. The book and several sequels achieved wide popularity, reaching an estimated one million readers in her lifetime, and placed Hall in the front ranks of "local color" fiction writers of her time.

    Eliza Calvert Hall's life and work unfolded during a time of restlessness and change for American women. Born Eliza "Lida" Calvert in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Hall experienced the upheaval of both the Civil War and family scandal. Forced to help support her mother and four siblings by teaching school, she became a published poet, adopting her grandmother's name, Hall, as her pseudonym. At twenty-nine, she married William A. Obenchain, and in the space of eight years gave birth to four children. As Hall struggled to balance her writing career with the duties of a nineteenth-century wife and mother, suffragist Laura Clay was lobbying for every woman's right to vote. Hall joined the battle, writing fearlessly in support of suffrage and equality. While her passionate essays served as a direct appeal for this cause, her creative writing also carried a feminist spirit, celebrating the strength, humor, love, and art of the common woman.

    InEliza Calvert Hal: Kentucky Author and Suffragistl, Lynn E. Niedermeier tells the story of this remarkable Kentuckian for the first time. Hall's challenge was to balance the artist's creative ambitions with the crusader's passion for achieving the goal of political equality for American women. Her successes did not stem from privilege or leisure; although she was an acclaimed writer, Hall was an ordinary woman, a wife and mother of moderate economic means. Through the power of her words, she challenged others to match her courage, independence, intellectual energy, and loyalty to her sex.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5925-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-3)

    “A HUMAN LIFE IS THE MOST interesting thing in the world,” Eliza Calvert Hall once observed in reaction to the biography of a fellow author.¹ This book seeks to show— for what it tells us about the times of an ordinary Kentucky woman who resolved to be a writer and a feminist in the late nineteenth century— that no more interesting life can be chronicled than that of Eliza herself.

    Eliza Calvert Hall was the pen name of Eliza “Lida” Calvert Obenchain, whose fame crested with her 1907 collection of stories,Aunt Jane of Kentucky.Appearing in at least thirty-three...

  5. 1 Fighting and Preaching
    (pp. 4-11)

    THUS DOES AUNT JANE HESITATE, but only briefly. Remembering that two generations have passed through the “mills of God”—the men much more noisily than the women—to provide grist for her tale, she begins with them. Had she to tell the story of Lida Calvert Obenchain, Aunt Jane would settle happily upon the same starting point.¹

    The only grandparent still living at Lida’s birth was her paternal grandmother, Eliza Caroline Hall Calvert. The oldest of nine children, Eliza was born in 1804 in Iredell County, North Carolina, where her father, Thomas James Hall, was a pastor and teacher. When...

  6. 2 “It Did Not Look as We Had Pictured You”
    (pp. 12-24)

    THOMAS CALVERT’S TWENTIETH BIRTHDAY present was a job offer: early in 1846 the owner of a stagecoach company asked him to act as an agent to accommodate passengers disembarking from Cumberland River steamboats. The job, however, was in Nashville, Tennessee, some seventy miles south of Bowling Green. Like his father, Thomas could not look ahead without thinking first of the sorrows attending such a significant change in circumstances. Complicating the prospect of separation from his mother, two sisters, and two brothers was the possibility that nervous creditors would seize the property he was leaving behind for his family’s support. After...

  7. 3 Exile
    (pp. 25-38)

    THOMAS’S FLIGHT LEFT HIS VICTIMS beneath a mountain of bookkeeping puzzles and legal proceedings. Indictments filed in the circuit court formally charged him with embezzlement. In mid-December 1870, the bankruptcy court transferred all of Thomas’s property to two assignees and instructed them to liquidate his extensive real estate interests. The assignees were also forced to assume the prosecution or defense of numerous lawsuits in which Thomas had become involved in the course of his business or as a result of his collapse. Unable to meet its liabilities, the Bank of Bowling Green soon followed Thomas into bankruptcy. The Shakers recovered...

