For Part 1 of our interview, click HERE.
Cathy Luchetti is the author of eight books about the settling of the American West in the 18th and 19th centuries, from religion to cooking and cuisine to courtship rituals and child-rearing. She was invited by Laura Bush to come to the White House to be part of a discussion of Women in the West. She has received numerous honors, including the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Literary Excellence for Women of the West (1982) co-authored with Carol Olwell. Her book Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West received the James Beard Best Writing on American Food Award in 1994. Medicine Women: The Story of Early-American Women Doctors (1999) was short-listed for the Willa Cather Award in non-fiction. Other books include Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists, 1772-1915, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1989; “I Do!”: Courtship, Love, and Marriage on the American Frontier: A Glimpse at America’s Romantic Past through Photographs, Diaries, and Journals, 1715-1915, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1995; The Hot Flash Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for Health and Well-Being through Menopause, Chronicle Books (San Francisco), 1997; Mama Says: Inspiration, Wit and Wisdom from the Mothers in Our Lives, Loyola Press (Chicago), 1999. Her book Children of the West: Family Life on the Frontier, Norton (New York, NY), published in 2001, was named by the Los Angeles Times one of the Best Books of 2001—The West. Men of the West (Norton) appeared in 2004.
Zara Raab: How did you select which first-hand accounts to use in a book like Women of the West? Did you get a sense of the personality of the letter-writer or diarist as you read them?
Cathy Luchetti: They were all different. If it was the Colorado Historical Society or the National Archives or the Bancroft Library––one of the larger institutions––the collections are now on-line with an abstract. And the photographs are on-line too, and that makes it much easier. But when I started writing my books, very few of them were on-line. For me, it was mostly coming up with the concept, and then coming up with a list of queries and sending it out to the archives. It was sort of like fly-fishing. Hopefully, I’d get an archivist who would think about my letter and then suggest a collection. There might be 15 boxes of materials to sort through, and in that case, it would be easier to fly there and do it myself. The librarians and archivists gave me leads and my job was reading through everything to find the best letters and diaries for my purposes. The most useful and best archivist or a curator was the one who could point me to certain archives and say, for example, “This is someone who had a fabulous love affair.” That would be the lead, and the rest of it would be my sitting there day and day, and reading and reading.
ZR: Considering the importance of letters and diaries to your account, do you mourn the decline in both in the 21st century?
CL: During all this period when I was raising my children, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was no sense of journal keeping or correspondence. But the past ten years or so, people are keeping more records than they ever kept and they are storing all their correspondence. These email letters are with us, there are more of them than we want, or than we can possibly handle. No, we aren’t using a pen or heavy, beautifully made paper, but we are expressing ourselves more than ever.
It’s similar to the frontier, when people whether educated or not, kept journals. Everyone kept them. We have the same thing now. If we go on blogs, half the people are ––well, maybe educated, true, but they don’t care if they’re literate or literary, and many of them aren’t. They’re just recording things that happen to them now. But there is a difference. The people on the frontier felt they were very much in the background of an important time. Today we think we are really, really important even though we don’t have anything to say. It’s narcissistic; it’s the “Me” generation, extended by three more generations. It just is what it is.
ZR: You’re speaking here of the bloggers?
CL: Yes. There’s a difference in quality. Perhaps a hundred years from now, these blogs will be just as valuable as the journals and letters of the 19th Century pioneers. Perhaps you’ll go to the Bancroft Library to the “Blog” section and there it’ll all be, tear stains, misspellings, popular slang, and verbal graffiti. You’ll have it all. . . There’s a difference in quality, however, from the old pioneer diaries. Nowadays, everybody has something to say about nothing.
Peter Hadreas, a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, and his colleagues are beginning to debate whether blogs are truly more philosophical than philosophy papers published in academic journals. The idea of a philosophy paper is a dialogue a la Socrates, and if you do a paper it’s just your opinion on the matter. But if you write a blog, it opens up a dialogue, which is actually true philosophy. What’s that going to do to the old “Publish or Perish” idea? It’s just one more way in which culture changes. Ideas spark. They go viral. They meet and collide. If they’re bad, they metastasize.
