Social History: Putting the Human Element Back into History

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Photo Credit: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, 1872, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust, UK: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

I’m starting out this year as a revisionist (in a sense). I’m revising my perspective on my writing and my passion for history by examining what really makes them tick. For those who have been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve had several transformations in the past years. I started out in 2017 as a contemporary literary fiction writer believing in psychological reality in fiction, something I am still fascinated by and still incorporate in much of my fiction. Then I discovered a way to transform my passion for history, especially women’s history, into stories about resilient women and the nooks and crannies of history that don’t always come up in historical fiction. 

Last year, I completed the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga set among San Francisco’s elite. I discovered that my real passion for history lies more in its social and psychological aspects rather than its politics and events. Those terms can sound a little vague and academic, so this month, I’ll be talking about what social history is and what it means in my fiction.

Let’s begin with a simple definition: Social history is history with the human element thrown in. Not that political or economic history isn’t about humans, as all history inevitably is. But you’re more likely to read a book about or set in the Civil War, say, where the people or characters are players in the big event. Social history looks at the people who participated in history, how they were affected by it, and how they influenced it. In my Civil War example, a novel might be about African American soldiers (actual or fictional) and their daily struggles not only with the war itself but with the racism surrounding them on the battlefield, forsaking a more blow-by-blow account of the events of the war. Social history gives us a window into the way people lived and breathed in their time and, sometimes, the values and beliefs they held that we want to acquire or release in the 21st century.

Social history is actually an academic field of study that emerged in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t much of a surprise, since much of the social awareness that emerged during these times required knowledge of the past. For example, the Civil Rights movement was built on the oppression and heinous crimes of slavery and on racism not only of the present but of the past. Similarly, the second-wave feminist movement, as I discuss here, took the issues the 19th-century suffragists were fighting for to the next level.

When I say I focus more on social history than on political and economic history, I mean that how my characters live and relate to their environment matters to me. The more academic perspective of social history often looks at the bigger picture, like the movements, systems, and structures of history. These are important, but I also find the way people related to these social structures and lived within them (or rebelled against them) is part of what makes history so fascinating and relevant to us today. 

Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the Waxwood Series, is a great example. Like many 19th century women, she is locked in social systems and structures with very rigid definitions of what women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a member of the Nob Hill elite, adhering to the social norms of the aristocratic class (which is especially true in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women). Later, she moves into suffragism and progressivism, but, just as she had to revise her position in her Nob Hill world, she also has to examine her values and beliefs against those of her new world (which you can read about in the last book of the series, Dandelions). 

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, social history plays a huge role. The series begins in the first years of the 20th century when many people were still reluctant to leave behind Victorian values for the complexity and fears of the modern. Like Vivian, the series main character is a social reformer, and when she moves from San Francisco to the small, dusty town of Arrojo, her forward-thinking ideas aren’t always embraced, appreciated, or understood. 

You can find out more about that series here. The first two books of the Waxwood Series, which were re-edited and refreshed in 2020, are here and here

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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“The Most Beautiful Train in the World”: The Coast Daylight in the Mid-20th Century

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Photo Credit: Postcard of the Noon Daylight leaving San Francisco, 1949, Jim Fraiser, Los Angeles, CA: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Today, trains seem like one of those quaint, old-fashioned things we reminisce about. But if you’re a writer or reader of historical fiction (or, for that matter, a fan of classic films), trains seem as real as the SUVs and 747s of today.

There’s a romance attached to trains, and this is something I wanted to capture in my story “Soul Destinations,” which is part of the collection in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. The story takes place in the mid-1950s, when more modern forms of transportation were starting to become popular (such as cars and planes). Joan, the protagonist of the story, is the old-fashioned kind, and her dreams of traveling begin with a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I was happy to find in my research that there was an actual train that traveled that route during this era, in fact, quite a famous one.

The train, run by the Southern Pacific, was called the Coast Daylight, or, simply, “the Daylight”. The Daylight’s first run was in 1937, and it soon rose in popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The train was indeed advertised as “the most beautiful train in the world” because of the amazing California scenery that graces the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco (which, if you’ve been fortunate enough to travel the Pacific Coast Highway, you may have seen). The train ride in the mid-20th century was about 10 hours, so people had a lot of time to sit back and enjoy the coastal views and mountains rolling past their windows, to read or sleep or chat or do some soul searching. And they could do it in a luxurious style that I think hardly any train (and certainly no car or plane) can boast today. If you’re curious, here are some photos from the era of the inside of the Daylight passenger cars. They look pretty comfy to me!

Photo Credit: Southern Pacific steam locomotive at Jack London Square in Oakland, CA, May 1981, taken by Drew Jacksich: Flickr upload bot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The Daylight was also pulled, for a while, by one of the most famous steam engines in America, the 4449 steam engine. It has a futuristic look to it that immediately reminds one of the old 1950s sci-fi films and TV shows (The Jetsons, anyone?) The locomotive was used to pull the American Freedom train in 1976 which traveled all over the county in what made up a moving museum, with lots of American relics on it, stopping at many cities so people could admire them. The 4449 now rests in a museum in Portland. You can see it and learn a bit more about its history here.

