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  • Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist
  • Amy Cummins
Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist. By Gary Scharnhorst. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 2008.

In Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, Gary Scharnhorst effectively surveys the work of Kate Field (1838-1896). Her labors were manifold: Field contributed as an editor, publisher, drama critic, news writer, society critic, publicist, lecturer, political lobbyist, travel writer, fiction writer, dramatist, actor, and singer. In this much-needed biography, Scharnhorst's reportorial style reads quickly. Scharnhorst uncovers previously unknown texts by Field. Some items are referenced only briefly because manuscripts such as Field's adaptation of The Scarlet Letter and a book on Mormon history lamentably have been lost. In the 1880s, Fields opposed Mormonism on the grounds that the church told members to be treasonous to the United States and that it subjugated women through polygamy, a "peculiar institution" Field likened to slavery (162). Her efforts contributed to the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 and to changes in Utah laws enabling statehood in 1896.

Scharnhorst's biography charts Field's ideological progression and political causes. Field held diverse positions, but in Scharnhorst's view, Field became xenophobic in her forties and by her fifties was "conservative, even reactionary" during the economic depression of the 1890s (222). Field's contradictions and increasing conservatism probably contributed to her disappearance from critical attention.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Field supported abolition and the rights of freed slaves. Throughout her life, she condemned racism and praised the contributions of African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois. However, in the 1890s, she accepted the disfranchisement of African Americans and said that they belonged in the South (223). In her published journalism, Field also assumed that Native Americans would inevitably disappear because of "superior" civilization on the continent. Field opposed universal suffrage. She believed people must be educated enough to vote wisely. In 1891, she suggested that voting rights should "be restricted to native Americans and such foreign-born citizens as have lived here twenty-one years" (206). When speaking at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, she finally expressed support for women's right to vote, but she never acted on this belief (218).

While the biography creates a vivid picture of Field's life and beliefs, there could be more context. Kate Field troubles the reader eager to learn about mutual influences among Field and other culture leaders. Meriting evidence is Scharnhorst's suggestion that "Field's example as editor and publisher" of a weekly magazine publishing thirty items by Charlotte Perkins Gilman inspired Gilman to start The Forerunner in 1909 (202). Scharnhorst possesses such knowledge because he has published two books about Gilman in his prolific career. Mentioned merely in passing is Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton), a famed journalist whose career overlapped with Field's early work. Scharnhorst creates spaces for contributions by future scholars. [End Page 286]

Irregular wages and employment kept Field working her whole life, primarily as a journalist paid by the item. She followed her passions and believed she could succeed in anything. Field once declared, "I can't be salaried because I won't write what I don't believe" (97). A confident and assertive woman, Field operated independently. She endured being called unwomanly, particularly when opposing the temperance movement or lecturing on many subjects. Field's final cause was favoring annexation of Hawaii. She was writing and campaigning at the time she fell ill with pneumonia and died in 1896. Scharnhorst's biography brings into view again the forgotten "many lives" of Kate Field.

Amy Cummins
Fort Hays State University


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pp. 286-287
Launched on MUSE
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