Thursday, January 5, 2012

What I've been doing

I've written 19,800 words. Who would have thought I knew so many?

Here's the the first couple pages of my long essay or short book. I'm putting this up so I'll stop fiddling with the first 1,000.

Gang way:


Every so often we raise a candle to a new and improved age of enlightenment.

And whenever society reaches a general consensus as to what constitutes one better mankind or another, we convene a kangaroo court for all the famous dead guys. The verdict rarely goes in their favor, but then they never put up much of a fight.

It’s not a bad thing, digging up and hosing off the past, running a tongue over the rough edges, giving the latest version of humanity a chance to point a judgmental finger at what came before. It helps keep the past on its toes.

But this is an exercise we only practice with half our history.

When it comes to the other half, and that would be women, only a few historians bother to buff the surface or even wash the windows. Instead, we view significant females through the same old glass, scratched and ancient though it may be. And with all that patina, they’re practically invisible. You can, without fear of contradiction, write almost any words in their dust.

Most women who shaped history didn’t end up making history, or rather, never crashed the mostly masculine party held in history books. You could argue that it’s hard to right the wrong now, since significant women were rarely recognized as such in their own time and so little was saved. Another reason for the continued lapse, for the ellipses in the chapters, isn’t the inability to unearth the stories, just the inconvenience of doing so. If you keep the story flat, it’s easy to store. No need to make room and send some of the old stuff packing.

In historical accounts of Collis Huntington, the power behind the first transcontinental railroad, and his nephew Henry, Arabella -- the wife of both, successively of course -- generally gets stowed in the trunk labeled southern belle or femme fatale. Lately, she’s been called a trophy wife, as if that gives a fresh spin to the story.

A pretty facile dismissal for someone who, in her time, was not only one of the wealthiest women in the United States but also one of the premier art collectors in the world.

Just a few historians have attempted to pry into Arabella’s life, and only a couple have done so with any imagination. It takes imagination because there are so many gaps, intended and otherwise, in the Caroline Belle Arabella Duval Yarrington Worsham Huntington Huntington story.

She influenced the lives of the two men who shaped Southern California, and she influenced, maybe determined, how they did it, more importantly, whether they chose to continue doing it at all.

2.

We probably have Arabella to thank for any polish Collis Huntington acquired during the last twenty years of his life. Which wasn’t, according to most of his biographers, much.

It’s likely Collis Huntington loved only two things in life – power and Arabella, and probably, ultimately, not in that order. She redeemed Collis, not in the eyes of the public, but he purported to care little or nothing about public opinion anyway.

In 1870, after a decade of building railroads, making his fortune, robbing the U.S. treasury, holding the sword of Damocles over two of his three partners and before letting it fall, Collis Huntington was worn out. In one of his rare moments of introspection, he wondered why he had bothered at all. He was feeling his mortality, and either wanted out of the whole business, or wanted something, someone to make it seem worth his while. Collis Huntington wanted the universe to give him a sign; a justification. He wanted a son.

Perhaps this explains his initial attraction to a fifteen year old girl. A girl who may have been poor, probably unmarried, likely deserted. In any case, she was undoubtedly and unequivocally pregnant.

The girl, once named Caroline, now called herself Belle. She wasn't Arabella; not yet.

40 comments:

  1. You certainly know how to paint a picture w/words, lady!. I love the last paragraph- 'funny' how men have to have their self worth proven by having a 'son'.... if only they were smart enough to realize it made no difference- male/female, just the accomplishment of bringing a child into the world and being capable of raising it to be a good human being.

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  2. Fifteen? You hooked me.

    gah, the research . . . no amount of ellipises could account for what's necessary.

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  3. I agree with Mister Earl..More, please. There were so many things you said that I want to remember...
    "Most women who shaped history didn’t end up making history."; "...we view significant females through the same old glass, scratched and ancient though it may be." I can't wait for the next installment.

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  4. [Dianne is giving you the hi five] Oh yeah!!!

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  5. I'm hooked as well! I love a good story about a woman we forgot to remember.

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  6. This is great subject matter for an essay. A behind the scenes account of Pasadena's elite "woman's sewing circle" (and the girls their husbands pinched)

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  7. interesting essay stories. more in the future!

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  8. From one of your favorite local historians, to one of the significant, serious women writers in my life: I hope this Huntington history book is your NYrs resolution! I look 4ward to its publish date.

    Btw, have u heard of the Huntington Library? Ck it out for a good source of material! Now, I have to take leave to buff the surface and wash the windows of my jalopy while the weather is still good.

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  9. Is this the same guy as the boss on Hell on Wheels, or just a guy with a similar story?

    Your story of Arabella's going to be wonderful.

