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Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

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My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.

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My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.

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These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.

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However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”

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In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.

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Literary Foremothers

Pearlmoonplenty readers: I’m sharing here a short piece I wrote for the “Inspired Books” column of my alma mater’s library publication.  

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel . . . and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

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So spoke Jane Eyre, the fiery heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s book of the same name. Reading the novel as a young girl, I felt the injustice of Jane forced to stand on a stool in the middle of the schoolroom because she had accidentally dropped her slate.

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From the time my schoolteacher grandmother taught me to read, I was drawn to young women protagonists: Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, and Jo March of Little Women were some of my favorites. When I started college at Colorado State University in 1977, I majored in microbiology but pursued the newly created Women’s Studies certificate as well. I took every women’s literature course I could, all taught by wonderful professors who were building this new program. But I thought of these courses as electives, taken more for fun than as preparation for any career.

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Following my sophomore year, I discovered Ellen Moer’s Literary Women: The Great Writers at the small library in the New England town where I was spending the summer. Akin to my Women’s Studies courses, Moer’s book examined writers like Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand as women–for their gender–rather than as members of a literary movement, regional location, or social affiliation. With the Dictionary Catalogue of Literary Women at the back of Moer’s book as my guide, I set myself a course of summer study of whatever women writers the small library offered, taking notes on yellow legal pads that I wish I still had today.

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What began as a passion became the topic of my Master’s and PhD research, followed by 24 years teaching a diversity of women’s literature courses at CU-Boulder. On the first day of class, students always asked me to choose my favorite book from the syllabus. I would tell them why I liked each of the books and, while I could never choose just one, how all the protagonists were in the mold set by Jane Eyre years ago: women speaking against injustice, defending their rights, and insisting their voices be heard.

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Letters Between Friends

This pearlmoonplenty is lengthier than most; the author asks her readers’ indulgence for her own.

 

My dear Virginia

How much I like getting letters from you. 

With what zest do they send me to meet the day.

So much do I like getting them, that I keep them as the last letter to open of my morning post, like a child keeps the bit of chocolate for the end—

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 2 September 1925

 

Virginia Woolf was born 130 years ago today. She has long been an important writer and role model for me, but I didn’t know much about Woolf’s seventeen-year relationship with Vita Sackville-West until friends gave me The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf for Christmas. Reading these letters not only introduced me to intriguing aspects of Woolf’s life, but also inspired an appreciation for Sackville-West beyond her historical status as Woolf’s lover, friend, and muse behind her most imaginative character and novel, Orlando. A poet and novelist herself, Sackville-West strode through Woolf’s life in breeches and pearls, a devotee of Woolf’s artistic genius and maternal protector of Woolf’s fragile health and self-confidence.

The book contains all the surviving letters written by Sackville-West to Woolf, as well as relevant excerpts from Woolf’s letters to “My dear Vita.” Together they sketch a charged and complex friendship that evolved from romance to affection to deep appreciation and support between two avant garde women well matched in their conflicting personal desire for love and independence.

Begun in 1923 when Sackville-West invites Woolf to join the P.E.N. club of which she was a member (an invitation Woolf politely declined—she was no joiner), the letters continue until March 22, 1941, six days before Woolf’s suicide. Woolf’s last letter did not allude to her ensuing madness and her death shocked Sackville-West, who years later confided to her husband, “I still think that I might have saved her if only I had been there and had known the state of mind she was getting into.” Perhaps that help was something Woolf intended to avoid.

Both women had been raised with the privilege of English upper-class consciousness but were determined to live beyond the gendered expectations for propriety it bestowed. Sackville-West used her aristocratic position and open marriage to a diplomat to shape a life of sexual freedom and world travel; ten years older, Woolf used her intellectual capacities and marriage to a supportive husband to pursue literary achievements that have earned her lasting renown. Their letters portray a mutual impulse for pushing life to its edge, an emotional necessity for Sackville-West, while for Woolf, an artistic one.

As their relationship turned from recognition of each other’s social rebellion to a more intimate level of affection, they often used pet names or their own pets to express their feelings. Days after their short-lived sexual affair began, Woolf referred to Sackville-West as a “dear old rough coated sheep dog,” an image she repeated over the years, while Sackville-West jokingly referred to Woolf as “Potto,” a name Woolf created for the child-like creature she became in her desire for Vita: “Potto kisses you and says he could rub your back and cure it by licking.”

