Kate Field is probably the most fascinating person to ever spend time at Glen Haven, although she’s not exactly a household name these days. But she was once one of America’s best known public speakers, as well as a journalist, publisher, entrepreneur, actress, singer, playwright, feminist and a crusader for many causes. And she achieved all that she did in spite of slights, mockery, discrimination and outright hostility.
Oddly enough, and I really do mean “oddly,” while being almost totally forgotten, she is still a target. Look at her Wikipedia entry. The italics are mine:
“She afterward abandoned the regular comedy for dance, song, and recitation, but achieved no striking success. In 1882-83 she headed a Cooperative Dress Association in New York, which achieved a conspicuous failure. In 1889 she established Kate Field’s Washington, a weekly journal published in the capital. After 1868 she published numerous volumes of miscellaneous contents, no longer noteworthy.”
This is written by someone intent on trivializing Field’s life and ideas, someone who feels they must take the time to do this, even at this late date. In Kate Field’s lifetime, such treatment was par for the course. A reporter for the Syracuse Standard said this in 1885: “She is by no means handsome; but she has a good face, with a certain amount of powder she might make herself much liked by those whom she took the trouble to please.”
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Kate Field (1838-1896) was born Mary Katherine Keemle Field. Her mother was an actress and her father had a touring theater company. When young, she studied in Florence, and spent time with Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Walter Savage Landor, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. While in Sicily, she was kidnapped and held for ransom for six weeks; in that time, she learned to speak Italian. When her father died, she was left to support her mother and herself, and chose to do it with her pen. (She refused the support of a wealthy uncle because he asked for her silence in return for a guaranteed income.)
She was one of America’s premier lecturers in an era when touring lecturers were one of the nation’s main sources of information and entertainment. Her Charles Dickens lecture became a special favorite of audiences. She was famous for her letters to the New York Tribune about Charles Dickens’s American tour in 1867-68, and she edited these into a book, Pen Photographs of Charles Dickens’s Readings (1868). However, when Charles Dickens was feted by the New York Press Club, Miss Field could not attend the ‘men-only’ dinner.
She was a prolific travel writer for a number of papers during the 1860s and 1870s, and one of the first women to contribute to the Atlantic Monthly. She wrote an estimated 3,000 newspaper and magazine articles. Her “In and Out of the Woods,” an article in The Atlantic Almanac for 1870, was typical of her humor and her gumption. Field wrote about her trip into the Adirondacks in the summer of 1869, of the warnings before and her thoughts after:
“Friends wept over me as if I were going down to an early grave with malice prepense. I was warned against rattlesnakes, of which the North Woods are as innocent as New York City. I was bidden to beware of ferocious wild animals and Indians, that the civilized mind insisted were native, and to bad manners born. I made my will. I had nothing, and left it, without reservation, to my relations.”
“Who ought to go? Women; because they are in greatest need of just such a life. Yet they are the last that I would advise to go, because of their horror of the bare ground, a little dirt, and freedom from restraint. They sleep on feather-beds without a murmur, but shudder at the suggestion of a blanket in the open air. They go mad over the biting of mosquitoes, but accept an attack of diphtheria at Saratoga without complaint. They deride a bloomer dress, in which every muscle has full play, and drag unwholesome fashions through streets and parlors with infinite satisfaction. The open air means tan and freckles. Shall health be considered when complexion is in danger? Expansion of the lungs means expansion of the ribs. Can this be tolerated at the expense of an enlarged waist? But there are women who are willing to be tanned, freckled, and even made to resemble antique statuary, for the sake of renewed youth. Let such try the wilderness.”
In the late 1870s Field worked as a publicist for Alexander Graham Bell and helped to introduce the telephone to the U.S. and Great Britain. (She sang over the phone to Queen Victoria.) She helped to found the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, and was a leader in creating a memorial to abolitionist John Brown on his farm in the Adirondacks. She championed the preservation of Yosemite Valley and international copyright protection for authors. She was the primary model for the character of journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
Between 1890 and 1895, she published and wrote much of the copy for Kate Field’s Washington, a weekly newspaper of news, politics and culture in the nation’s capitol.
She alternately worked herself to exhaustion and then recovered at one watering place or another. From a refuge in France she wrote, “I scorn hair pins and let my hair roll in a fine frenzy down my back. I bathe in the sea and have an appetite that would do credit to a boa-constrictor. The amount of bread and milk I consume is appalling. Cows run when they see me approach and bakers gaze upon me as a special Providence.”
