A Tribute to Clara Ingram Judson

Sunday, March 01, 2009

As a compulsive reader and pathological scavenger, I cannot pass a box of free books without stopping to rummage. Thus, one day last week on my way off campus, I stopped in the teachers’ room to glance through a stack of culls from the library shelves. Several books looked interesting, but a slim volume titled Boat Builder sent me into—not exactly an out-of-body experience—but certainly 50 years across time.

“Robert Fulton,” I said to myself as I glanced at the author: Judson.

I was not always a compulsive reader. My mother tells me that as a 3rd grader, I knew how to read by hadn’t quite figured out what it was for. I enjoyed having my parents read to me, but I can remember that every two weeks my mother would take me to the public library in hopes that some book would catch my fancy. It did not happen until I discovered the shelf of biographies by Clara Ingram Judson. In rapid succession, I read every book there. By the time I completed it, I was a lover of both reading and history.

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She wrote about people: Thomas Jefferson: Champion of the People and Benjamin Franklin became more than role models, they became personal playmates. Each book enriched my understanding of what one human life could accomplish: Abraham Lincoln (back in print, 2007, Sterling Point Books: Abraham Lincoln: Friend of the People ), George Washington: Leader of the People, Theodore Roosevelt: Fighting Patriot, Mr Justice Holmes, Jane Addams and Hull House, Thomas Edison, Simon Bolivar, Andrew Carnegie, Cyrus McCormick, Sun Yat-Sen, Donald McKay and his Yankee Clippers, John Jacob Astor, William Gorgas curing Yellow Fever, and Christopher Columbus. She wrote about places as if they were people: Sault Ste Marie, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. I look down the list now on Amazon, and I remember every one of them.

By the time I got to high school, I did not need to read the history books. I had read biographies of almost everyone mentioned in the texts.

Today I earn my living herding twelve and thirteen-year-olds through history. I try to make it interesting for them by telling stories about the individuals who made our history. Many of those stories I picked up before I was ten, from reading Clara Ingram Judson. But beyond that, yesterday I turned in my thesis for a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing (fiction). It is a complex novel, at the surface a story about the death penalty, but at a deeper level it says a great deal about immigrants and immigration. So I was amazed just now as I looked at Judson’s list of books. There was another series she wrote, historical fiction, each book the account of one immigrant family. I had forgotten those books, yet I read the titles, and could fill in every country of origin:
Sod-house Winter: They Came from Sweden,
The lost violin;: They came from Bohemia, and books on immigrants from Ireland, France, Scotland, and Dalmatia. If you had asked me a week ago where I developed my life-long interest in immigration, I might have traced it to reading Carey McWilliams in my teens, but there it is: reading Clara Ingram Judson before I turned ten.

Going through grad school these past five years, I have often been asked to name an author who helped mold me. I always felt a little deficient for not having a ready answer. Now I have an answer, it’s just not what any of the questioners would expect.

Judson (1878-1960) would have been a contemporary of my great-grandmother. Among other things, she wrote cook-books for girls and a fiction series of “Mary Jane” books that I never read. You can get Mary Jane now as a Kindle Book, with the reader’s choice of foreign language embedded so that by placing the cursor over a word, the Spanish (for example, Mary Jane - Webster's Spanish Thesaurus Edition ), Italian, German, French, Bulgarian, Polish, Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Ukrainian, Czech, Thai, or Urdu translation will appear. Having spent my lifetime thinking about how immigrants assimilate (or fail to), that tickles me. Looking at what she chose to write about, I think it would have tickled Judson, as well.

At the end of my thesis, I have a three page selected bibliography. I know, novels don’t usually come with bibliographies, but mine is an historical novel and I’ve put a lot of research into it. As a compulsive reader and a pathological scavenger, I’ve collected ideas from all over. Actually, when I started writing the novel, less than ten years after Judson’s death, I thought I was working on a contemporary. It has only turned into an historical as it has taken me nearly four decades to complete it. In the course of preparation for publication, the thesis will be back in my hands at least once to make some corrections.

When it does, I am going to sneak one more book onto the bibliography: something, anything, by Clara Ingram Judson.


What I most remember from all my years of history classes is that General Santa Anna held a funeral for his leg, and the rest of his body never got one. Did you learn that from Clara Ingram Judson?

caedmonstia said...
March 2, 2009 at 7:36 AM  

It's amazing how small things that we can't remember affect us so deeply. Finding that thread to the past is so gratifying. I look forward to reading your novel.
Caedmonstia- I know that story was in Paul Harvey's book- The Rest of the Story.

Lomagirl said...
March 2, 2009 at 9:49 AM  

Enjoyed your post! I read the whole Mary Jane series when I was seven. They were hand me downs from my grandmother and mother, and I realize now they were very tame but I was extremely fond of them at the time (and still own the whole set!).

CLM said...
May 4, 2009 at 6:08 PM  

CLM, it has been fun to see how many visitors come to my blog after a Google search for Judson or one of her books. When one author can turn multiple generations into readers, the books can be both tame and powerful at the same time.

Brian said...
May 4, 2009 at 9:52 PM  

I just finished Judson's book Pierre's Lucky Pouch and enjoyed it immensely. My Goddaughter loves to read and I am looking for decent literature as a gift for her. I went into a second hand store on a whim and also became lucky as Pierre in the story.

Anonymous said...
December 26, 2010 at 12:46 PM  

I remember reading Pierre's Lucky Pouch, fifty-some years ago. I hope it leaves an impression with your goddaughter that lasts another 50 years or more.

Brian said...
December 26, 2010 at 5:01 PM  

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