From the Grand Tour to the American West

In my last post, I mentioned the delightful book Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden.  The subtitle is “The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”

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Dorothy Wickenden, the executive editor of The New Yorker, found a treasure trove of letters written by her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, who with her best friend, Rosamund Underwood, answered an ad for teachers in a one-room schoolhouse in remote northwestern Colorado.  The young women had graduated together from Smith College.  They were twenty-three and had no intention of settling in right away to their expected life of marriage, charity work, and society events.  So in the summer of 1916, off they went on the grand adventure of their lives.

Photo by Lawrence M. Sawyer/Corbin, from NYT review cited below

Photo by Lawrence M. Sawyer/Corbin, from NYT review cited below

The schoolhouse was in an area so remote they had to live with a homesteading family and ride horseback to work every day, rain or shine.  Their students had to do the same; in winter some students had to ski to school on makeshift skis made of barrel staves.  Not surprisingly, the young women found themselves courted enthusiastically by local cowboys and also by educated men–including the one who had placed the ad, Ferry Carpenter.  He was a Harvard-educated lawyer who had gone west to make his fortune.

The young women had lived lives of privilege; after college, they had been lucky enough to take the Grand Tour.  They spent a year in Europe, studying French and seeing as much as they possibly could.  They went out of their way to see art and experience theater and dance. They judged the women in Rubens’ paintings “beefy,” but loved most of what they saw.  In Paris, they saw an exhibit by Matisse and Picasso.  They were not impressed, especially after having spent a lot of time with the masterpieces in the Louvre. Dorothy thought Matisse’s work was “like that of a little child.” Many years later, she regretted passing up the chance to buy some of those paintings for a song.

They saw Nijinsky, then twenty years old, dance in Scheherazade, the most famous ballet produced by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. They saw Isadora Duncan in her premiere performance of Orpheus.

Dorothy and Rosamund toured France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. All along the way, they wrote long letters home.  They also collected postcards.  Later, when they went off to teach in the one-room Colorado schoolhouse, they brought their postcard collection.  Their students (and the parents of the students) eagerly studied the postcards as clues to the wider world.  I’d like to think that many of them eventually went on adventures of their own, following the lead of these two remarkable young women.

There’s a review by Maria Russo in The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/book-review-nothing-daunted-by-dorothy-wickenden.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

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