The Daylight isn’t only a practical means of transportation for Joan, the protagonist of “Soul Destination” but it’s also symbolic of the journey she and Gary, an aging musician, take into their own pasts that end, as most trains do, at a new destination:

“Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

For both of them, the Daylight, then isn’t just a physical destination, but a psychological one as well.

The Daylight, unfortunately, went the way most trains did later in the 20th century, when both car and plane travel became more popular, efficient, and time-saving. In 1971, Amtrak took over the few remaining Daylight trains and turned them into the Coast Starlight, A 35-hour train from Seattle to Los Angeles that still runs today.

To read “Soul Destinations” and the other four stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, plus an author’s note and a sample chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, go here.   

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Art in Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: Vintage art flea market, created 2 March 2014, uploaded 24 October 2016: teliatan/Pixabay/Pixabay license

If you’ve read some of my books, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to make associations. I’m drawn to different works of art that often times relate to my characters and help bring out their psychological reality. For example, in False Fathers, the myth of Actaeon and Diana plays a heavy role symbolically in Jake’s story (something you can read more about here and here). 

I usually don’t plan these things ahead of time. During the outline or first draft phases of my writing, certain associations will come to me, and I’ll research a myth, book, artwork, musical piece, etc., and realize the symbolic and/or thematic significance of it and then weave it into the story. Sometimes it becomes something major (like the myth of Actaeon and Diana), and sometimes it gets only a mention. 

Although literature is my usual comfort zone, I also find certain works of art fascinating, and two of these found their way symbolically and thematically in two of the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Photo Credit: The Nightmare, Henri Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old)   

A painting I found a while back while looking for images for my old blog site that absolutely intrigued me was Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. I actually did use it for a time until I got my logo and put that on the site. The painting, as you can see above, has very gothic, dark undertones reminiscent of popular late 18th century gothic novels (and the painting was indeed created during that time period). As described in this article, the painting was shocking in its immoral and sexual undertones when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781. The painting appears in my story “Soul Destinations” where Gary, an aging musician haunted by ghosts from his father’s past, tries to explain to Joan, the woman he meets on a train, about a hallucinatory demon named Lucas that exists in his father’s mind:

“Have you ever seen Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare?” Joan nodded. “That woolly demon sitting on the sleeping woman in white,” said Gary. “That’s Lucas. Always crouched over someone with those hollow, evil eyes and that twisted mouth.”

Lucas becomes a symbol for Gary of many things: his failing musical career, his father’s unstable mental health, and the tragedy of a man he never met caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: The Disquieting Muses, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916-1918, The Hidden Art Treasure: 150 Italian Masterpieces, Exhibition in Naples, March, 2017: Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain

The other painting that makes an appearance in Lessons is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses, which appears in my story “Two Sides of Life.” The painting depicts two of the nine mythical Muses of Greek mythology: Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy (representing by the sitting muse with the red mask lying near her feet) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (who stands beside what looks like a straight candy cane, which represents her staff). The picture, even with its brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and greens, is disturbing in its abstractions of the faceless, bald muses. 

However, the protagonist of the story, an empty-nester named Leanne, sees the muses differently in a sculpture inspired by de Chirico’s painting shown to her by her husband’s lab assistant, an art enthusiast:

“I’m not familiar with the Muses,” she admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be.” He smiled, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked like a grasshopper resting on a tree stump. “The one with the sword is Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Her sister, Thalia, is the Muse of Comedy.”

“I see,” Leanne murmured. “The two sides of life. Sadness and joy.”

Leanne later relates this idea of two sides of life in her connection with Arlene, a woman who is a generation younger than she is and has only disdain for the women of the Occupation: Housewife era.

I first heard of de Chirico’s painting through reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Disquieting Muses”. The painting is striking, through not really my style (I prefer more classical paintings like The Nightmare). Plath’s poem, like my story, appropriates the painting in a different way. You can listen to Plath reading the poem herself here.

If you want to read these stories, feel free to pick up a copy of Lessons From My Mother’s Life. Buy links can be found here.       

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A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

March is National Women’s History Month, where we look at all the accomplishments of women past generations. And we certainly have had a lot we’ve had to accomplish! 

I thought I’d do a survey of some of the important women’s issues throughout the years, particularly focusing on some of the eras that I’ve written about like the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. There is so much we can say about women’s struggles throughout history, but there are issues that have always interested me and that have affected women’s psychological and social presence and progress more than others.