ZR: Did you get to touch and handle the actual letters and diaries you used as sources? Or were they micro-fiched?
CL: Oh, you have to put on your white gloves and you have to get used to looking at almost transparent paper, like onionskin. Often words were written horizontally across the page and also around the edges, because they had to compress as much onto a page as they possibly could. Paper was valuable. Words would be written crosshatched across other words to save paper. In other cases, the writing would be in a schoolbook and more orderly, Or the document might be typewritten by someone who came across it in the 20th Century and tried to transcribe it. Some letters were water-stained as with tears, and you could image that someone was crying. The paper itself really revealed a lot about them and what their lives were like. If I could read anything at all in a letter handwritten in tiny crabbed handwriting, or large, scrawling handwriting that loped across the page, I counted myself lucky. Sometimes it was a matter of getting three words, but finding the next three indecipherable, and then getting the next three, so you might be able after all to figure out what they were writing about. Some collections were also excerpted in other works, and then I would know exactly who to ask for. So then gradually I acquired my own “favorite” archives, and I could just go over to my files and select a relevant passage to use. This is one of the reasons I stopped writing: The archival materials became too favorite, almost too old and familiar.
ZR: The letters had marks, tears or blood or dirt?
CL: Yes, you could sometimes tell the writer or reader had been crying. No blood that I recall. Nobody wore lipstick in those days, so they didn’t blot their lips on the letters. Some letters were burned, as if they’d been read by candlelight. Many of these letters were so fragile, you could just hear them crack if you turned the page.
ZR: What was the paper like?
CL: The paper was fairly good. Everything was built better a hundred years ago. The libraries cover them in plastic and they put wedges in them, so you can only open the pages so far.
ZR: What will happen to all these documents in time?
CL: Someone will have a monstrous scanning task at some point. I don’t know how they are going to handle that.
ZR: The journals were pretty intimate?
CL: There were two or three journals I remember, in which a woman kept track of her period, and so she was worried about getting pregnant. But there wasn’t a lot of tortured soul-searching in most of the diaries, as you can see by reading my books.
ZR: Let’s talk about Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists 1772-1915. What inspired you to do this book?
CL: I had the idea because I was fascinated by frontier religious conversion experiences, and the documented cases of people who had no particular interest in religion or even Christianity, having a religious experience and suddenly feeling they had no choice but to preach and minister to others. I tried to collect those stories. It’s one thing to be someone who’s always wanted to become a minister, it’s another to be roped into it by the divine. These people all had dynamic conversion experiences that completely changed their lives.
ZR: You have a distant ancestor who became a traveling minister in Oregon, and you include an excerpt from his diaries in your book. Did you know when you started your research that you had a relative—a great-great-uncle, A.J. McNemee, I believe, who had kept a diary?
CL: I had no idea.
ZR: You recognized the name in an archive?
CL: No, I came across it in a genealogical reference. My own family has an archive at the St. Helena Wine Library and in that archive the name of this great-great-uncle was mentioned, as a descendent of the Myers. And there it was, this poor bachelor loping around trying to solace grieving widows and orphaned children. He’s one of the backwoods saints. If he were Catholic, he’d be a saint, that is. But since he was a Protestant, he’s an Everyman.
I was also interested in the topic because I had a similar spiritual experience. I had just turned 28, and I had a strong experience that said you now believe in God, as opposed to the day before when I didn’t. I’m a kind of free-range Christian. I was curious; I hoped to find accounts by others who had had similar experiences. It doesn’t happen to people who don’t have their faith; it’s usually people who are wondering about it. I just had this very strong experience. I wanted to see who else had had that experience of being suddenly overwhelmed by cosmic love: It was like being in a meteor shower. Science might call this a neurological event. I call it spiritual.
When people say religion, I usually balk. Religion seems different from faith. Those involved in organized religion so often lose their faith and have to claw their way back to some kind of place where they can believe again. From doubt to faith, and back again.
