Legacy 21.1 (2004) 74-82
Denise M. Kohn
Like so many other once-prominent nineteenth-century women writers, Laura Jane Curtis Bullard seems to have fallen from history and memory. Curtis Bullard (1831-1912) was a novelist, editor, and activist who succeeded Susan B. Anthony as the editor of the suffrage newspaper, the Revolution, but she rarely exists even at the level of a footnote in books and articles about American social and literary history. One of the exceptions is Beneath the American Renaissance by David S. Reynolds, who declares, "Of all the oversights of literary and social historians of America, few are more heinous than the almost complete neglect of Laura Curtis Bullard" (393).
Fifteen years have passed since Reynolds praised Curtis Bullard, but her work and her life remain for the most part neglected. Yet her texts and life offer us exciting new opportunities to explore questions of popular and elite literature, the role of women in the literary marketplace, political debates about marriage, divorce, and free love, and the cultural history of the woman's rights movement in the nineteenth century.
Laura Jane Curtis was born, rather appropriately, in Freedom, Maine, on Nov. 21, 1831. She was the eldest of the five children of Lucy and Jeremiah Curtis (Mosher 17), who in the 1830s started a company in Bangor to sell Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, a morphine-based tonic used to soothe aches and pains, such as teething in children. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup later became one of the most popular patent medicines of the period, marketed through lush advertisements of mothers and children and an annual book of recipes. Indeed, the syrup became such a part of the popular culture that in 1879 Edward Elgar wrote a well-known adagio for wind quintet named "Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup," and A. E. Housman mentioned the medicine in his comic poem "The Shades of Night Were Falling Fast." While Jeremiah Curtis was building the family business, he was also politically active as an abolitionist, serving as vice president of the Liberty Party, also called the Abolitionist Party, in Maine ("The Movement"). In November 1847, when Laura was sixteen, Jeremiah Curtis ran—and lost quite soundly—as the Liberty Party candidate for a seat in Congress ("National Intelligencer"). In the early 1850s as his business continued to prosper, Jeremiah Curtis moved his company and family to New York City (Holcombe 116).
Jeremiah Curtis's political activism must have helped to inspire his daughter's interest in social responsibility and the rhetoric of rights and reform. By the time she was twenty-three, she had published her first novel, Now-a-days!, the story of a young woman, Esther Hastings, who rejects a marriage proposal and leaves Bangor after the death of her once-wealthy father to earn her living as a teacher in backwoods Maine. Although Esther cares for the people of Aroostock County, like so many antebellum social activists and workers, she also wants them to change to reflect her own middle-class education and values. Esther finds happiness in her work, but, at the very end of the novel, agrees to marry her former suitor, now a widower with children. Although Now-a-Days! has received very little critical attention, it deserves to be read within the framework of the female bildungsroman, pioneer stories, and the tradition of realism and regionalism, especially for Curtis Bullard's rich, historical detail of Maine backwoods life, the lumber industry, and representation of New England dialects.
Two years later in 1856, Curtis Bullard published the radical woman's rights novel Christine: or, Woman's Trials and Triumphs with DeWitt and Davenport of New York. Christine is a sensational story about a young woman who speaks out against the sexual exploitation of women and rejects her suitor when she learns he has seduced a young girl. Christine, the heroine, leaves her rural home and shocks her family and friends by becoming a woman's rights lecturer, opening a home for poor working women, and adopting a daughter. In the final few pages of the novel, her aged and wizened suitor returns, pledging his unrequited love. Christine...