I met Jeanne Foster in the most mundane scholarly way, by following a reference in a footnote. Joseph Hone's book of letters between W. B. Yeats and his father mentioned that the old man was buried in Chestertown, New York, in the family plot of Jeanne Foster of Schenectady. Pursuing this lead opened a new world to me and guided me to a friendship with of one of the most remarkable people I have known.
After making an appointment with her, I drove to her house at 1762 Albany Street in Schenectady. I later discovered that her wine-colored home had once been part of a five-acre parcel that Mrs. Foster had helped her parents purchase in 1901. Because of financial needs, pieces had been sold off over the years.
A petite elderly woman answered the door. She was gracious and receptive, and I felt immediately at ease. She ushered me through her foyer and into her living room. I was astounded by what I saw. Paintings by André Derain, Costin Petrescu, Gwen John, J.B. Yeats, and Maud Gonne ringed the room. My first glance gave me only the slightest clue about the treasures that home held, the greatest one being Jeanne Foster herself.
Jeanne Elizabeth Oliver (also Oliviere) was born in Johnsburg, New York, on 10 March 1879. It is difficult to imagine a less auspicious beginning for a career which spanned more than seventy years. At Jeanne's birth, the attending physician, Dr. Wallace Aldrich of North Creek, concluded that the baby was stillborn because of the rigorous delivery. He placed Jeanne on the window sill and attended to Mrs. Oliver. When he checked the baby after an hour or so had elapsed, he was astonished to find her alive. Later, when he would meet young Jeanne on the streets of Chestertown, he never failed to tell her that her survival was still a mystery to him.
Jeanne remained at her teaching position for nearly three years, leaving it to marry Matlack Foster (often misspelled as Matlock) on 25 August 1897. She was eighteen; he was forty-six. Mr. Foster was to be an indirect agent for Jeanne's career, for immediately after their marriage, the couple moved to 19 East Avenue, Rochester, where Mr. Foster had an insurance business. Jeanne cared for her mother-in-law, Jane Tripp Foster, until the latter's death in the autumn of 1900.
After the funeral, Jeanne found herself with leisure for the first time in her life. She and Mr. Foster took a trip to New York City, where they met David Dodge, editor of Vanity Fair. Dodge was understandably entranced with Jeanne's beauty, and suggested that she pose for his magazine. Mr. Foster did not seriously object, but suggested that she use the name Jeanne Elspeth (a version of her middle name, Elizabeth). The photographs turned out so well that Dodge devoted an entire spread to Jeanne in the December 1900 issue. She became a favorite model of Harrison Fisher, a competitor of Charles Dana Gibson, and was chosen as the "Harrison Fisher Girl" of 1903.
So began a career in modeling that later transformed itself into a career as a journalist with the American Review of Reviews. Her beauty opened doors, and she began to meet people who would be instrumental in her future, including John Butler Yeats, father of Nobel poet William Butler Yeats. Others with whom she became close friends were editors Jean Torry and John E. Milholland (parents of suffragette Inez Milholland Boissvain); poets Vachel Lindsay, Joyce Kilmer, and Pulitzer winner Marya Zaturenska; and occultist Aleister Crowley.
Over the years, as I read and re-read the letters Jeanne wrote to me and to others, I felt compelled to write her biography. Jeanne gave me her diaries before she died, and when I transcribed them, I knew that such a woman should have her story told. With the assistance of my wife, Janis, the biography was completed and published by Syracuse University Press in 2001. Jeanne's story -- her trips to Paris to meet Brancusi and Picasso, her friendship with
A Jeanne Foster festival is being planned in Chestertown for 2004, and it is appropriate that Locust Hill Press has just released a 2002 edition of Foster's first and best book of poetry, Neighbors of Yesterday.
Neighbors of Yesterday enjoyed an unusual critical and popular success when it was originally released in 1916. In addition to its Adirondack audience, Neighbors gathered accolades from such diverse parts of the country as New York City, Louisiana, and Ohio. Contemporary reviewers compared Foster favorably with Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters, and indeed her sense of the American experience rivals these poets. Her friends in the higher echelons of poetry included William Butler Yeats, Padraic Colum, and Ezra Pound. In fact, it was Pound who advised Foster to eschew other forms and stick with the Adirondack poems that he felt were her real strength.
The first person to discover her talents in that genre was John Butler Yeats. The elder Yeats had been commenting on her work for some time, and believed in her talent, although he was often critical of her earlier efforts. He warned her against sentimentality and urged her to rewrite often in the search for the exact word. When Neighbors of Yesterday was published, Yeats knew Jeanne Foster had succeeded. He wrote to her on 2 March 1917: "I love the words in your book, they are perfection every time, and you know so much. Where did you get it all? The specific gravity is weighty in every line and there is music, heaps of it, and such common sense, which is substance of poetry."
