- Reading “Connectedly”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Index, and Her Librarian-Father
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was always quick to note that she descended from a family of public speakers. As the great-granddaughter of Lyman Beecher, the father of thirteen children including three prominent daughters who were among the leading social reformers and public speakers of the nineteenth century, Gilman had much to be proud of with her ancestry.1 She liked to credit her “Beecher blood” for her oratorical skills, once writing to her daughter, “My speaking is pure heredity. The result of generations of ministers.”2 On the lecture circuit, she explained, she “had plenty to say and the Beecher faculty for saying it.”3 And she was not shy about using that faculty as a marketing tool. As scholars have long noted, she presented herself to the public as a new voice in the Beecher tradition, a refined and pure extension of a long line of progressive reformers.4
But for all the attention that Gilman and Gilman scholars have drawn to her ancestry, almost nothing has been written about her librarian-father, the most direct (if not clearest) link between her and the Beecher family. Part of this has to do with a lack of information about their relationship, not to mention the fact that as a father he was virtually nonexistent. For most of her childhood and adolescence, Gilman knew him only as a name, an institution, and an address: Frederick Beecher Perkins, Public Library, Boston, between 1875 and 1880; and after 1880, “Mr. F. B. Perkins, Public Library, San Francisco,” as she addressed one envelope.5 Having left the family when she was six, he existed to his daughter mostly on paper—the subject of letters that he only rarely, and always briefly, reciprocated. At fifteen, she wrote him letters that expressed her desire for more letters, longer letters, letters with money, letters with advice: “Please write a real [End Page 210] long letter to me,” she urged in one; “Now I want to have a nice long talk with you,” she pleaded in another.6 But the “long letter” and the “long talk” never materialized. Her letters remained a soliloquy.
“The word Father,” she later explained, “in the sense of love, care, one to go to in trouble, means nothing to me, save indeed in advice about books and the care of them—which seems more the librarian than the father” (6). She knew him primarily in his function as an editor and librarian of books, where as a symbolic and cultural authority he worked to construct systems of rationality and keep those systems in working order. While he was less famous than his Beecher relatives, he was nevertheless a formidable figure in the history of library science: a professional man of letters who spent a career working to classify and organize knowledge, controlling how it was accessed. For this reason, and this reason alone perhaps, his relevance to Gilman’s career, Gilman scholarship, and the culture of realism deserves serious reconsideration. For whether conscious or unconscious, positive or negative, strong or weak, his influence on his daughter remains an inescapable problem for Gilman scholars. As I see it, his bibliographic function as a librarian sheds light on the media and metaphors that his daughter later turned to as a means to understand the inner workings of her own mind.
Perhaps only one thing can be said with certainty: F. B. Perkins ran through his daughter’s mind and body in ways that literary analysis is not equipped to handle. And it is not my intention to pretend otherwise. Literary studies can do many things, but it cannot surrender books, papers, letters, and diaries for the materials of genetic science, or the guesswork of bad psychology; and even if it could, it would immediately cease to be literary, having stripped the field of its materials and support. So rather than putting forth a strong thesis on the influence that Perkins might (or might not) have had on his daughter, perhaps a weak question is more appropriate for the occasion at hand. It is a question that Gilman herself began to ask her...