- Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834–1907 by Carolyn Newton Curry
"To what end am I destined?" (51). In her senior year at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia, seventeen-year-old Ella Gertrude Clanton was in a pensive mood as she contemplated her life up to that point and wondered what the future had in store for her. The pampered daughter of one of Georgia's wealthiest planters, she had so far lived a life of relative ease and comfort. Even as a girl, however, Gertrude had revealed a keen intelligence and degree of introspection unusual in one so young. Happily for historians, she began a diary in 1848, at the age of fourteen, that she would keep on and off until 1889. When she pondered her future, as she did on the eve of her college graduation in 1851 (a year before marrying James [End Page 724] Jefferson Thomas), she could not have imagined the dramatic changes that would occur in her life over the coming decades; the war and its aftermath wreaked havoc on her family, and she endured numerous hardships, including financial ruin, a disappointing marriage, extreme family strife, and the deaths of her beloved father and four of her ten children. Through it all, Gertrude Thomas turned to her journal as a source of solace and self-expression. Finally, in middle age, she found a new source of joy and satisfaction as she threw herself into working and writing on behalf of several women's organizations and reform efforts, most notably the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, work that ultimately led her to promote the cause of women's suffrage. She was elected president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in 1899 and earned recognition for her efforts on behalf of women's right to vote from such national luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw.
Historians have long valued Thomas's diary for its insights into the life of a privileged young woman coming of age in the antebellum South and living through the upheaval of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Somewhat surprisingly, however, until now Thomas had never been the subject of a full-length biography. Fortunately, in Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834–1907, Carolyn Newton Curry has provided scholars and interested readers with a well-researched and elegantly written biography of Thomas. Curry has successfully mined not only Thomas's diary but also the extensive scrap-books that Thomas kept during later years, as well as court records detailing the financial rise and fall of her family, to explore Thomas's life from early childhood on plantations near Augusta, Georgia, where she was born in 1834, through the impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on her and her family, and finally to the evolution of Thomas's public writing and reform work, mostly centering on the needs and rights of women, in late-nineteenth-century Augusta and Atlanta. Even as the journals, court records, and scrapbooks are at the heart of Curry's study, this is a fully contextualized account that utilizes broad primary and secondary research to interpret Thomas's life and is thereby an outstanding addition to current scholarship on the nineteenth-century South and southern white women's experiences—and transformations—from the Old South to the New.
As she details in her introduction, Curry has been intrigued with Thomas's life for more than thirty years—she was first the subject of Curry's dissertation at Georgia State University in the 1980s—and Curry's deeply felt connection with Thomas, in addition to her extensive knowledge of her subject, is evident throughout Suffer and Grow Strong. One of the most [End Page 725] valuable aspects of Curry's contribution is that she shows us the clear connections between Thomas's own personal struggles and suffering during and...