In the mid-19th century, the first dregs of organized suffragism emerged with names now branded in history such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I introduced the struggles of women’s suffragism during this time in this blog post . During the 19th century, much of the effort was focused on one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. The fact that women were fighting for this one fundamental but critical aim says a lot about how women were seen in the 19th century, and I talk here about the psychological and social ideology behind how women were treated during this era. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, when progressive movements were taking center stage, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. They continued to fight for the vote for women and achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. But the Progressive Era also brought awareness to many women that it wasn’t just about the right to vote and have a voice in the public sphere. It was also about a psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th century rigid definitions of femininity that limited what women could and could not do and be. Thus emerged a new image of the New Woman who was active, athletic, and could move her mind and body more freely than her mothers and grandmothers.

If we jump to the mid-20th century, we find that things aren’t so empowering. After the fight for women’s suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post World War II generation brought it back. During this time, there emerged what Betty Friedan labeled the feminine mystique. Magazines, advertisements, the media, and the medical establishment all pushed forward the idea that women’s place was in the home and their identities tied up in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, caretakers — in short, in their relationships to others rather than in and of themselves. Friedan found that these women in American suburbs who were living a life that fulfilled this destiny were not happy and suffered from what she labeled The Problem That Has No Name. This was a problem of discontentment, as many of these women felt that something missing from their lives that they couldn’t define.

Friedan’s book and others which identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppressions of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Up until then, I had very little sense of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. This wasn’t because I grew up in a very liberated household. On the contrary, my well-meaning parents followed a very patriarchal model, both having come of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded with the characters’ psychological reality, even when the story was about something entirely different. For example, in False Fathers, the second book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series, the novel focuses on a male character, but the story also contains mentions of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, whose awareness of women’s oppression is beginning to infiltrate her consciousness. This is a theme I will explore much more in the third and last books of the series coming out later this year. Similarly, my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, the five stories were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique and the idea of The Problem That Has No Name.

You can order Lessons at a special preorder price now on this page. You can also find out more about the Waxwood Series here=. And I’ll be launching a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth in the future, which you can find out more about here.     

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100 Years of Identity Crisis

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This flier, published in the early 20th century, takes the argument of the separate spheres and the post World War II generation (that women belong in the home) and uses it as an argument as to why women belong outside of the home as well.

Photo Credit: Women in the Home flier, created by the Woman Suffrage Party of the city of New York, 1897-1911, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain Certification

“[A]s the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.” (Friedan, p. 77)

I’ve been talking a lot in the last month or so about two historical concepts related to women and gender that were the inspiration for many of the stories and themes in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. They both come from Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The first is what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name,” an unidentifiable something that was wrong with the 1950s housewife whose life was supposed to be so fulfilling and so perfect. I wrote about that here. The other was the idea of the feminine mystique, an idealization of women in which their only destiny was as wives and mothers, which I discuss here

While I was reading Friedan’s book, I had a sense of déjà vu, like “um, haven’t I seen this stuff before?” In writing the stories in Lessons, it hit me why the characters were so familiar to me. It’s because the idea of the feminine mystique reminded me of the idea of the separate spheres I discussed a while back in this blog post. You might recall this concept (which originated in the 18th century but gained ground in the 19th century) was about women and men belonging in separate areas of life: men in the public sphere (politics, finance, law, etc) and women in the private sphere (home, church). The idea was that each gender fulfilled his/her destiny within that limited sphere and any man or woman venturing into the other’s sphere was considered improper at best, an abnormality at worst (like the New Woman caricatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where women were pictured in bloomers, smoking cigarettes, and standing over their poor, overworked husbands while the men washed the dishes wearing aprons). 

Similarly, women of the 1950s, especially American suburban housewives were told by everyone and everything around them that their one identity in life was as an ultra-feminine wife and mother and their place was in the home. But, like their Victorian sisters, they felt uneasy about this and that something was wrong with this picture. Friedan, who compares the  the 1950s housewife and the feminine mystique to the Victorian woman and sex, notes: 

“The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies lived simply left out sex. Does the image by which modern American women live also leave something out, the proud and public image of the high-school girl going steady, the college girl in love, the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children?” (Friedan, p. 24)

It is, in fact, what the ideal left out that encouraged the women’s suffragist movement to gain more support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually leading to legislative changes, specifically, the ratification of the 19th amendment in America in 1920. It was also partly Friedan’s ideas about the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name that led to the second-wave women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, sparked by slogan “the personal is political” which completely overturned the concept of the separate spheres by insisting there were in fact no separate spheres. Both were equal in weight for both genders.

Some of the women in the stories from Lessons have to contend with not only the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name, but also with the antiquated idea of the separate spheres. For example, in “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan’s husband-to-be, a medical student, teases her about her desire to see “something cultural” during a weekend visit to San Francisco. Culture was considered the public sphere in the 19th century and Susan’s attempts to enter it earn her well-meaning fiancé’s doubt and mockery nearly one hundred years later. 

To read more about Susan and the other women in the stories, you can buy Lessons From My Mother’s Life at a special preorder price here. If you’d like to read more about another character, Leanne, you can read this blog post.        

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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