The Buccaneer in Nineteenth Century America

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Photo Credit: sdigitall/Depositphotos.com 

If you’ve read the first book of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, you might already be familiar with the term “buccaneer” as it pertains to the 19th century and to the Gilded Age in particular. Early in the book, there is gossip amongst the Nob Hill blue bloods about Malcolm Alderdice, the patriarch of the Alderdice family, and his rise in business and society:

“Oh, that poor Penelope, the woman was such a lamb!

“Too good for him for the likes of her father’s clerk, to be sure. Can’t think why she married him.”

“Oh, that’s obvious, my dear. Where there’s money to be had, rest assured, the buccaneer shall have it.”

“True, Catherine, true. And who can say how far the buccaneer will go to make himself one of us?”

So the buccaneer was a popular image in the 19th century Gilded Age, especially in the realms of the public sphere.

Ever since I started writing historical fiction, definitions and word origins fascinate me, and the word “buccaneer” is no exception. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as “any of the freebooters preying on Spanish ships and settlements especially in 17th century West Indies” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). This is the way I think many of us picture the buccaneer — something off of a pirate ship, a bad guy who looks like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

But in the 19th century, the word took on the more figurative meaning that exists today in our modern world which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “an unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). As I mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age here, the 19th century was a time when big businesses were built, millionaires were made, and corruption and graft abounded. It wasn’t just about spending money in an excessive, lavish way. It was also about making it — any way you could, whether it skirted the laws of fair trade or not.

In this atmosphere, the modern buccaneer was born. Ambitious, ruthless, and driven, the buccaneer was a wheeler-dealer whose only interest was getting ahead and making money. Thus, he often used unscrupulous business methods. Probably the most infamous of these in the 19th century were the Robber Barons. These were men like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan. In San Francisco, there were specifically four heavy hitters who made up the railroad Robber Barons: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington. 

We do, however, want to consider that these men, while ruthless in business, also did some good works. Many had the “pay it forward” attitude, and some of America’s most impressive institutions and cultural centers were built from their initiative. For example, Leland Stanford served as governor of California and instituted forest conservation and, as a believer in education, oversaw what is now San Jose State University and, of course, founded Stanford University.

And, interestingly, the term began to acquire less negative connotations around the mid-20th century, at least in Britain. According to this article from the BBC, several powerful corporate businessmen saw the term as connoting qualities of daring, adventure, and innovation.

While Malcolm Alderdice is not on the scale of Stanford or Carnegie, San Franciso society is none too keen to accept him into the fold, and this is part of the Alderdice family struggle in the series. There’s also another buccaneer who appears in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women. His name is Monte Leblanc, and he’s referred to by a minor character as “our cousin, the Canadian buccaneer”. His cousin (one of the San Francisco social matrons) insists he made his fortune “without ruffling any feathers”. Whether that’s true or not remains a question in the novel.

You can read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out next month, here. You can also learn about Malcolm Alderdice and his buccaneering ways in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, which is currently on sale for 99¢. And if you want to know more about the series in general, including Book 4, which will be coming out at the end of 2020, you can go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Buccaneer. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/buccaneer.

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The Great Rebellion: The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848

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Although this photo is from a later period in history, it nonetheless depicts one of the objections to women’s rights — that the “natural order of things” in terms of gender roles would be reversed and men would have to do the housework while women went out into the political arena.

Photo Credit: A woman wearing knickers (“pants”) and smoking a cigarette while her husband does the washing, 1901, Underwood & Underwood: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Underwood

Today marks the anniversary of the start of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the greatest rebellion of the 19th century: The Seneca Falls Convention. 

The convention derived from, interestingly, a moment of oppression. The World Anti-Slavery Convention took place in London in 1840 and two leaders of the American suffragist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, met there for the first time. Both were denied entry to the convention because the organizers decided to bar all women from attending. From this was born the idea in Cady Stanton and Mott’s minds to organize a convention at home to discuss women’s rights.

