- Historic Sites
A Legend in Her Time
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
by Bessie Rowland James. Rutgers University Press, 447 pp. $15.00
by Marion K. Sanders. Houghton Mifflin Co., 432 pp. $10.00
At one point in her journalistic career Dorothy Thompson, learning of a proposed magazine piece on her life, wrote: “I wish someone would present me as a female. … [It’s] heresy which the feminists wouldn’t like, but … I’d throw the state of the nation into the ashcan for anyone I loved.”
It was not a wholly truthful statement, but an exasperated reaction to the dilemma of a successful woman who always had to face the direct or hinted accusation that competence outside the home was unfeminine. Anne Royall, born 124 years before Dorothy—and likewise a successful writer on topics of the day—once felt compelled in similar fashion to disown fellowship with feminists who downgraded the traditional interests and allurements of their sex. Condemning Amelia Bloomer’s emancipated costume of a loose smock over baggy trousers, she asked: “Do our sisters intend to part with their last and best treasure—modesty … the sweet rounding waist, the unspeakable charm of a swelling bosom?” Yet sweetness, modesty, and charm were never attributes of Anne Royall’s.
Both women, in their careers, offer food for reflection on the changing and changeless elements in womanhood and journalism in the United States. Both are the subjects of lively new biographies.
Anne Royall was born (as Anne Newport) in 1769 and was raised on the Pennsylvania frontier. She was often within earshot of Indian war whoops and had lost both a father and a stepfather by the time she was fourteen. She suffered the humiliation of being “domestic help” for a time but was rescued when her employer, Colonel William Royall, took her to be his woman and later his wife. Royall, a Revolutionary War veteran, was a Virginia planter who had gone west to make his fortune—an objective he never achieved, thanks to an absorption in books and brandy. When he died in 1812, he left his widow a modest subsistence. But relatives who had always resented his lower-class bride successfully sued to break the will.
In her fifties by then—quite old for that era—Anne Royall had to support herself. Frontier energy and self-reliance came to her aid. She had a knack for pungent pen sketches in her letters, and she now moved to Alabama (a brand-new state then, largely wilderness), wrote a number of accounts of people and places there, and then began the tedious task of travelling from town to town soliciting subscriptions that would pay for putting the reports into book form. By the time the volume emerged, she had settled in Washington to lobby for a pension as an exsoldier’s widow.
The Letters from Alabama were a scandalous success. Anne had, with country-girl bluntness, described the fluid, yeasty society she found just as it was—full of hornswogglers and hypocrites as well as heroes. She got a reputation best summarized by John Quincy Adams: “Stripped of all her sex’s delicacy, but unable to forfeit its privilege of gentle treatment … she goes about like a virago errant in enchanted armor.” (Adams, however, was relatively friendly to her—though biographer Bessie James finds no truth in the story that Anne once got an interview with him by surprising him during his morning naked swim in the Potomac and sitting on his clothes.)
From 1830 onward Anne continued to travel and to write, not sparing her enemies, among them evangelical preachers, anti-Masons, and all pompous males. Her enemies in turn paid no particular heed to her alleged woman’s “privilege of gentle treatment.” One Yankee defender of revealed religion threw her down a flight of porch steps (breaking her leg); a Pittsburgh bookstore clerk horsewhipped her—when she was nearly seventy!—and she was tried in Washington as a “common scold” and convicted (two reporters paid her fine as a gesture on behalf of a free press).
She founded two successive newspapers, Paul Pry in 1831 and The Huntress in 1836, each a compact package of powdered gall. She lived until 1854 —time enough to see her America span the continent and to be alarmed by sectional “fanatics” who would tear the nation apart. At her death she was eulogized by a local journal as a woman of “considerable literary attainments … and of strict integrity,” a description honorable enough for any member of the working press.