Tuesday, April 23, 2013

1937 New Yorker Article On Deborah

Having had much fun gallivanting about The New Yorker's online archives for a series of posts I did last week, I couldn't resist typing in Deborah Sampson and seeing what I turned up.

Imagine my delight to find a 1937 article written on her!  (I did then go back to Alfred Young's excellent volume on Deborah (Masquerade) and confirmed that he had mentioned the New Yorker article briefly.)  Written by Morris Bishop on July 3, 1937, the article runs over three pages (scantily so, for there are columns of ads on the pages; the advertisements are delightful.).

There is no pressing reason that I can discover for writing an article at this time on Deborah -- no recent discovery of letters, no new release of a book, no resurgence of interest in women in combat.  I can only think that, given a press date of July 3, they were looking for some good Americana.

The article is delightful, if snide, quoting large chunks of her biography as told by Herman Mann, whose florid style is pilloried by the article's author.  I turned to the article interested in how her "adventure" would be portrayed at that time: as a positive, daring adventure; as a negative act of deceit?  I was surprised to find that she is presented almost as a laughing stock.  In part this is owing to Mann's overly-flowery language, but in part this is, I think, owing to the inability -- or, rather, unwillingness -- of society to accept that women are capable and that gender is complex.  It is far easier to brush aside her "escapades" as lighthearted whimsy bordering on craziness or criminality than it is to consider exactly how difficult women's lives were back then and why they might want to escape.

Have no doubt: the article is worth reading (archives are free to subscribers of the magazine).  For those most interested in the presentation of gender, one line is particularly remarkable.  In describing how Deborah bound herself given the shape/style of the Revolutionary War uniform, Morris writes that: "the female of those days was used to enduring severe pressures; it was merely a question of altering the point of incidence of the stress."

What a wonderful caricature.  I thoroughly enjoy the double meaning of women being accustomed to "enduring severe pressures."  This is true sartorially -- of corsets and such -- and it is true domestically and psychologically.

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