This event took place in Seneca Falls, New York on the weekend of July 19th and 20th in 1848 and became the first organized political gathering for women to discuss issues plaguing them at the time. You may recall that I talked here about the idea of suffragism (the right to vote). But was the convention really focused on women’s suffragism? Yes and no. Certainly, the right to vote was on the agenda, but as I mentioned in my blog post above, it wasn’t yet considered of the utmost importance as it would be later in the movement. What was high on the agenda was the idea that women were equal to men. You might recall from my discussion of the separate spheres that it was generally thought women were weaker than men emotionally and mentally, and therefore, their confinement to the private sphere was justified. So the idea that women were equal in every way was, as Cady Stanton declared, revolutionary indeed. 

To this end, the attendees of the convention (there were 300 of them) came up with a Declaration of Sentiments. The name, of course, suggests the Declaration of Independence, and this is no surprise, as the wording also stems directly from that document. You can read the entire Declaration fo Sentiments and see the names of some of the movers and shakers of the suffragist and abolitionist movements (including Frederick Douglass) who signed the declaration here.

Reactions to the convention were mixed. Some reporters and editors considered the idea of women meeting to talk about their rights as nothing short of lunacy. Others were afraid that it would lead to a gender role reversal (as the cartoon above shows). Still others, like the famous Horace Greenly of the New York Tribune, begrudgingly admitted that, revolutionary as it was, the suffragists might be on to something when they insist women were created to be equal to men in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although the convention wasn’t perfect (it was haphazardly organized and attended mainly by locals,) it gave rise to the idea that women’s rights were worth putting on the political agenda of the 19th century. Also, like the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique nearly 120 years later (which I talk about here), the convention triggered a movement that followed into the 20th century, creating not just one wave but several waves and generations of fighters for women’s rights. 

In honor of the 172nd birthday of the Seneca Falls Convention, I am putting my historical women’s fiction short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which reached #1 on Amazon’s Historical Fiction Short Stories category when it debuted, for sale! You can grab your copy of it here.        

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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Resort Life in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: The Beach and The Sea, Blankenberghe, Belgium, from “Views of Architecture and Other Sites in Belgium” catalogue, 1905, Detroit Publishing Company: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)    

“Get a thousand people crowded into one hotel … and let ’em buzz around—that seems to be the present notion of enjoyment.” (Warner, location 22)

If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter or have been reading my blog, you know Waxwood, the setting for the Waxwood Series, is a small seaside town that morphs into an exclusive resort town as the 19th century comes to a close (to read about the real town that inspired Waxwood, go here). Starting in Book 2, False Fathers, the Alderdices become one of the many wealthy Gilded Agers who make staying at a resort for the summer season part of their yearly agenda. 

My original conception of the series included the idea of the Alderdices spending their summers in a small resort town. But I didn’t realize that there was a thing such as resort life until I read Charles Dudley Warner’s book Their Pilgrimage. Warner was a contemporary of Mark Twain and, in fact, cowrote with Twain the book that coined the term “the Gilded Age” (which you can read more about here). Published in 1884, Warner’s book takes place at the height of this age and focuses on the rocky romance between a young man born to “old money” and a young woman of the “new money” class. The romance happens against a backdrop of resort town life, where King and his artist friend and the Bensons wander around from one hotel to another along the East Coast.

Resort life for the wealthy, as Warner depicts it, was relaxing, exciting, and, many times, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from harsh weather in their home town. And many did it because it was “the thing to do” among the wealthy. 

The idea of seeing and being seen was prevalent throughout the Gilded Age, and resort life offered just the platform for this. As one guest remarks to King, “‘So few women know how to listen; most women appear to be thinking of themselves and the effect they are producing’” (Warner, location 146). What people do or what they see seems less important than who they see and who they know. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced Gilded Age blue bloods a freedom to be themselves that they didn’t have at home. King himself observes, “[It] is precisely in hotels and to entire strangers that some people are apt to talk with less reserve than to intimate friends” (Warner, location 164). Away from the resorts, wealthy Gilded Agers had to watch what they said and did so as not to be shunned by their neighbors or get their names in the papers. But at a hotel, no one knew them, and they could loosen their grip a little bit.