  8. 4 The Major
    (pp. 39-50)

    ON SEPTEMBER 15, 1879, Josie Calvert recorded in her diary that her oldest sister had received a fifteen-dollar check from the editors ofScribner’s Monthlymagazine. Expecting that her submission of two poems more than a week earlier “should not come to anything,” Josie wrote, Lida “had not told—but when she received 7½ dollars apiece she could not keep it from us a minute.” Thanks to the magazine’s liberal policy of payment on acceptance, the Calverts suddenly found themselves richer by the modern-day equivalent of some $ 285.¹

    Though she rightly regarded publication as improbable, Lida made a sensible...

  9. 5 Cook, Scullion, Nurse, Laundress
    (pp. 51-62)

    ON HER WEDDING DAY, Lida’s legal status changed from that offeme sole,or single woman, tofeme covert,or married woman. In only a few respects was the event not a watershed. Her civic obligations, for example, remained light; the fact of her sex, rather than her marital status, ensured that she would not be drafted into political office, summoned for jury service, or allowed near the ballot box. Otherwise, marriage reconstituted the former schoolteacher by placing her, as the Anglo-French term suggested, under cover—specifically, under the care and protection of her husband. In practical terms, he was...

  10. 6 Straight to a Woman’s Heart
    (pp. 63-81)

    AFTER EMBRACING THE PRINCIPLE of women’s equality, Laura Clay had spent several years contemplating what she should do to aid in its realization. She attended college in order to prepare herself intellectually and learned to support herself on farmland leased from her father. For most of her life, she would weave her participation in suffrage campaigns in between cycles of planting and harvesting. She never married.¹

    Upon taking her stand, Lida, by contrast, saw her role in narrower terms. Not only was abandonment of her family out of the question, but the duties of middle-class domesticity, which included year-round housekeeping...

  11. 7 Money and Marriage
    (pp. 82-92)

    “I AM GETTING FAMOUS RAPIDLY,” wrote Lida in August 1894 to her sister Josie, who was visiting Mary Kendall Jones in Missouri. Over the past six months, Eliza Calvert Hall had published three essays inKate Field’s Washingtonand two poems, one inKate Field’sand another in theArena,a review devoted to issues of interest to reformers. Two submissions under Lida’s own name had also appeared in theWoman’s Journaland theWoman’s Tribune.Her home life was somewhat unsettled: money was scarce, the Major and young Alex were in Virginia, her sister Mary had been seriously ill,...

  12. 8 Sally Ann’s Experience
    (pp. 93-105)

    “COME RIGHT IN AN’ SET DOWN. I was jest wishin’ I had somebody to talk to. Take that chair right by the door so s you can get the breeze.” With the opening sentences of “Sally Ann’s Experience,” Eliza Calvert Hall introduces one of that species of plain southern folk whose isolation has cultivated both her sense of hospitality and her talent for storytelling. The invitation is extended to the story’s unnamed female narrator—an outsider, but one who enters this scene of rural homeliness without condescension or unease. It is June in Kentucky, and even though clover and bluegrass...

  13. 9 A Jumble of Quilt Pieces
    (pp. 106-119)

    A WEEK AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH, former West Point cadet Edward Calvert began the military career that would steer him through the rest of his life. Enlisting as a private in the army, he was assigned to the First U.S. Cavalry and sent to train in South Carolina. Seeing him pass through Columbia, a friend of Maggie’s remarked on the plainspokenness he had already displayed in his letters from the Tennessee Centennial; Maggie should tell her brother, she wrote, not to refer to a Confederate veteran as a “rebel,” since “he fought for the cause he thought was right.” At...

  14. 10 Aunt Jane of Kentucky
    (pp. 120-130)

    EVEN AFTER BECOMING PRESIDENT, Theodore Roosevelt read at least one book every day. His tastes were as far-ranging as his youthful adventures in the West: novels, poetry, ancient and modern history, essays, speeches, memoirs, and biography, in both English and French. His light reading showed the influence of his mother and aunt, refined daughters of Georgia who had shared with him their anecdotes and nostalgic tales of the Old South. As a consequence, Roosevelt’s volumes of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe were likely to occupy the shelf alongside Bret Harte, Octave Thanet, Owen Wister, and “the quaint,...

