The Courtship Of Woodrow Wilson


Balto., Md., Nov. 8th, 1884 … You’ll never find in a cloister a fulcrum for any lever which can budge the world! Here’s the problem, then: How get fresh air in this world of book-research? How learn to ride a live horse on a hobbyhorse? How discover by reading heavy books the quick, direct, certain way to inform and influence men who read only entertaining books—books which touch with a practiced hand their own ordinary lives—books which can be understood without conscious effort? I want to write books which will be read by the great host who don’t wear spectacles—whose eyes are young and unlearned! I don’t care how much contempt may look upon my pages through professors’ glasses! …

Ellen was much pleased with her life in New York and the character of her fellow boarders, who had formed a reading group.

New York, Nov. 11, 1884 … Mr. Goodrich read from Bret Harte’s stories, while Miss M. and I sketched her cousin and Mrs. Jenkins. Mrs. J. is perfectly lovely! and so is Mrs. Weiler! ! and so is Mr. Goodrich! ! ! his loveliness consisting in the fact that he is going to take me to see Irving and Ellen Terry. To go out with a boarding-house acquaintance isn’t exactly what I should have anticipated doing; but it hasn’t taken a whole month, by any means, to obtain satisfactory evidences as to Mr. Goodrich’s character and antecedents. He is a thorough gentleman, born and bred—of good old Mass, puritan “stock”; one who has been most carefully trained up in the way he should go. He is quite a young man—only finished at Andover last year—fresh and unspoiled, yet very intelligent, entertaining and well-read. You would have been amused the other night, when he asked me to go to hear Irving; he was very awkward and embarrassed and, as you will readily understand, I liked him the better for it—“Miss Axson, would you object?—may I—ah!—I would like so much to ask—if I only dared! —for the pleasure of taking you, etc.”

Woodrow tried to be generous about the lovely Mr. Goodrich.

Balto., Md., Nov. 13th, 1884 … I am delighted, my pet, that you are to see Irving and Ellen Terry. … I am sure that you will think, as I do, that Miss Terry is infinitely better than Irving—at least if you see them in parts anything like those in which I saw them—namely Hamlet and Ophelia. His strut is almost as execrable as his pronunciation. She is beyond comparison the finest actress I ever saw. Ah, what would I not give to see her with you ! I envy Mr. Goodrich with all my heart ! Wouldn’t you rather go with me than with him? …

Some things in New York, however, shocked the young lady from Georgia: New York [undated] … By the way, what do you know about the “Society for Ethical Culture” and Felix Adler? Mr. Brush [a well-known artist then teaching at her art school] belongs to it and so does a pretty young girl in our class. It is said that they don’t believe in God or even in the immortality of the soul. What a terrible faith—or no faith!—and the idea of a young woman adopting it!

Mr. Goodrich, Ellen wrote, had given her a copy of a new poem which had made a great hit—Rubáiyádt, by Omar Khayyam, with illustrations by Elihu Vedder.

New York, Nov. 18, 1884 … I was wild to see it, for I have read and heard of nothing else, it seems to me, for weeks past. … Mr. Goodrich has been trying to obtain possession of it for some time; he brought it up and read it to me. … I really believe that Vedder has more genius than any other American artist; he is not merely a great workman, like so many French artists, but he is equally great on the intellectual and imaginative sides. It seems a pity, does it not, that such noble work should be expended on such a heathenish poem …

As for the stern young Presbyterian, he approved neither of the poem nor of the way in which Ellen had become acquainted with it.

Bryn Mawr College, which had just been founded, was interested in Woodrow Wilson as a teacher, and he was excited at the prospect of a job that would make it possible for him to marry Ellen. She, however, had misgivings:

New York, Nov. 28/84 My darling Woodrow, … Can you bring yourself to feel thoroughly in sympathy with that kind of thing—with the tendencies and influences of such an institution? Can you, with all your heart, cooperate with the strong-minded person who conducts it?—The “Dean!” how ridiculous! … Seriously, dear, I fear you would find it very unpleasant to serve, as it were, under a woman! It seems so unnatural, so jarring to one’s sense of the fitness of things—so absurd too.

I may be very silly to say so, but it seems to me that it is rather beneath you to teach in a “female college. …”

Woodrow was disappointed by this “earnest protest,” and wrote to persuade her. He would, he assured her, “not be under a woman”; there was a male president, and several other men were on the faculty. So Ellen consented, and after some negotiations about salary—finally settled at $1,500 a year—he accepted the Bryn Mawr appointment, to begin in September, 1885.