    And read the book I just reviewed for the story of an ordinary woman's place in history. It's a good read.

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  10. You have a very lively style, it cuts right through this head cold that no amount of TheraFlu has been able to touch.

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  11. As in, Keven McCollister says, "This biography is better than a head cold."

    Off line, Margaret Finnegan and I have been having a healthy discussion about the first few graphs. She totally disagrees that written history has given short shrift to women. She hasn't convinced me. I haven't convinced her. But it has been a lively exchange -- better than a head cold.

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  12. I'm generally not interested by history much, however, you captured my interest and brought Arabella to life.

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  13. So, what did Arabella do when she found out? Tell us, tell us! We're in unfair hanging territory--it's dangerous out here!

    (P.S. This comment's Word Verification sounds like a disease.)

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  14. Well, I told you this was a rought first draft, didn't I? (Did I?) Arbella was the 15 year old girl. Collis was married to someone else, and had been for 20 years.

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  15. Yeah, I'd say stop fiddling with it. It's really good. also, VERY ineresting. Hope things are going well...

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  16. Rationally or not, I'm reminded of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own--her idea there has always made more sense to me than much of the later, more strident feminist writing.

    And, with your sword of Damocles, I think of R. Browning's "My Last Duchess" in which a powerful medieval duke has his lovely, kind teen wife killed because people and things IN ADDITION TO him made her happy.

    I think I remember those two because they both so clearly use the plight of women in history to show the plight of all marginalized people.

    So, AH, nice story you've got going here.

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  17. Yep, I want more too. Arabella sounds like a fascinating person, and I can't wait to read more of your words about her. The older I get the more interested I am in history, and while I wait for the next chapter about CBADUWJ, I'm now motivated to search out more stories of interesting women.

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  18. Well written! Keep on going!

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  19. You mentioned Arabella's story on a dog walk a while back... I'm so intrigued by what you've written. It's the start of a fascinating read. I'm excited for you!

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  20. I think you shouldn't share too much of it here. I know everyone wants more and I do, too, but folks should pay for this stuff.

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  21. Thanks, P. I won't; just the odd page here and there between friends. Besides, because of Margaret, when I revisit the beginning, I'll add a bit of clarification.

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  22. Yes, do what Margaret tells you to do. I always obey her and that way, if nothing else, at least I avoid her terrifying wrath.

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  23. Oh, she got quite testy yesterday. She was emailing me in all caps.

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  24. Love it. I would continue reading, which is the gold standard for editors.

    One thing: I would lose the last graf of your first section. I like how you extended the metaphor, but it unnecessarily undercuts what's coming up - and you don't want to do that.

    What you might try is sculpting the first chapter or two into a standalone essay, getting that published and then using it to bolster your book proposal. Just a thought.

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  25. You're right; it's out. That graph was a bad habit I've picked up from blogging.

    I definitely like your second suggestion, as well. Though I want to make it to a 50K word milestone before I consider how to do that.

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  26. There's such a thing as a first draft? Hmmmmmmm...

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  27. "More, more, more," didn't mean to put it on your blog. Meant, "Keep going with it."

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  28. I also think it's a good idea to keep going without doing any more editing. It's a great story and you can edit the life out of these things. Let your inspiration free without second-guessing yourself too much - or at all - on the first round. Just in case you want one more opinion.

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  29. Well, that was pretty awesome, Karin! As a former frequenter of the Huntington Library & grounds, I know generally of Arabella's history (i.e., her marriage to uncle and then nephew), but this is far, far more intriguing and, frankly, juicy. Can't wait to read more!

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  30. This makes me want to visit Southern California and see where it all happened. Can't wait for the book!(When I'm not on sick leave, I'm a 5th grade history teacher.)

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  31. Well, I haven't noticed any re-writes since Thu., and I have a head cold.

    Nice that you have so many writer friends to bounce your work off of. Someday, when I learn to write, I think I'll make some friends.

    Banjo mentioned "marginalized" people, citing Woolf's writing. Had a class with excerpts from her book. It seemed that much of the class was about marginalized factions of society. It made me wonder if suburban white punks in junior college were somehow marginalized.

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  32. So, I'm a late come-er (sp). Where's the rest of the story? Is this like chapters aka marketing tease? Oh. I get it. You want us to anticipate the rest of the story. So savvy of you.

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  33. Intriguing! You certainly know how to draw in your audience. I'm itching to buy the book.

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  34. Okay, now I understand. I got a little lost there, but it all clear now. Caroline-Bella-Arabella was the sign.

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  35. Just breathe...then just write!!! You're definitely on to something here Hiker!!! Do keep us posted as to the publishing details!!!

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