She had less success when she chose to embark on careers as an actress and singer, and when she threw her money and herself into a cooperative dress company in New York City, to provide good clothes to women of limited incomes, she did not succeed. But the chances of success were never considered when she began any project. “I do not hanker after posterity,” she said in 1886, “I only desire to be myself.”
She seemed happy to offer an opinion on any subject:
On lap dogs: “When I think of the pampering these little creatures get, and what a nuisance they are to travelers and how the same amount of care bestowed upon children would result in untold benefit to mankind, I become cynical.”
On overly dapper young men: “The dude is my horror — a creature who fills me with disgust. Of all the social excrescences inflicted upon that American bulb called ‘society,’ I deem him the most useless kind of fungus… He has no individuality, no manhood, no quality, even of the incipient order, and all that I can see that he is good for is to nurse his cane and flatten his nose at a club window.”
On cremation: “I believe cremation is not only the healthiest and cleanest, but the most poetical way of disposing of the dead. Whoever prefers loathsome worms to ashes, possesses a strange imagination.”
On pancakes: “What would become of the wilderness without flapjacks? They are the beginning and the end of all things; they are the game by which we live and move and have our being. He who has experienced the joys of flapjacks and maple sirup, has not lived in vain. The two combined are enough to put one in a good humor without original sin. Suppose we do eat everything off the same plate, suppose we are reduced to two-pronged forks, and our blouses for a napkin, what matters it, if we are happy? And we are happy. The recollection of those flapjacks endures until the next meal, when we renew our attentions with the ardor of a lover whose inamorata is good enough to eat!”
On the morgue in Paris: “Warranted to kill time.”
It did not trouble her that some of her views were unpopular or inconsistent. In favor of temperance but opposed to total prohibition, she was excoriated by the guardians of morality. She did not support women’s suffrage because she was opposed to universal suffrage – she felt the right to vote should come with education and good character. She praised Chinese immigrants in the west but referred to immigrants in the east as “the scum of Europe.”
One of her greatest crusades was sparked by a stop in Salt Lake City in 1883. She went for a short visit and stayed for eight months. Utah was not a state at that time, but a U.S. territory where the Church of Latter Day Saints had established a de facto theocracy. Field was angered by the plight of women in Utah’s polygamist society and by men who maintained the authority of the church over and above U.S. law. She famously stated, “Mormonism is not a religion. It is a political machine founded on treason.” When she returned east, Field decided that Mormonism would be the main subject of her lectures.
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In the summer of 1885, Kate Field stayed with friends at Glen Haven and at the new hotel; while there, she wrote three lectures: “The Mormon Monster,” “Polygamy in Utah,” and “Social and Political Crimes in Utah.” (She eventually presented these all over the country, including – no kidding – Salt Lake City where she delivered “The Mormon Monster” in 1887.)
The newspaper reports of her stay at Glen Haven were an odd mix of triviality, snide asides and unintended compliments:
“Miss Kate Field has fitted up rooms for herself in the new hotel at Glen Haven which are the wonder of the town. They abound in books, bric-a-brac, pictures, rare furniture and hangings, and she sits at a window overlooking Skaneateles Lake and muses on the Mormon question.” — Union Springs Advertiser, July 14, 1885
“Her hair is dark and her teeth remarkably beautiful. I should characterize her manner as brisk and self-poised and to strangers uncourteous; in fact, she is lacking in that fine graciousness which is most often found in those of noble nature… To see her pick her way through a crowded piazza as if she were going through a field of teasels is a study. But to see her enter the sanitary bathroom is something to be remembered. The ladies who may happen to be there might as well be the bath tubs as far as Miss Kate Field is concerned… She is also a good horsewoman and very independent in the matter, too, as she can—and sometime does—go into the stable and saddle her own horse. To sum her up on the words of one of the proprietors here, ‘She is a lady who knows her own mind, knows what she wants, intends to have it, and is willing to pay for it.’” – “A Picture of Kate Field,” Syracuse Standard, August 9, 1885
“Her moping gave the visitors no concern whatever and she was allowed to pose as a recluse in her literary cell without molestation. They said she was engaged in the deadly work of forging thunderbolts against the Mormons… But the Glen was not wholly distasteful to Miss Field, though she remained only a short time. ‘Nice place enough,’ she said, the day she loaded her trunks and traps on the steamer, ‘but the grub, I can’t stand the grub.’” – Syracuse Standard, November 22, 1885
“Miss Field was recommended to go to Glen Haven on account of its quiet life, but after a week’s sojourn she said that its fame in that regard was undeserved. The swarm of children, and the privileges they enjoyed, greatly annoyed her, and as she told those she met, interfered with her literary work.” – “Kate Field Dead,” Syracuse Daily Standard, May 31, 1896
The last quote above comes from the Syracuse Daily Standard report of Kate Field’s death on May 31, 1896. The newspaper devoted more than half of her death notice to criticizing her treatment of Glen Haven and its guests in her short story “Our Summer’s Outing,” written 10 years earlier. The reporter noted:
“It was an acrid exploiting of her own feelings, and though she disguised the names of the characters introduced, numbers of them were recognized as exaggerated pictures of well known sojourners. Among others at whom she had a shy were five or six Syracusans who had metaphorically trodden on her toes… Altogether, it was an ill-natured narrative, and at the time placed Miss Field on the books of a large number of pleasant folks.”
