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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 172-189

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The Names of the Flowers

Ruby Hemenway's Redemption of History

Ruby M. Hemenway (1884-1987), who was declared "the oldest newspaper columnist in the universe" in a 1984 article in Yankee Magazine, specialized in the restoration of long-forgotten facts about life in late-nineteenth-century rural New England. Such knowledge included how people outfitted their sleighs with buffalo robes and how women crimped the edges of their pies. Hemenway was a major source for the Dictionary of American Regional English, owing to her nearly encyclopedic command of an antiquated local nomenclature. In one of her columns published in the Greenfield, Massachusetts, Recorder, Hemenway once offered this suggestion with regard to wildflowers: "I hope you can call them, like your friends, by name; they mean so much more." Her attention to the names of the flowers, to the anchoring of specifics of daily existence generally, is not merely antiquarianism, but rather a deliberate challenge to history as it is practiced. I argue that her writing effectively trumps the predilection for abstraction and interpretation with a preference for practical and very local knowledge as history.1

In this essay, I offer a close and comparative reading of Ruby Hemenway's news columns with attention to her sensory representation of the past "for its own sake." Her work is relevant to current investigations of twentieth-century literature and vernacular expression for two discrete but related reasons. First, her preference for enumerated and sharply defined images of turn-of-the- century rural life seems to be based in part on her refusal to grant excessive value to abstract, allegedly more "meaningful" history. This refusal, I will argue, allies her with contemporary feminist historiography. Second, because of Hemenway's close examinations of detail and consistent avoidance of history's larger themes, her columns present us with a version of the past in which local interests are served and national interests are in the margins. In this respect, Hemenway shares a vision shared with other late-nineteenth-century local colorists, and her unselfconscious preference for the detailed, window-into- [End Page 172] the-past approach to history suggests a mode of resistance to professionalized history.

Born and raised on her family's small farm in the upland community of North Leverett, in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts, Ruby Hemenway never thought or spoke of herself as a professional writer or historian, and she spent most of her working life employed as a dietician at Bridgewater State College, across the state. Nearly thirty years passed between her retirement and her return to western Massachusetts in 1944, where she eventually made her debut as a published writer. By 1984, when she wrote her last columns, she had produced hundreds of pages of reminiscences, highly original in their personal tone and for their breadth and scope of historical information. Never once missing a deadline, she dutifully produced over five hundred of her "I Remember When... " columns between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, completing each one in longhand and then handing it off directly to her editor, who paid her a weekly visit for that purpose.

Hemenway began her career as a columnist almost accidentally. She had contributed some of her reminiscences to another author's columns, and upon that writer's retirement she was invited to begin writing her own. The columns she wrote for the Greenfield Recorder spanned the genres of memoir, popular history, and antique catalogue, sometimes spanning these genres between her lead sentence and her closing line of a single column. What her columns had in common with one another was their consistent focus on things and on the stories behind these things. Without having to reach beyond the pages of their local daily newspaper, readers of "I Remember When... "—who numbered in the tens of thousands—learned what many of us have come to know only lately and as the result of considerable scholarly debate. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich points...