[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

by “Gail Hamilton” (1867)

By the time Abigail Dodge published Wool-Gathering in 1867, she had published six books and a number of essays for adults, and she had co-founded Our Young Folks, a literary magazine for children. Several of her books for adults (A New Atmosphere; Stumbling Blocks) were works on Christian theology. Wool-Gathering is a return to one thing Dodge did best: document the world around her.

The world in Wool-Gathering is an America recovering from its ghastly Civil War and looking westward across a broad continent. In 1866, Dodge traveled—probably with her sister—to Minnesota, where their brother had settled; they returned to Massachusetts via Tennessee, Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania. The result is a description of an America in the grip of change. It’s a book distinctly aware of regions: a New Englander exploring the broad, bewildering West and the war-ravaged South, constantly drawing comparisons.

The book is filled with memorable details. The South is still raw from the War and resentful of visiting Northerners; Northerners have their own stories and resentments. A steamboat pilot describes an attempt to capture his boat (p. 193); a Pennsylvania inn-keeper confronts the “dirty, greasy” Rebels who try to loot her property and capture her husband (p. 329). Dodge records small, telling details: an isolated household eager for news and reading materials posts a sign asking passing railway travelers to “Please throw us a paper”; a black veteran looks tidy and respectable in his uniform as he picks up and delivers the laundry his wife washes.

Dodge offers glimpses of African-Americans after the War, as they work to make a place in a new social order. Dodge is working to find her place in this new order, too: perhaps more accustomed to figures like the little black maid who “chiefly perches on the window-seat and travels around the room with her eyes” (p. 216) and gives humorously uninformed answers to Dodge’s questions, Dodge seems unsure how to present the speech of the dignified black veteran. “The variations in his pronunciation are I believe his,” she explains as their conversation proceeds, “and not mine. I distinctly remember certain words in which th was changed into d. Others I remember with the proper sound, and give them so. It may be that his conversation represents a transition state in his education.” (p. 247)

Equally exotic, to Dodge, was the broad landscape of Minnesota, then reeling from conflicts between whites and Native Americans. “This is the West,” she explained in a letter to a friend, “this broad lift of field and meadow shoreless as the sea ….” (Gail Hamilton’s Life in Letters, ed. H. Augusta Dodge. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1901; vol 1, p. 565) Her Minnesota is less the land of stolid Scandinavian immigrants than it is the boundless fields of energetic farmers, brushed with the romance of Hiawatha. Dodge describes an ideal—and idealized—farm and the attempts of Minnesota hotel-keepers to embody elegance. She rhapsodizes over the landscape and struggles to reconcile sentiment over Hiawatha with shame at the way Native Americans were being treated: “It may not be possible for the law to take into account the accumulated wrongs which induced the terrible outburst of savage wrath. … Having said my say about the right and wrong of it, I will confess that the Song of Hiawatha overpowers, with its plaintive, simple melody, the fierce, wild war-whoop of these late times.” (pp. 160 & 162)

The two places, Dodge felt, contrasted each other: the West, “a loose-jointed, ungainly giant, striding over the prairies, leaving your footprints everywhere, brandishing your big arms and bawling out your prowess through the disgusted world” (p. 276); the South “afflicted and impoverished, overrun by the armies of both sides, torn by internal strife.” (p. 279) Both regions, she decided, were lands of opportunity, for anyone—from any region—who would only try.

Wool-Gathering is presented here as a single file, with the original page numbers.

The text is also available as an ebook.

Wool-Gathering | reviews of the book

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