Resort life was predominantly for women, though there were men and children as well. The hard-working, aggressively competitive Gilded Age man couldn’t take time off for vacations in the Gilded Age. Ironically, women found a level of release and independence in the resort hotels that they couldn’t have at home, with the rigid boundaries of the separate spheres:

“There was a preponderance of women, as is apt to be the case in such resorts… American men are too busy to take this sort of relaxation, and that the care of an establishment, with the demands of society and the worry of servants, so draw upon the nervous energy of women that they are glad to escape occasionally to the irresponsibility of hotel life. (Warner, location 68)

There were some who traveled year round, going to summer resorts in the winter and to winter resorts in the summer. Resort life was so popular that these hotels were often crowded to capacity during the season. Warner makes a keen observation about the atmosphere at these resort towns and hotels at the beginning and end of the season:

“The first man of the season is in such a different position from the last. He is like the King of Bavaria alone in his royal theatre… It is a very cheerful desolation, for it has a future, and everything quivers with the expectation of life and gayety… Nothing is so melancholy as the shabbiness of a watering-place at the end of the season, where is left only the echo of past gayety…” (Warner, location 276-281)

The resort towns, then, were aimed at offering luxury and leisure to their wealthy guests but became like ghost towns when those guests left.

The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age traveler Warner’s novel depicts. They come to Waxwood for summers, but their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco. But, like their blue blood companions, they take full advantage of the extravagances offered once they do arrive and, in more ways than one, they become different people immersed in resort life for even just that short a time.

You can read about the Alderdices’ experience of resort life in Book 2 of my series, False Fathers. Book 3, Pathfinding Women, coming out this summer, also gives you a sense of resort life in the last year of the 19th century. If you want to find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can check out this page.               

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Warner, Charles Dudley. Their Pilgrimage. 1884. A pubic domain book. Kindle digital file.

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The History of Father’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter), Ekvall Knut, 1843-1912, taken 11 April 2013 by Plum leaves: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the history of Mother’s Day. In honor of Father’s Day, which this year will be on Sunday, June 21 in the United States, I’m taking a look back at the history of Father’s Day too.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little more vague. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that are thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by Mother’s Day, which was becoming a popular holiday at that time, campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, largely wanting to commemorate her own father, who had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened on a wider but no less personal scale. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who were killed in a local mining explosion.

But as far as official lobbying and support goes, this was slow in coming. There were national political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge who supported a national Father’s Day, but these recommendations didn’t get much traction. There are several reasons for this. As many of us know, Mother’s Day has becomes a commercially viable holiday and was that way from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt that fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal as mothers, mainly because the sentiment attached to mothers from the long history of the separate spheres wasn’t attached to fathers. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th century was more of a teacher and disciplinarian. The same sentimentality also seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis, especially in the late 19th and early20th centuries. 

There were even some int he 1920’s and 1930’s who lobbied to abolish Mother’s Day and, instead, create an overarching Parent’s Day, arguing that it wasn’t the separate role of the mother, or the father, for that matter, that should be celebrated — it was the institution of parenthood that deserved the celebration (and my home country, Israel, went a step further and abolished Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the 1990’s in favor of Family Day). But the lobbying for a Father’s Day was strong and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Fathers play a role in my Waxwood Series, though in a less conventional way than in most books. In False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, Jake Alderdice’s biological father is absent and, instead, his entire life had been filled with substitute father figures. It’s one of these figures that leads him to both chaos and maturity in the book.

Want to grab a copy of the book for Father’s Day? False Fathers is at a special price through Sunday. You can find out more about it and buy it at your favorite online retailer here. To find out more about the series, you can go here.    

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Classic Corner: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)

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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~

I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.

When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.

The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.

The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.

Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923 

My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically. 

Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.

My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.

Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.

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