ZR: I am intrigued by the comparison you make in your introduction to Under God’s Spell between revival meetings in the 19th century and the 20th century political rally. Is there some of the same “brash assurance” as you call it, in the current American style of political oratory as there was in the revival meetings? Newt Ginghrich as a kind of revivalist?
CL: Yes, absolutely. Actually, religion in the U.S. has played an enormous part in the enfranchisement of women. The only reason women got the vote was that all the men went off to the Civil War, so women got active in the churches. They learned how to organize—how to fundraise, how to take petitions, and so on. They got savvy politically, because they had positions of power in the churches—but, oops, they couldn’t vote! And meanwhile they were all working on suffrage for the blacks. So women began to organize themselves for more powerful roles in society under the aegis of the church they belonged to—so long as the churches were Protestant, but not Lutheran, high church Anglican or Catholic, because these institutions took a dim view of Populism.
People were terrified of these large camp meetings, when the evangelist comes into town to “slay” the townspeople, “slay them in the spirit.” The evangelists came with big energy. The towns actually installed hitching posts for the express purpose of holding people up while they were under the evangelist’s power. These religious leaders were psychically extremely powerful. From a religious point of view, it’s easy to explain, but from a secular point of view, it seemed like mass hysteria.
Yes, women became involved in the churches, and in Chautauqua in New England. And you have the two Great Awakenings, the periods of intense religious revival in the United States. It was logical that if you could get thousands of people gathered together in a meadow for a camp meeting, you could take political advantage of that: It was a perfect place for politicians to campaign and make political points. People became accustomed to the bombast of the preachers. The political rally cum religious camp meeting really didn’t happen anywhere else in the world. It’s purely, uniquely American, this connection between politics and religion.
ZR: And the personalities of the itinerant preachers, do you think we find them today on the streets of our cities? What you call, and I quote, “Restless and idiosyncratic by nature, the itinerants were as footloose as any mountain men, proclaiming [. . .] their version of [. . . ][Christian] doctrine: ‘free will, free grace, and individual responsibility”?
CL: Berkeley reminds me a lot of a camp meeting. [We laugh.] They are decrying slightly different things, but they are all true believers. What can I say? I’m from Oakland.
ZR: How is American life, or at least life on the West Coast today, shaped by what happened one hundred to two hundred years ago?
CL: What happened 200 years ago would come under the rubric of Can Do. What’s happening now is mostly Can’t Do. And that’s really unfortunate. The Silicone Valley still manifests the pioneer spirit. A lot of the green energy manifests that same spirit–– except it’s government mandated—that’s the difference. The pioneers were individually mandated. I’m a little bit of a libertarian. Nowadays, it’s mostly what you can’t do, because there’s a regulation against it. Anybody trying to get a permit for anything will understand that. It’s the way it has to be. Life is different. The pioneer spirit is pretty much squashed.
Wait. I take it back. The spirit’s not squashed. There are thousand of ideas. The ideas are flowing; it’s just that it’s harder to get institutional and infrastructural support for them. A fabulous new book called Abundance–-I recommend it–– makes this point. As a people, we still question and resist authority. And now there’s an idealization of people who don’t graduate from college. You see all the green farmers, the plantation industry—growing marijuana. Not everything is squelched. Even among the thousands of bloggers, people who can’t achieve anything, but at least they can put down their point of view. And there are so many fabulous ideas that our society comes up with. We have so much great genius that it’s hard to be discouraged. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
ZR: Let’s turn to your book I Do! Courtship, Love and Marriage on the American Frontier. Your account vividly portrays the child and teen brides, and the numberless deaths in childbirth that left so many orphans. Only in the late 20th century did social scientists document the legacy that broken family bonds creates for a generation. Do you think the scarcity of civilized institutions and extended families to care for orphans, not to mention the paucity of other types of civilizing institutions—fraternal societies, clubs, social registers—led to the creation of an underclass of people who were—pardon my saying so—ill-mannered unkempt, undisciplined, incapable of making strong social bonds, in short an underclass of renegades?
