From Chapter one … Brown Canvas
The breezes of Macomb County usually journeyed from the west, blowing past and moving quickly onward, for the county was just en route, not a final destination. On this particular night, the wind gusted inexplicably from the east, rushing over fields of bluestem grasses, which bent their seed heads like so many royal subjects. A queen on progress, the currents then traveled above farmhouses barely visible behind the tasseled corn, and swept down the deeply shaded streets of Caledonia, where they finally reached the great tent, inflating the canvas walls with a transforming breath from the wider world.
The farm wives had staked out choice spots under the brown canvas; an area clear of poles but not far from the open flaps where they might feel the strong breeze that relieved the oppressiveness of the muggy August evening. The ladies occupied themselves with their knitting needles or watched the crew assembling music stands. Some fretted about sons, already drafted for the European trouble and awaiting assignment to cantonments scattered across the country. They pushed back thoughts of the steaming canning vats they faced when the weeklong Chautauqua assembly of 1917 concluded. All they would have to get through another dreary winter were the memories of the soprano’s gown of billowing chiffon; the lecturer’s edifying words; the orchestras and quartets.
The strings of bare bulbs that swagged the pitched roof were suddenly switched on. The scattered greetings of “Howdy-do” and “Evening” grew steadily as the crowd gathered, burdened with seat cushions, palmetto fans, and white handkerchiefs. Leafing through the souvenir program, they scrutinized the head-and-shoulders photograph of the evening’s speaker, a handsome woman wearing a rope of pearls. She was described as a well-known author, advocate for wholesome living, and suffragist. What exactly was this lecture—“Barriers to the Betterment of Women”—about? Some expected a call for more female colleges, others for voting rights.
Then Marian Elliot Adams, a tall and striking woman in her early thirties, swept onto the stage. She wore a rippling striped silk caftan and red Moroccan sandals. With dark eyes and dramatically curved brows, her appearance hinted at the exotic. In ringing tones, she announced, “I am here tonight to discuss the restrictive nature of women’s undergarments.”
Hundreds of heads snapped back. The murmurs of the crowd, the creaking of the wooden chairs, stopped abruptly. Even the bunting festooning the stage hung motionless, as if it had the breath knocked out of it.
Marian’s gaze swept across the pinched faces, assessing the souls spread before her, and she concluded that they were the same people she’d been lecturing to for the past three months. There was the gaunt-cheeked elder with his chin propped on a cane; the matron with the bolster-shaped bosom; the banker type in a sack coat; the slouching clerk with dingy cuffs. Just like last night and the night before that, stretching back eighty-three straight nights—these strangers she knew so well.
She’d begun her odyssey on June 1, as she had for the last seven summers, driving a dusty Packard to villages across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, opening each town’s weeklong series of talks and entertainments, and then moving on. In her wake followed orchestras, elocutionists, adventurers, sextets, chalk artists—whatever the Prairieland Chautauqua Agency felt would meet the standards of improvement and inspiration demanded by each hamlet’s subscription committee. Marian was relieved she didn’t have to stick around and watch the hodgepodge of entertainers following her. She and her fellow orators, she often said with a hint of irony, were the only ones true to the original Chautauqua ideal. During her brief respites from the road, she’d often settle in at her favorite Greenwich Village tea house and laughingly query fellow patrons, “Would you believe it? Me, an agnostic since the tender age of ten, toiling for Chautauqua?”
A half-century before, a group of Methodists had erected open-air pavilions beside the placid waters of Lake Chautauqua in western New York, as an educational retreat for Sunday school teachers. From “Mother Chautauqua,” as the institution became affectionately known, reading courses for adults quickly sprang up across the country. Later, commercialized ventures known as Tent or Circuit Chautauquas, and connected to the original in name only, took up the cause of bringing edification and culture to the rural heartland. Circuit Chautauquas, organized by Prairieland and other booking agencies, moved from town to town, following an established itinerary. When traced on a map, the various circuits looked like a child’s connect-the-dots drawing, linking isolated hamlets and farming communities in the Midwest, South, and West. An easterner, Marian saw the circuit as an opportunity to bring modern thinking on women’s causes to Middle America’s backwaters. This night, as she launched into her talk, she took comfort in knowing that more than five hundred other Chautauqua lecturers were mounting platforms in five hundred other byways.
She smiled broadly and asked, “Why is dress reform so necessary for the modern woman?”
The audience members, recovered from their initial shock, took up their palmetto fans, repositioned their legs, and settled in.
“Because clothing constitutes both a real and symbolic hindrance to women taking their rightful place in our country’s civic, occupational, and educational realms. Did you know that a woman, preparing to go out in public, routinely dons twenty-five pounds of clothing? Twenty-five pounds. Imagine! And of that, almost all of it is hidden from view. And almost all of it serves no practical purpose. Beneath every dainty shirtwaist and skirt lie layer upon layer of restrictive undergarments.”
She counted them off on her fingers. “Combination suit, petticoat, corset, corset cover, hose supporter, hose. These are the unmentionables that every woman struggles against. These are the invisibilities that drag down her limbs, sap her energy, prevent her from full participation in community life. Yes, we have made some strides in the last forty years. The hourglass figure, the tight lacings are, mercifully, things of the past. But more must be done.”
