- The Story of a Life
The Sea Captain's Wife begins, appropriately enough, with Emily Dickinson's famous lines: "I'm Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you—Nobody—Too?" Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly was, in many respects, an ordinary woman in nineteenth-century America. Born on a farm in Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1831, she was one of eight children. Eunice worked hard for most of her life in the cotton mills of New England, as a seamstress, washerwoman, and domestic. Her life was also conventional, Martha Hodes suggests, because she yearned to climb out of poverty, make a stable marriage, and find comfort in hearth, home, and motherhood. What makes her unique is her decision to cross the color line, marry Captain William Smiley Connolly in 1869, and move to Grand Cayman Island.
Almost as unusual was the decision—of her brother, Henry Richardson, and his heirs—to preserve some five hundred letters to and from Eunice's family. The correspondence, housed in the Duke University Library, is the answer to the prayers of anyone interested in what used to be called "history from the bottom up." Martha Hodes stumbled on the collection some years ago and has made the most of it. In a remarkable feat of archival research, detective work, oral history, and imagination, she has excavated and recreated Eunice Connolly's world. The Sea Captain's Wife offers no major reinterpretations of industrialization, the Civil War, religious ferment, or race prejudice. But in the tradition of distinguished micro-histories and biographies—Laurel Ulrich's Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (1990), and Nick Salvatore's We All Got History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber (1996)—Hodes illuminates Eunice's lived experience. A page-turning tour de force, The Sea Captain's Wife captures the fragility, volatility, and vitality of everyday life in the United States.
Hodes begins with a dissertation on letter writing. As the revolutions in transportation and industrialization dispersed families, she notes, letters became the only way to maintain intimate connections to loved ones. Letter [End Page 219] writing was a formidable, time-consuming, and expensive task for working men and women, who had to scare up pens, paper, and postage. "I cant rock the cradle and write too," Eunice proclaimed (p. 23). But she did, usually on the Sabbath, or just before she went to bed. Since poor people moved around so much and the postal service was unpredictable, letters often got lost, leaving their intended recipients anxious or angry. An indispensable source of news about births, marriages, illnesses, and death, letters, of course, were passed from one household to another. They also conveyed a sense of life's hardships. Eunice often used the phrases "if nothing happens" and "if I live," Hodes observes, as she mused about whether she would be able to knit a pair of stockings, sew a dress, or visit her mother. Her son Clarence, she declared, "has got to get used to disappointments in life if he lives" (p. 34).
As they reveal thoughts, feelings, and experiences, letter writers also edit, evade, and omit. Although letter writing did not come easily, Eunice sometimes burned a letter the morning after she wrote it. "Maybe her words didn't ring true on rereading," Hodes guesses, "or maybe their accuracy struck her as overly indulgent" (p. 29). Without elaborating, Hodes indicates her determination to respect the "secrets of circumstance and sentiment" in the letters, including material intentionally omitted by Eunice or subsequently purged by her family. It's hard to know what Hodes means—since she does, often, venture well beyond her evidence. With some notable exceptions, her speculations ring true. They help her fashion out of Eunice Connolly's correspondence "a significance beyond her own vision" (p. 37).
Like many Yankees, Eunice moved from farm to factory. Living in Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, she probably worked alongside hundreds of other single women at...