It’s 1864. In the U.S. Hall of the House of Representatives, a gathered group of congressmen, weary from the bloody Civil War and despairing their fractured nation, pauses to listen to a twenty-two-year-old Quaker named Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.
Dickinson steps to the podium, demure, clad in a conservative high-collared black dress. The men wait in impatient silence. Someone clears his throat. But then Dickinson raises her gray eyes to the crowd, and she begins to speak, and her voice is like a raised sword in battle, her plea for abolition a resounding heartbeat the tired men need so sorely that they rise in standing ovation at her concluding words.
She was called “America’s Joan of Arc.” The famous radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had been printing her words since she was fourteen, and the writer Mark Twain praised her: “She talks fast, uses no notes what ever [sic], never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself.”
Thousands flocked to hear her speak against slavery and for the rights of African Americans and women. Dickinson’s passionate intensity—her belief in the rights of all, in the forward progress of our hearts—was what the nation desperately needed.
And I believe—faced with Trump, unconscionable gun violence, police brutality, climate change, decade-long wars, xenophobia and homophobia and racism—our nation needs to hear from Dickinson again. Right now, we need both the living and the dead to remind us that hope is not lost, that our words are powerful, that the people who hear us and read us may be moved to take action in the direction of human rights. But how can someone like Anna Dickinson, who died in 1932, speak to us at all?
She whispers from the historical archive. In the June 27 New Yorkerarticle “The Woman Card,” journalist Jill Lepore reveals the surprisingly feminist origins of the Republican Party, noting, “One of the Party’s most popular and best-paid speakers was Anna Dickinson.” But Lepore offers Dickinson only as a nondescript famous woman who helped lead the nascent Republicans. In that brief historical note, Dickinson’s sword-wielding power of speech remains with her dust. How can I actually resurrect her, now that we need her?
Historical fiction. Breathe air into Dickinson’s lungs again. Paint her story around her; let her speak again; let the fragments of her real correspondence and her speech transcripts be cornerstones of a story with flesh and bone and blood; research costume and event and dialect so that Civil War-era Philadelphia—and its great Quaker orator—nearly exists again. In good historical fiction, we slip into the spirit of a different time and then emerge knowing that if real people once took incredible and brave action like that, we can, too. Good historical fiction slaps us awake: “Go. Now!”
But it’s still not enough. Historical fiction, bound to a certain time and place, has to report, like a responsible journalist. History, whether it’s etched in stone or whispered in shadow, requires a certain telling. There are rules.
Anna Dickinson lives the same life there, on repeat: wildly famous as an abolitionist, then scrambling after the Civil War to cling to that fame. She moved powerful men with her words on abolition, but she could not move her society to approve of her ardent belief in the equality of all, male and female, white and black. She could not convince her society to bless her romantic relationships with women, or her proclivity for wearing pants and climbing every high mountain she could, or her desire to take male roles on the theatrical stage. She raised her sword and shouted for everyone to follow her into battle, but few actually did. When her own sister had her committed to a mental institution in 1891 (when Dickinson was forty-nine), she calmly hired lawyers to prove her sanity, exited the asylum, and then retreated to live in bitter isolation for her last forty years.
As historical fiction, Dickinson’s story is probably better left to a single sentence in a New Yorker article. Maybe that is why no one has written it. The story of a bitter ninety-year-old lesbian dying in obscurity does not inspire us for our own time.
But what if there is a different way to tell stories like Dickinson’s? In these past few years, I’ve been experimenting with hybrid forms, thanks mostly to my reading of authors like Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, Eleni Sikelianos, Michael Ondaatje, Julio Cortazar. I am primarily an essayist, but my essays sometimes look like poems or short stories or lists. What matters is the story, and the reader and the writer and the character who are transformed by it.
Last summer at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, I heard renowned author Maxine Hong Kingston wonder whether it is possible that the writing we do now, in this time, could help heal the people who came before us. I wonder. Could I, by writing Anna’s story in a bending and crossing of genres and times, help her become the woman she longed to become? Could her life arc not to a mental institution but to what she could never have imagined in 1891? Could she ride into battle with the real Joan of Arc in 1430? Could she emerge in 2016?
What if I stepped out of time, holding Miss Dickinson’s hand?
In the past year and a half, I’ve written over a hundred pages about Anna Dickinson: notes from history books and biographies and Civil War websites, fragments of poems, pieces of essays, imagined moments, letters addressed to her, blank pages with captions for photographs that do not exist. In the early mornings when I write, I’m as likely to work on “the Dickinson stuff” as I am to work on my essays or my monthly column. It’s a book: I know that much. I also know it’s a book others need to read in this chaotic time. But what genre will this book be? In what category will it fit? None. Several. Genre is irrelevant. Anna Dickinson needs to be written back into the now, and I’m the conduit. Like Anna, this book won’t fit into any categories.
This month, I plan to disappear into the Colorado mountains and work on the Anna Dickinson book until I’ve finished a complete draft. I’ve rented a cabin with a view of Mount Lady Washington, the peak the Hayden Survey named after Dickinson when she accompanied them up neighboring Long’s Peak. I’ll hike in the mornings, then work in the afternoons and evenings.
I don’t know where this work will lead me, but I know I want Anna to wake up, like Woolf’s Orlando, and find herself in a new time, with new possibilities for changing our world.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. She could not wear pants or shirts that did not constrict her breath. She could not own property or inherit money or vote in any election. She could not marry a woman she loved.
She was not beautiful. She was not dainty and she was not gentle. Her eyebrows were not fine and her nose was not small. When she stood to speak, her voice was never soft. On her way from climbing Long’s Peak to climbing Pikes Peak, she did not ride inside the train to Colorado Springs, but perched like a goddess on the cattleguard, the wind in her hair.
Anna Dickinson did not love men as lovers and she did not love women as mountain climbing companions. She never slept with a man and she never slept with just one woman. When she wrote love letters to Olive or Susan or Sarah or Lou, she was not shy. She was never satisfied that she had done or seen or heard or loved enough.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. And yet when she spoke against slavery on the Lyceum stage, the newspapers said she was not demure enough to be a woman. When she played Hamlet in New York in 1881, her harshest critic wrote, “We always knew Anna Dickinson was actually a man.”
Once, she wrote to her lover Olive Logan, “Someday, some of us will become so overcome with passion that we will become men, and we will make furious love to our beloved women, and then we shall be married, and live happy forever more.”
Anna. Ms. Dickinson. American Maid of Orleans, bearer of the fleur de lis. I am not a man. I am a woman, and I am your vision.
Anna. If I write your story now, will you hear it one hundred years ago?