As she spoke, Marian paced briskly across the stage, her caftan gracefully shifting in the current. Some of the men wondered just what sort of unmentionables Mrs. Elliot Adams had on under the silk that swirled around her well-proportioned limbs. Deuce Garland, a widower of two years and publisher of the Clarion, was among them. He balanced a notebook on his calf, pencil resting on a blank page. In times past, he’d have written half of his article before the lecturer even stepped on stage. Chautauqua opened in Caledonia with a bang last evening when three thousand citizens of all ages gave a rousing welcome to . . . That was what came of sixteen years publishing a small-town daily with modest ambitions and a mission of boosterism.
But two months ago, seven of the town’s infants had succumbed to typhoid within three weeks. These deaths, very likely due to that age-old culprit, adulterated milk, shook Deuce to the core. As a boy, he’d lost two sisters to the same illness, and had never gotten over it. That same week he’d come upon an editorial in the Springfield Times calling for regular inspections of dairy operations. His first thought had been, I’ve got to reprint this! But then, he’d hesitated. He’d thought of his advertisers—the local shop owners, some with family ties to dairy farms. The subscribers, many who worshipped alongside those same hard-working men and women, the backbone of America. He couldn’t afford to anger them. Once he’d paid off the new linotype, he’d be in a better position to weather a dip in revenue. Then he could turn the Clarion into what he’d imagined it might become when he’d first bought it—a daily that would change Caledonia for the better. Even if he wasn’t quite ready to make the big leap, he’d decided to at least take seriously every story he print. No more boilerplate. Still, the typhoid, the unprinted editorial, hung at the back of his mind.
Deuce leaned forward to better hear each word of the speech. Marian’s sonorous voice was being partially obscured by phlegmy hacking from outside the tent, from one of the houses that bordered the grassy Chautauqua grounds. Deuce’s stepdaughter, Helen, seated beside him, heard it too and turned with an annoyed glance. Just nineteen, she was in the full flush of young womanhood, with solemn eyes, milky skin, and sleek wings of brown hair tucked behind her ears. He admired her in silence, self-consciously running a hand across his own hair that, despite the heavy application of pomade, had returned to its tight waves. He removed the handkerchief from a breast pocket and wiped his sticky palms. The carefully balanced notebook fell to the grass. Grunting, he bent to pick it up, then rearranged his legs, the wooden chair creaking beneath him.
Helen shot him a reproving look. Angrily flicking the program in front of her face, she turned her attention back to the stage. She’d been waiting for months for Mrs. Elliot Adams and wasn’t about to let him spoil it with all this fidgeting. Who knew when she’d have another chance to hear a famous advocate for women’s rights? Not in the foreseeable future, not in this pokey town. The acetate footlights bathed Marian from below, illuminating the folds of the caftan, the firm chin, the strong nose and brows, the clear eyes. Why, Mrs. Elliot Adams is the Statue of Liberty come to life, Helen thought with a grin. Come to life right here in Caledonia.
Marian was saying, “How can a young woman weighed down with all these undergarments, not to mention long skirts, perform a day’s work in an office, mill, or shop? How can she participate in the healthful activities of bicycling, tennis, dance, swimming? How can she fully join in the civic life of the community? She can’t. Women’s dress restricts their arms, their legs, and their opportunities.”
There was some murmuring among the knitters near the open tent flaps on the far left. Without even looking, Marian knew these were farm wives.
“Now let me quickly add that what I am talking about is public dress. I am well aware that many of you women in the farmland perform demanding physical labor and that the reliable Mother Hubbard is quite serviceable, if not as aesthetically pleasing or designed for ease of movement as it might be. As is, for example, this garment I am wearing. This free-flowing gown is functional, healthy, and, so I have been told, flattering.”
Three matrons sucked in their breath as they and the town realized that Marian’s gown was not a costume but her daily wear. Many of Chautauqua’s lecturers and performers dressed in a manner that amplified their message. The Dickens Man appeared in a Victorian frock coat as he enacted Oliver Twist, adding a shawl for poor Nancy, a cloth cap for Oliver, and a cape for wicked Bill Sykes. Each August, a Polynesian family appeared in grass skirts and feathered cloaks, mesmerizing listeners with their strange songs and tales of conversion from savagery to Christianity. Now Marian seemed to transform before their eyes, from the lofty and somewhat daring embodiment of social reformer, to the murky role of the outlandish.
The air in the tent was oppressive and thunder rumbled in the distance. Marian could feel sweat trickling between her breasts, dampening the bust supporter and her nainsook drawers. The extreme heat that gathered under the Chautauqua tents was as famous as their trademark brown canvas walls. “Going down the line,” as the Chautauqua performers called it, was not for the faint of heart or physically frail.
Harsh coughing sounded faintly from beyond the tent, competing with the howling infant. For most in the audience, accustomed to such disturbances, the sounds barely registered, but Tula Lake, who was sitting on the other side of Deuce, immediately recognized the consumptive cough of sixteen-year-old Jeannette Bellman. The Bellman family lived on the far side of the grounds. Tula turned in her seat. The tent was packed, the crowd overflowing beyond the flaps.
Over the heads of the audience, Marian’s voice rushed on. It traveled out into the night, across the Chautauqua grounds, to the ears of Jeannette Bellman, bundled in a wicker settee on the family’s front porch. Hugging her knees to her chest, the girl smiled. The great oval tent glowing softly in the distance, the voice of the speaker, even the flashes of lightning illuminating the horizon, all seemed to be speaking directly to her.