  15. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  16. 11 Seeing Double
    (pp. 131-147)

    WHILE THEWOMAN’S JOURNALfound a suffrage argument encoded inAunt Jane of Kentucky,another periodical noted an element missing from Eliza Calvert Hall’s stories. Her tales of rural life, theArenaassured its more discriminating readers, were honest representations of the genre, but a “striking omission,” namely the “absolute absence of the negro from the canvas on which Aunt Jane’s pictures of the old days are painted,” detracted materially from their “wonderful living reality.” TheNew York Times,on the other hand, remarked uncritically upon the same absence, praising the stories for evoking the “sentiment of two generations ago...

  17. 12 A Woman Spinning and Weaving
    (pp. 148-160)

    AFTER LIDA GAVE UP her duties as KERA press superintendent, Laura Clay quickly found a replacement in Dr. Louise Southgate, a Covington physician, teacher, and public health advocate. In early 1910 Margaret Weissinger, a niece of the senator who had sponsored the 1894 married women’s property bill, succeeded Dr. Southgate and accomplished a feat that had regularly eluded Lida. Miss Weissinger’s efforts, reported Laura, were finally gaining a hearing for the suffrage cause in the “hitherto difficult to reach” Louisville newspapers.¹

    TheCourier-Journalhad, in fact, recently endorsed school suffrage, but this concession was largely a tribute to the work...

  18. 13 Riding to Town
    (pp. 161-173)

    “I RECKON KENTUCKIANS are the biggest fools in the world when it comes to their own state,” Aunt Jane once told her visitor. “Sam Amos used to say that if you’d set a born-and-bred Kentuckian down in the Gyarden of Eden he’d begin to brag about his farm over in the blue-grass.” A trip away from home, she acknowledged, was useful for giving her a topic of conversation without having to think back forty years, but she had returned from a visit to her granddaughter unshaken in her conviction that “this old house and this old farm is the only...

  19. 14 “Be Glad You Are Not a Woman”
    (pp. 174-187)

    WILLIAM ALEXANDER OBENCHAIN died early in the morning of August 17, 1916. Later that day, while Cecil slept and Lida waited for Alex’s train to arrive, she finished a letter to Otto Rothert. She had been prepared for the end. “I have watched the Major die by inches for five months and a half,” she wrote, “and I am glad his release has come.” Margery and Tom were unable to travel from Texas, but the Major’s brother, Francis Obenchain, was expected from Chicago in time for the funeral. Although the Major favored cremation on economic and sanitary grounds, his family...

  20. 15 Grandmother’s Debut
    (pp. 188-199)

    EVEN AS SHE COMPLAINED that Margery’s children were a “stumbling block” to her work, Lida had notified her sisters in July 1918 of her first new fiction sinceClover and Blue Grass.“I shall have a little story in theWoman’s Home Companion,”she announced, “but I don’t know just when.” Given its subject matter, the editors had probably decided to delay publication until actual events, including a Senate vote on the Anthony amendment, could supply a happy ending for its main character. “Grandmother’s Debut,” nevertheless, stood on its own as Lida’s tribute to the courage and humanity of the...

  21. 16 A Hard Worker All Her Life
    (pp. 200-211)

    ONLY TWO WEEKS AFTER boasting to Otto Rothert of her robust health, Lida entered Baylor Hospital for treatment of bronchitis. For all concerned, the illness was something of a blessing. Lida found that the ministrations of a modern health care institution agreed with her and was satisfied to remain there until fully recovered. With a good nurse looking after the children, Val continued his frequent business travel, and Cecil, on whom the principal burdens of her mother’s convalescence might otherwise have fallen, was able to attend to her own work. Upon her return to Dallas after the end of her...

  22. Epilogue
    (pp. 212-216)

    THE DAY AFTER HER DEATH, Lida was memorialized in a simple ceremony amid tributes of poinsettias and lilies. Although she had made known her wish to be cremated, Tom arranged for her to be buried in Dallass Grove Hill Cemetery near Margery. Cecil was not present; reluctant to oblige his sister to retrace a journey she had made only days earlier, Tom had refrained from telephoning, and his telegram did not reach her in time for her to attend. Alex, too, was out of reach but intentionally so; over the past year he had been drifting through Texas and the...

  23. Appendix: Calvert and Younglove Family Members
    (pp. 217-220)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 221-264)
  25. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 265-276)
  26. Index
    (pp. 277-286)