- America’s Joan of Art: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
In this fascinating biography of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, J. Matthew Gallman has captured the life of a forgotten woman who was once one of the most famous women in the United States. His work elucidates how Dickinson, a highly celebrated lecturer in the Civil War era, achieved her fame, and how she lost it. Along the way, Gallman tells us much about gender and politics during the sectional conflict, the Gilded Age theater, the women's rights movement, and the emerging culture of celebrity in late nineteenth-century America.
Dickinson, as Gallman explains, came of age in the sectional crisis. First appearing as a teenage orator in 1860, Dickinson, an outspoken woman of abolitionist leanings who was nicknamed "America's Joan of Arc," quickly found herself in high demand as a political speaker. Her lectures, many done under the auspices of the Republican party, drew large audiences, lambasted the political opposition, and got men elected to political office. During Reconstruction, Dickinson continued to be a popular speaker and an important presence in political campaigns. But the waning of sectional politics disrupted Dickinson's professional life, pushing her into new pursuits such as writing and acting. Although she continued to enjoy some moderate successes, she never regained the great notoriety of her earlier days. By the 1890s professional and personal setbacks had multiplied: Dickinson was committed for five weeks to an insane asylum, became embroiled in a series of bitter legal battles, and even attempted to blackmail former Union general Benjamin Butler, who had written love letters to Dickinson while he was married. She died in 1932 at the age of ninety and almost wholly in obscurity.
Gallman's account is a perceptive one, especially in his consideration of what it meant to be a public woman in a period when strict codes of gender behavior still prevailed. This Dickinson is a woman who, although young at the time of her speaking debut, nevertheless developed her own analysis of American politics. While some have portrayed Dickinson as a tool of partisan interests, Gallman presents Dickinson as a true individualist who believed in forging her own way on controversial issues. Such individualism made her political and cultural contributions unique, but it also led her to lock horns with those, especially powerful men, who sought to manage and control her. Gallman writes insightfully too of Dickinson's persistent financial pressures, particularly the obligation to support a family in which she was often the sole breadwinner. And Gallman also writes with sensitivity on the question [End Page 421] of Dickinson's personal life, especially the trouble she had in forming long-standing emotional attachments with both men and women.
The central question that hovers around any analysis of Anna Dickinson's life is this: How can one account for the tremendous fame and success Dickinson enjoyed in the 1860s and 1870s and the fairly stark decline she had experienced by the end of the 1880s? Gallman offers some clues to answer this question, pointing to Dickinson's alcohol abuse, the difficulty she had in making the transition from lecturing to acting, and the shifting political winds of the post-Reconstruction era. It seems telling, for example, that even in her briefly successful return to the political lecture circuit in 1888, one observer wished that Dickinson would "not wave the bloody shirt quite so vigorously" (175). Clearly the political style that had nourished Anna Dickinson's fame was, by the late nineteenth century, no longer fashionable.
Ultimately, this book might benefit from an even closer analysis of some of these shifts. More, for example, might be said about why the atmosphere of the Civil War may have proven to be so hospitable to someone like Dickinson. One wonders, too, why Dickinson never really found a home with the organized women's movement in the postbellum era. Gallman discusses her break with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the Fifteenth Amendment, but other...