Beyond Vassar

About Books

History and the Texture of Modern Life, Selected Essays
Lucy Maynard Salmon
Edited by Nicholas Adams (Professor of Art) and Bonnie G. Smith. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001

Let’s begin our review by taking one of those infamous “pop” quizzes that probably exist more in a Vassar history major’s imagination than in the classroom reality of long ago.

Answer the following five questions.
1. Who was the first person to teach history at Vassar College?
2. Who was only Vassar faculty member to have graduate research directed by a future president of the United States?
3. What early Vassar history professor was a distinguished “modernist” of the generation of Jane Ellen Harrison and Friedrich Nietzsche?
4. Which Vassar historian encouraged her students to analyze laundry lists and discover history in the backyard?
5. Who was the only Vassar historian to be the subject of a book-length biography?

The answer to all five questions is (I am tempted to add “of course”) Lucy Maynard Salmon (1853–1927), who came to Vassar in 1887 as the first instructor in economics, political science, and history after graduate work with Woodrow Wilson at Bryn Mawr. During her 40 years at Vassar, Salmon — who never completed a doctorate — essentially created the history department and inculcated her students with a critical approach to historical sources and appreciation of historical relativism that has been its hallmark ever since.

Some years after her death, a younger colleague and friend, Louise Fargo Brown, published an admiring biography, which attempted to convey Miss Salmon’s progressive, populist, and experiential approach to education, history, and life by conferring on her subject and book the extravagant title of Apostle of Democracy. Now, more than a century after the publication of Salmon’s first writings, Nicholas Adams of Vassar’s art department has teamed up with the distinguished historian of American women, Bonnie Smith of Rutgers University, to provide this most welcome selection of her more innovative and enduring essays and pamphlets.

The collection, enriched by an ample introduction to Salmon’s life and interests, is divided into four parts. The first section includes excerpts from her 1897 study on domestic service as well as essays on the evolution of the cook book and the “archaeology” of the modern kitchen of 1900. Here as elsewhere her approach was to combine historical awareness with the need for reform and change, stressing the centrality of women and their work. The part on “The City and the World of Objects” includes her famous essays “History in the Backyard” and “Main Street,” which show Salmon as a progressive pedagogue, eager to inform her readers of the deep historical nature of everyday things and what we would now call the “multicultural” dimensions of early 20th-century Poughkeepsie. The papers in “Schools and Citizenship” combine such topics as the proper exams for librarians and the role of the history professor in liberal education with two probing critiques of the limits of contemporary democracy. One argues for the employment of women outside the home as a means of curbing social hierarchy of the household. The other is a delicious indictment of the college president as an absolute monarch, a veiled criticism of her own famous bête noire, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor.

The inclusion of Salmon’s syllabus for her year-long History 1 documents how ambitious and innovative was her introductory European history survey, required of all Vassar students. The final section — “Historical Practice” — contains her plea for broadly conceived historical museums arranged over time, a convincing criticism of Woodrow Wilson as “a man absorbingly interested in his own development and his own career,” a letter on the several Americans who may merit the title of “great historian,” and a discussion of the multiple origins of the United States Constitution.
Vassar’s former Curator of Special Collections Nancy MacKechnie has contributed an invaluable bibliography of Salmon’s writings, which includes book reviews and occasional essays.

This splendid collection will help to reclaim Lucy Maynard Salmon’s major role in American historiography and culture of the progressive period and provide new insight into her brilliant historical mind. The essays are also poignant reminders of a vanished world — of Vassar’s and America’s innocence of a century ago. I think Salmon would have taken an ironic pleasure in the appearance of this volume, which both documents her enormous influence in early 20th-century American education and the resolutely “historical” quality of much of her thought and values.

Benjamin G. Kohl, Professor of History Emeritus, Vassar College

The Master Thief
By Camille Guthrie ’93
Subpress, 2000

Camille Guthrie’s The Master Thief is a book-length poem in 12 parts. One is immediately struck by the work’s ambitious architecture. Guthrie’s epic charts the passage of a heroine through thoughts and labors in the passage toward self-realization, a mastery to transcend the domestic making of beds.

“I wanted to use epic devices and characters in a poem about girlhood, a subject not often explored in epic tradition — and I tried to include the imagination in the poems more extensively than what is usually accepted as real experience,” says Guthrie. “I alluded to many coming-of-age narratives in the book, creating meaning by accretion.”

Most provocatively, her poem explores how our reading of literature enters, intersects with, voices, and somehow enacts our experience. The texture of Guthrie’s sections shows great range. She interrupts and troubles the seamless surface of certain passages with the poet’s own awareness of artifice — “Now you can see what has happened / As the mouth who last told this is still warm.” Archaic language suddenly pulls up short into modern colloquialism, or the fragment, like a dropped stitch, is returned to and picked up, re-woven in a different register into the whole. We hear Dickinson, or a Shakespearean swagger. Poets writing in a new millennium cannot help being mindful of Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new.” But how, with the burden of everything said (and said so well and so beautifully by the poetic tradition) to proceed? “So on we went,” writes Guthrie, and this statement expands beyond the heroine’s own quest to the poet’s overall enterprise.

The poem itself acknowledges its hand-me-downs, is keenly aware of its location in this “Pears-have-all-been-Counted garden.”

“I’ve been influenced by the Language Poets’ exposure of the inherent structures in language and in narrative,” says Guthrie. “I’m indebted to [Vassar English Professor] Pat Wallace for introducing me to the work of experimental poetry.” Guthrie uses thievery as an aesthetic practice: borrowing vocabulary from Mary Shelley’s letters or journals, from Darwin or Blake, foregrounds and re-enlivens such language out of context, and prompts musings about who owns words. She ends her book with “An expanse in her palms.” The Master Thief is a rigorous debut.

A. V. Christie ’85
A.V. Christie’s first book of poems, Nine Skies, appeared in The National Poetry Series in 1996.

Children’s Books from Moon Mountain Publishing

“To produce beautifully illustrated, well written children’s books with positive themes that affirm the beauty and value of life.” That is the mission of Moon Mountain Publishing, a small publishing house cofounded in 1999 by Robert Holtzman ’79 and his wife, Cate Monroe. Moon Mountain, based in Rhode Island, had three books on the market by early this year — Hello Willow, Petronella, and Hamlet — and planned for another four by year’s end. “We will probably plateau at six to eight titles a year in a year or so, says Holtzman, who talked about the business of children’s publishing to Lecturer in English Nancy Willard’s class on writing for children in February. He stopped by afterward to speak to the VQ.

Holzman, whose background is in marketing and public relations, and his wife, a certified public accountant, both gave up jobs to take up the Quixotic challenges of establishing a small, independent, publishing house. “It’s a lot of work, and it can make us very, very nervous at times” he acknowledges. “But we’re having a lot of fun, and it’s very gratifying.” The company’s books can be ordered through or through any bookstore or chain.