In 1963, the Schenectady firm of Riedinger and Riedinger printed a facsimile of Neighbors of Yesterday, but this edition, too, is no longer available. Adirondack Portraits (Syracuse University Press), a collection of Foster's posthumous verse edited by Noel Riedinger-Johnson, was published in 1986 and has recently been reissued. In 1989, Kate Winter included a chapter on Foster in The Woman in the Mountain (Albany: SUNY Press), a study of the Adirondack pioneer spirit. Songwriters Bridget Ball, Peggy Lynn, and Dan Berggren, who have set her poems to music, aided the resurgence of interest in Foster's poetry. In addition there have been the dramatic presentations by the Grasse River Players and the one-woman performances of Eileen Egan Mack, all of which have created a new audience for Foster's work. In 1994, the Plattsburgh public broadcasting station (WCFE) produced an award-winning one-hour program about Foster's life and work. With the publication of her biography, the stage has been set for the reintroduction of Foster's most successful work to the readers of a new century. Her poems are startling for the time and resonate for another audience generations later.
In ways that she only partially understood or acknowledged, adopting personae was remarkably liberating for a young woman emerging from the proscriptions of the nineteenth century. Although she almost certainly would have been uncomfortable with the term, Jeanne was a feminist decades ahead of her time. In spite of the fact that many of her speakers in her poems are men, a clearly feminine insight pervades this collection. Her male narrators communicate through the vessel of female awareness, either through their atypical understanding, as in "Flint," or through the antithesis of such understanding in "Ben Enoch's Fools." In spite of the poet's elevation of male genius, it is women who understand and sustain the subsistence community inhabited by Foster's people.
That such a perspective is significant for the survival of dirt-poor farmers is at least arguable, and one may refer to other struggling cultures, such as the Irish heritage from which many of these people came. In Ireland of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as in other subject societies, the female often assumed precedence in the family. We need only look at the plays of Sean O'Casey or John Millington Synge to find models of this kind of benevolent matriarchy. At such times and under such conditions the man becomes like another child, protected against the uncertainty of life by a powerful mother figure. Foster's poetry is replete with such women, with Neighbors' "The Mother" being perhaps the best illustration. In this poem, Foster diffuses her focus among three women:
There is the mother, who is ironing a shirt for George, her husband, so that he can attend a party given by Nance Wilson, a sophisticate who may provide an example of success in another world. There is the narrator, a woman who doesn't understand how the mother can release her husband to the likes of a femme fatale, and there is the implied presence of Nance Wilson, who may or may not pose a threat.
The mother explains that after marriage a husband becomes nothing more or less than another child whose welfare she must manage. Foster's own experience is mirrored here, for although she had no child of her own, her father and later her husband became such wards, men who had failed to conquer the business world and who needed the support of a nurturing woman. She was also the sophisticate who had seen and prevailed in the great cities, and finally the woman who wondered why men had to be treated so tenderly.
There are other men in Neighbors of Yesterday who are qualified failures, among them Alec Hill, "the good-for-nothing" who is redeemed by having to dress up to act as pallbearer in a rich man's funeral. Alec likes his new persona so much that he reforms and carries his family with him to respectability, although their welfare clearly meant little to him before. In "Ezra Brown," the title character's piety cannot stand testing, and he finally denies the God he had attempted to please through years of charity. There is also Dave Murdock in "The Coward," a farmer who abandons his place to the cats he is too softhearted to kill.
Most ominous is Ben Enoch ("Ben Enoch's Fools"), a successful but callous man. Ben must have around him "genuine fools" who will do his bidding without question. He has depended on the poorhouse for a supply of such workers, but once the place foisted a half-wit on him. Ben couldn't have that. Nothing less than complete subservience would do. The last line of the poem is telling: "Women's the same; stay clear of the pert ones."
The man who fares best in Foster's poetry is the hunchback, Jim Pasco, whose affliction gives him a feminine sensibility. He knows he must labor to dispel the prejudice that his neighbors feel for him, smile and be pleasant when he is made the butt of jokes. Just as women sometimes do, he must work harder than anyone in order to accomplish the same ends as the able-bodied.
Foster also compiled Adirondack folk tales and included her own renditions in verse in Neighbors of Yesterday, but while they are in themselves delightful, they do not have the naturalistic bite of her portraits. They are mainly straightforward retellings of stories she had heard from her father or other narrators, and they have about them the collective stamp of many speakers, much as do other folk tales. These are people that she deals with from a distance, and although their stories are compelling, they do not have the ring of personal experience. In another book they alone would be worth the purchase price, but here they serve as meaningful counterpoint to the startling images of Foster's neighbors caught in the naturalistic flux of mountain life.
Why is Neighbors of Yesterday unique among Foster's poetry? In this book she is freed from her preconceptions of the poet, especially the woman poet, whose sensibilities she explores in Wild Apples, a collection published later the same year by the same publisher (Sherman French, 1916), and later in Rock Flower (Boni and Liveright, 1923). As she reported to me and to others, Neighbors of Yesterday is simply a vehicle for the stories of her neighbors that she repeats "truthfully."
