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.
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.
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.