Over the years, both women used letter-writing to discuss their ideas about writing that reveal important insights into both their literary styles. For Sackville-West, Woolf is the writer to whom her own writing can never compare: “[Passenger to Teheran] is a rambling, discursive sort of affair. And I think of your lovely books, and despair.” She complains that Woolf has “the mot juste [Flaubert’s term for the “right word”] more than any modern writer” she knows: “I wonder whether it costs you a lot of thought or trouble, or springs ready-armed like Athene from the brow of Zeus? I don’t believe it does cost you trouble (confound you!) because you have it in your letters too, where you certainly haven’t made a draught (draft?), and where there is never anything but an impatient scratching or two.”

Woolf sidesteps this compliment by debating literary strategy instead: “As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” For Woolf, rhythm “goes far deeper than words”: “A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, . . . and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.” [Click here for the only surviving recording of Woolf, speaking in a radio broadcast about words]

Although their writing was quite different in style and story, their letters share a concern for novelistic form. Writing from Germany in 1928, Sackville-West begins to imagine her novel The Edwardians (for which she and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press made a nice sum) as “a sort of patch-work counterpane . . . beginning to form, but so far the patches are only laid side by side and I have not yet begun to stitch at them.” Wondering whether it is better to “fail gloriously than dingily succeed” (the clear answer for Sackville-West being the former), she concludes that “one’s pen, like water, always finds its own level, and one can’t write in any way other than one’s own.”

Woolf’s reply reflects the anguish she experienced about form and voice echoed in her diaries: “I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that its to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable: but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.”

Despite the commercial success of Sackville-West’s novels and poetry, both women recognized Woolf’s superior artistry. “When I read you,” writes Sackville-West, “I feel no one has ever written English prose before.” In reply, Woolf reminds her friend of the work involved in writing well: “Yes I do write damned well sometimes, but not these last days, when I’ve been slogging through a cursed article, and see my novel [To the Lighthouse] glowing like the Island of the Blessed far far away over dismal wastes, and cant [sic] reach land.”

But for all their literary aspirations, Vita and Virginia were friends who wrote about the common things that women share: food, family, small gifts, gossip about friend’s love affairs. Early in their friendship when Woolf earned money from the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, she wrote, “And, dearest Vita, we are having two waterclosets made, . . . both dedicated to you.” They pierced their ears together, after which Vita wrote, “Are your ears still sore? Have you enjoyed the sensation of twiddling the rings when they have stuck?” They took only one extended trip together to Burgundy but until the later years, they met in London frequently and dined at each other’s houses like friends do. During the war, Sackville-West sent butter on Christmas Day, eliciting Woolf’s grateful delight: “Oh Vita what a Cornucopia of Bounty you are!”

Woolf and Sackville-West used letters as a space for first creating, then maintaining a long and loyal friendship that survived jealousy, distance, debate, illness, the boredom of predictability, and the distractions of their busy lives. As WWII brought fear that each visit would be their last, their correspondence assured each other of their continuing love and affection. In 1939, when Sackville-West sent Woolf a copy of her book Country Notes, Woolf called it “a dose of sanity and sheep dog in this scratching, clawing, and colding universe.”  In April 1940 as bombs fell around their homes, Sackville-West wrote, “Your friendship means so much to me. In fact it is one of the major things in my life—.” And in August, Woolf lamented the bombing near Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle and reaffirmed her love: “What can one say, except that I love you. . . . You have given me such happiness.”

Reading such an intimate friendship between these vital women makes me value my own correspondences with women friends all the more. Email has taken the place of twice-daily postal service by which we can keep in near constant written contact, but the sentiments are the same. Writing to each of my friends has its own timing—some weekly, some monthly, some more intermittent, but all valued for the support they lend to my goals and my sense of self.

One dear friend and I still write letters on stationery and mail them in envelopes with stamps; I look forward to their arrival and read them as Sackville-West did, like children save chocolate. I’ve kept every letter she’s sent in pretty dresser boxes; perhaps someday I’ll read them all straight through again. Another friend mails postcards from her travels; I’ve saved those too, as well as the poems she sends in exchange for my ramblings. And I have stopped corresponding with a few friends when I felt the support became less mutual and interests no longer met.

It seems letter-writing for me, no matter the form, is as important an indication of continuing love and affection for my friends as it was for Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. My friends, near and far, are lively correspondents. How excited I am to find their letters in my mailbox or In-Box. A letter says “I’m thinking of you” and so much more. Preserving our friendship’s history and anticipating its future, we write of ourselves, our dreams, our joys, and our sorrows, trying always to find the right words to say, “Thank you for being my reader.”

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