There is, of course, literal truth and poetic truth, and in Neighbors of Yesterday Foster is not bound by the former. For instance, she told me that the deacon in "The Deacon's Wife" was her father. The poem has him, while a relatively young man, drop dead while plowing. As a matter of fact, her father lived until, full of years, he died in 1933.
This assumption on her part of unvarnished reporting gave Foster the license to speak more directly about the conditions of her early life and the people who formed her first perceptions. The dramatic monologue, a device she borrowed from Robert Browning, provided the distancing of a persona through whom she could speak, like the wizard behind the curtain.
Jeanne Foster was always concerned with being a lady, even through a career that linked her intimately with some of the most influential men of her time. She maintained until the last the pose of the proper matron, although her diaries reveal quite another story. This reticence, which imbues much of her other poetry, is not to be found in Neighbors of Yesterday. There she speaks boldly and directly. The ruin of Silence Davis by her clod of a husband is dealt with straightforwardly, as is the near frozen lunacy of the woman with the green bow, who interrupts her ceaseless sweeping at the poor farm to attach a threadbare bow to her dress. She cannot bear the thought that any visitor should see her without her badge of respectability. As Foster says in "Alec Hill: The Good-For-Nothing," "Respectability's half in its trappings."
Foster's choice of narrative over lyric is fortunate in Neighbors of Yesterday, because narrative has the advantage of story line to interest the reader, while lyric must depend more on purely poetic elements, much as a portrait is more accessible than an abstract painting. That is not to say that the poems of Neighbors of Yesterday are lacking in poetic skill. They evolve naturally from the material, and what seems the most casual conversation, for example, is the intentional removal of accents from a poetic line. Once given this freedom of both subject and technique, Foster's natural talent emerges.
Foster is also aware of the judicious use of color, as in the poems "Flint," "Union Blue," and "Her Flowers." In "Flint," the monochromatic portrait of the old couple is accented by the "pink-striped peppermint candy" that is passed surreptitiously behind the wife's back to her husband: "She couldn't bear to have the little treat / And feel that he was not sharing it too."
In "Union Blue" the gradual fading of the dead son's uniform represents the father's difficulty in grasping his responsibilities for Sonny's death. They had gone to war together, "To fight the Rebs to make the black men free." That was clear enough. But how could such a simple, noble sentiment result in Sonny's empty uniform? It hangs behind the stairway door, "With corporal's straps all tarnished with the years." After decades of this mystery, the father is granted a measure of absolution when he chooses to protect Sonny's coat against defilement by the robbers. So, although he could not protect Sonny from a random bullet, he will endure torture to protect the fading emblem of his child.
In "Her Flowers," there is an explosion of color in a woman's garden which challenges the austerity of the Adirondacks. We learn that the old woman, who died because she was reluctant to allow the doctor to see her breast, made her garden of cuttings from the graves in her small community, and identified each flower with the deceased: "This bush is Niece Abigal's snowdrop, / And that vine is Uncle John's myrtle."
In this way the annals of the community are kept. Women, the glue of the society, insure its continuation by transferring the blooms from graves to their country gardens, keeping vital the "green fuse" that unites us all.
Permeating Neighbors of Yesterday is a vitality that imbues the human spirit even in the grimmest circumstances. No matter what life deals, it is, after all, life, and we must face it not simply with endurance, but with gratitude and appreciation. As Jeanne herself told me, "Never forget the privilege of awareness."
RICHARD LONDRAVILLE is co-author of Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford... with Janis Londraville. Richard Londraville has lectured on Yeats's Last Poems at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland and at Trinity College, Dublin. He has held visiting professorships at the University of Hiroshima and Taipei Normal University, Taiwan (where he produced Yeats's Cuchulain cycle in the style of Chinese Opera), and at California State University at Chico. He is Professor Emeritus of Literature at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
by Richard Londraville
At fourteen, Jeanne had another brush with death. She contracted rheumatic fever, and it left her with a permanently disabled heart valve. She not only survived but thrived, for it was in this same year (1893) that she published the first of her many newspaper articles. It was titled "Autumn Leaves," a description of the fall foliage on her native Panther Mountain (Chestertown), and it appeared in Vermont Farm and Home. This first by-line kindled an interest in writing, which remained with her until her death in 1970.
Jeanne was a precocious child, interested in everything, and by far the best scholar in the rural school which she attended; but it is clear that she would have excelled in almost any school. She was such an exceptional student, in fact, that she became a teacher at the age of fifteen. Although she was underage, she had scored so well in the examinations for a teaching license that Roxy Tuttle, school commissioner for Warren County, decided that the age requirement should be waived in view of Jeanne's demonstrated ability. She was awarded a contract to teach in Warren County, and her $5.00 weekly salary was a welcome addition to the family income.