CL: I think you are absolutely right. Anywhere else in the world, an underclass would be created by a top down decision. Here in this country, it’s a self-selecting decision, and the ones who make it to the urban centers have the best chance to survive and make it in American terms, to get out of the underclass. But it’s not just a question of staying or leaving the rural areas. There’s a strong cultural component. For example, I just finished a three-day trip with a woman friend from Cambodia who was in Pol Pot concentration camp. She came here, and she was responsible for raising her five siblings, while her parents had a sweatshop. She went to college and got a degree and began making money as a professional. But of her five siblings, not one of them went to college, yet they all look down on her, because although she is successful in American terms, she has no family, no children. It has nothing to do with being rural; it has to do with being in an ethnic ghetto. The siblings couldn’t boost themselves out.
They think they are better off because they have families and work as manicurists. . . Every population has its way of separating out a certain segment of the population, of ghettoizing its population, of dividing the culture into elite and non-elite. Separating out the strands. It’s just fascinating.
ZR: You describe at one point how the soldiers at one of the forts planned to have the wives and white women killed if it looked like they would be taken hostage by “redskins” and possibly raped. What do you make of the concept of personhood in this attitude toward women’s virtue? As if a woman ceased to exist if she was not longer ‘pure’—at least virtuous white women who were as yet unsullied. Yet this attitude may still exist in some parts of our culture as a kind of tribal attitude that fixes human relationship and identities, and that still exists.
CL: We’re seeing this right now in the Middle East, this over-emphasis on a woman ‘s virtue. Virtue was prized more than the woman; you saw a lot of this in Victorian times. That would make sense. Much of the Middle East is about 150 years behind the West in that respect.
ZR: It is no wonder everyone in the West was a writer, as writing—letters, diaries, expressive poems, and songs—is a way of establishing a self from the inside rather than the outside.
CL: That’s exactly right, and it’s extremely important to the Western experience, where you were removed from all your social bulwarks. A frontiersman in the West didn’t know if someone he met was honest or dishonest. They knew very, very little about the people around them. If someone carried a volume of Shakespeare’s plays in his saddle bag, you figured he was at least educated, but otherwise trust had to be established somehow. People tried to compensate for this lack of social structure by carrying letters of recommendation that said, “I know so and so.” They did this whenever possible. If they couldn’t do this, they would have to prove themselves through valor, hard work, or extreme honesty–– whatever trial and test might work to prove themselves to others. Everybody was on trial. You didn’t know who anybody was, but people were much more open and trusting. They gave you a chance to demonstrate who you were. But later things changed. After the Civil War, there was an influx of Southerners to the Far West. Everybody wanted to be around a Southerner, because of their gentile manners. They said, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am.” They introduced manners ordinarily expected of a European.
Nowadays, too, people are fashioning themselves to become whomever they wish. Maybe the whole on-line world is a little like the old American frontier. You’re presented with material but you try to read between the lines, and find a way to survive and thrive. You can create yourself and defeat yourself. On the frontier, you had to actually be a physical presence. In the new frontier of cyberspace, you don’t even have to do that to become to become an avatar.
Zara lives in Berkeley and is one of the first women to graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. She grew up along California’s North Coast, attending school in Portland when she was fourteen, and later Mills College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) for college and graduate school. In her twenties, she traveled, living in Paris, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where she made a living as a freelance editor and writer, participating for a time in the Capitol Hill Poetry Group, before returning to the West Coast to raise her children.
Early California is a subject of her book Swimming the Eel, just as the drama of family life is the subject of The Book of Gretel. In leaving behind the rural counties, she became a part of the human potential movement of the 1960′s, and that movement perhaps more than anything, shapes her life and her work. Since she was a teenager, she kept journals, and sometimes returns to those early notebooks for ideas. Her poems appear in many literary reviews and magazines, including The Dark Horse, The Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Arts & Letters, and others. She also review books and writes essays on literature for various publications, including the Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review, San Francisco/Sacramento Book Reviews, and The Boxcar Poetry Review.