Back to that picture of the emergency across the street from my apartment last night. I didn't actually notice what had happened until I stood up from my desk to go to bed. The lights caught my eye.
To get the full effect of how preoccupied I had been, my desk is under a large window. Sitting at my desk, looking out of my window, you see exactly that picture. I didn't notice the sirens. I didn't notice the lights. The place could have probably been an inferno and I'd have just gone right on with what I was doing.
What was I doing? This:
Too tired to write at the end of a long day, I was browsing through some books about the 19th century urban African Americans, the 19th century middle class, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass, hoping to jog some percolating ideas on the Frederick Douglass's sister article that I'm overhauling -- not at this moment, mind you, because I'm having that "write a blog post" problem, but in general.
In reading the chapter on women in John Stauffer's The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, I came across a vicious quote from Frederick Douglass about Anna, his wife:
"I am sad to say that she is by no means well--and if I should write down all her complaints there could be no room to put my name at the bottom, although the world will have it that I am actually at the bottom of it all...She still seems able to use with great ease and fluency her powers of speech, and by the time I am at home a week or two longer, I shall have pretty fully learned how many points there is need of improvement in my temper and disposition as a husband and father, the head of a family!" [quoted on p. 229]
Whoa! I wonder what else is in that letter?
Stauffer comments, "Not only did Douglass feel estranged in his own house, but the woman who ran things was, in his eyes, something of a shrew as well as ignorant and degraded." [p. 229]
Now, I could go into the Anna part of this -- and I will, rest assured, because I'm sure that she had some pretty good reasons to be pissed off at Douglass. He was away all of the damn time and who, at the point that he wrote this in 1857, had made Anna put up with not one but two white women living under her roof, consorting with her husband, and, if not actually sleeping with her husband, generating some vicious rumors to that effect.
What kept me distracted last night was finding out who Douglass wrote this to. He didn't air his family's business like this to just anyone -- or anyone at all. I thought for sure that he wrote this to Ottilie Assing, whose translation of Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, brought the two into very close company (and, boy!, did she hate Anna). Instead, a quick flip back to Stauffer's footnotes showed that Douglass had written this letter to one Lydia Dennett.
Who was Lydia Dennett? Did he write more to her?
Stauffer cites Philip Foner's Frederick Douglass and Women's Rights, an edited volume, as his source. Google Books has it online but, of course, they did not include the pages that I wanted. For once, my campus actually has a book that I need for research. I'll be running over there to pick it up before our big Day O' Meetings later this week.
Meanwhile, who was Lydia Dennett? I hadn't heard of her. I have at least heard of a goodly number of women whom Douglass hung out with, but I won't claim that I know of them all. The index of the new volume of his correspondence doesn't have a Lydia Dennett, but it does have a W. Oliver Dennett. Douglass wrote two letters to him in 1850 that were not even interesting enough to reproduce and are only listed in the calendar of unpublished correspondence at the end of the volume.
In the calendar, however, the editors listed the location of those letters in the Pickard-Whitter Papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard (I instinctively raise my little finger as if holding a cup of tea when I say or write "Hahvah"). Harvard (pinky!) has kindly put their finding aids online, and there, way down in Series IV, "Other Letters," I found letter #774, Paulina Wright Davis to Lydia Bennett, 1870; and letters #783, #784, and #785 from Douglass to Mrs. Dennett in 1857, W. Oliver Dennett in 1850, and to an unidentified person at an unidentified time. Letter #786 is from the second Mrs. Douglass, Helen Pitts, to Elizbeth Pickard in 1899. The letter to Oliver Dennett is the one in the correspondence calendar, and the one to Lydia Dennett is the one cited in Foner and Stauffer.
Now, to get copies of all of them!
Still, who the heck is Lydia Dennett?
I no longer have access to an Ancestry.com account at home -- I have to get up to the Maryland Historical Society for that -- but their previews helped me narrow down their location to Maine and New Hampshire. That helped me with that research tool of the gods, Google, and I discovered that Lydia's maiden name was Neal, that her father was Samuel Neal and a man of some property who died in 1836, that she and her husband belonged to the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, and that they hosted Douglass on one of his earliest lecture tours when he stopped in Portland, Maine.
When I get into an actual library, I can ferret out a lot more information about them -- I'm pretty good at that, if I must say so myself. That still doesn't answer the main question; or, rather, it answers the superficial part of the question. I know roughly who Lydia Dennett was, where she lived, who she was married to, her father, her interest in abolition (and perhaps women's rights, since she corresponded with Paulina Wright Davis), and that she met Douglass in the 1840s.
What I don't know is this: who was Lydia Dennett that Douglass would write such a scathing assessment of his wife and his perception of his marital woes to her? Who else did he bitch about his wife to?
And who did Anna bitch about her husband to?