You can read the story here. In Field’s short story – which combined Glen Haven and Clifton Springs in a fictional resort called “Liberty Hall” – she described a stage driver, a hotel clerk, a waitress in the dining room, neighboring farmers, the staff physician, excursionists arriving on the steamboat, some country maidens and a watchman. The only guests mentioned were “No. 30,” who had been sent to Liberty Hall to dry out, but had gotten into some beer across the lake and was attempting to set fire to his bedding; a bully with a whip and a dog, and the woman who loved them both; and two guests, as follows:
“At every summer resort is one young lady who prides herself on her singing. She is generally a soprano with a special fondness for high notes, which she attacks half a tone too low. Somebody who owes the world a grudge always asks her to sing about eight o’clock in the evening. She goes to the piano reluctantly and remains until half past ten. Toward the close of the performance this shrieking soprano is joined by a more retiring barytone; then duets set in with great severity… And when the soprano and barytone came upstairs and talked loud nothings for fifteen minutes in the hall, it seemed to me that as a choice of evils I preferred cats.”
But numbers of well-known sojourners? Five or six Syracusans? A large number of pleasant folks? I believe it was the reporter who was guilty of exaggeration, and not for the sake of humor. Which is not to say that Kate Field held everyone she met in high esteem. Two months after her upstate visit, in October of 1885, she said to a New York reporter, ” I am simply staggered by the opaque stupidity of the average villager. You see, I am just back from Clifton Springs and have had an allopathic dose of rural imbecility.”
This, too, points out the paradox that was Kate Field, for while at Clifton Springs, she gave a musical recital — singing in English, Spanish and Italian — to benefit the women employees of the sanitarium, enabling them to employ a writing teacher during the winter.
Nor was “Liberty Hall” the only object of her scorn. From a hotel in Great Malvern, England, she wrote, “A stupider set of fifty beings never was before collected. I am the sole redeeming feature (modest but true).”
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Kate Field lived her life on her own terms, for all of her life. She never married – didn’t want to. Called “peculiar,” she replied, “Peculiar because it is peculiar to be plain-spoken.”
One writer noted that she was “possessed of such bold and original powers of observation and expression that her views on subjects of public interest have never failed to command interested attention.” Another described her as “an indefatigable worker, quick and ready with her pen and her tongue.” Laurence Hutton, a drama critic, said she was “one of the cleverest, most self-contained, most self-sustaining women of her generation in any country.”
In 1896, sent to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands for a much-needed rest, she instead treated the trip as a fact-finding mission for supporters of annexation and as a writing assignment. Exhausted, she came down with pneumonia.
On her death bed, she was asked if she wanted the native Hawaiians outside her window to stop singing. “Oh, no,” she said, “music is Paradise to me.”
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Kate Field painted in 1881 by Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912); today in the Fine Arts Department of the Boston Public Library, along with 1,500 of her personal letters.
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As per her wishes, Kate Field’s body was cremated and her ashes brought from Hawaii for burial in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1897. For further reading: Kate Field: A Record (1899) by Lilian Whiting; Kate Field: Selected Letters (1996) edited by Carolyn J. Moss; Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century Journalist (2008) by Gary Scharnhorst. Hap Hazard (1873) is a collection of her writing, and Ten Days in Spain (1875) recounts her journey into Spain during a revolution.