Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
Iowa City is hot in late June. It is, perhaps, not the ideal time of year to wander aimlessly through five sprawling city blocks of cemetery searching for a headstone whose existence is only confirmed by a passing mention on Wikipedia. But by the time I was searching for Eleanor Brainerd in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery, we were well into a cold and gray summer where I live and I was ready for the heat, ready for the thickness of the air, ready for long hot days building toward evening the thunderstorms swept in off the plains.
Before arriving in Iowa, I had never heard of Eleanor Brainerd. But Iowa City is such a mecca for writers, a place where so many literary heroes have nurtured their careers, that it felt important to discover someone new, someone overlooked, someone whose novels were not placed with covers facing outward at Prairie Lights, someone whose prose was not carved into benches or concrete sidewalk. And so I set my sights on Brainerd, who was born in Iowa City in 1868 and wrote ten novels before her death in 1942. Brainerd is a true child of Iowa City; she was born and spent her childhood at Plum Grove, a large brick Georgian home once owned by the first governor of Iowa Territory.
Because of it gubernatorial history, the house is maintained as a national historic site and open to the public at limited times. I couldn’t bend my schedule around the museum hours, but I was able to press my face against the chain link fence separating Plum Grove from the rest of Iowa City long enough to note the meticulous care given to the grounds and absorb the sense that Brainerd is perhaps not even a footnote in the guided tours of the house.
Time has rendered Brainerd obscure at Plum Grove, and also in Iowa City at large. I couldn’t find her novels at the public library, most people are like me, unfamiliar with this turn of the century author.
At one time, Eleanor Brainerd was an Iowa author to celebrate. A 1905 Bulletin of the Iowa Library says:
“Among the younger of our Iowa born authors is Eleanor Hoyt Brainderd. Mrs. Brainerd grew from journalistic work on the New York Sun into short-story writing for magazines. Her books have enjoyed great popularity, chiefly because of their clever picturing of the subtle charm and irresistible humor of that unique product of the ages, the American girl. Her “Bettina” and her “Belinda” are better known to thousands, young and old, than our next-door neighbors are to us.”
But Brainerd did not remain in Iowa for long. She went east for school and did most of her writing at a farm in Connecticut. Her novels often circle the theme of Midwestern girls hitting the big city for big adventure. Brainerd primarily wrote romantic novels targeted toward women, but her work, although dated and a product of its time, was feminist in its own right. Her third novel, Considering Bettina, (1905) opens thus: “Fortune she would not need. Daddy had attended to that in his will, but success, and a knowledge of the world outside Indiana, she must have.”
Bettina is an ideal plucky female protagonist, “rendered…immune from…sentimental and matrimonial epidemics that devastate…co-educational institutions.” The novel proceeds in a series of vignettes covering Bettina’s exploits as a prep school teacher in New York City. She is imperfect in pure and endearing ways.
There’s a familiar feeling that creeps over the contemporary reader flipping through Considering Belinda. It’s the romantic, gendered prose of childhood. It is Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. It’s a story whose time and place suggest the progression of women in American society while simultaneously romanticizing the past we’ve left behind.
In an early exchange with a veteran teacher at the prep school, Bettina airs her anxiety about taking the girls out into New York City for a movie:
“The girls carry on handkerchief flirtations with strangers from the windows.”
“Girls from respectable families?”
“Girls from excellent families.”
I am a sucker for this sort of dated and romanticized story, so neat and tidy, so much a product of the sanitized perfection of a bygone time that it becomes its own form of fantasy. I have to work to remember that the world is a better place now than it was 1905, that Brainerd’s stories are only quaint and tidy because she chose to write them that way. She has omitted racism, and she has left her women characters unstifled, wealthy, supported by society. No one is gay or poor or mentally ill, marginalized communities do not exist. Somewhere in there, there’s a lesson for contemporary writers, I think, on the dangerous power of the truths we choose to omit from our writing, on the role of fiction in record-keeping and molding the stories that become history.
Brainerd gave me plenty to wrestle with, as a reader, writer, and woman, and staring at Plum Grove through a fence didn’t satisfy the need to take note of her contribution to books. So I took my friend Ryan and his camera to Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City’s oldest locale for burying its dead. The place was gigantic, and Ryan and I took off in separate directions, scanning headstones for the Brainerd family. It was a hot and sweaty while before I gave up on the idea that we might serendipitously stumble upon the grave we were looking for.
I had never approached cemetery administration like that before, and I was surprised that there was an air conditioned office with desks and humming computers and large numbered maps of the expansive grounds on the wall. The man who assisted me had been mowing the cemetery in creased khakis and a button-down collar. He jotted down all the information I brought for him; Eleanor Brainerd. Maiden name; Hoyt. Husband; Charles. Charles’ mother’s maiden name; Chisholm.
“You never know where someone will wind up,” the groundskeeper muttered as he stared deeply into his computer for a while. Eleanor wasn’t in the general database, but there were other places to look, and he found her ultimately in a PDF of a handwritten document. At the map on the wall, he issued directions; Take a left, ignore the one way signs, park anywhere. There’s a large monument there, in Lot 3, and she’ll be somewhere around there.
The groundskeeper did not ask me why I wanted to know, he didn’t care what motivated my interest in the deceased. I wondered if he assumed I was a descendant, and it became a daydream I indulged, that I was providing the names and dates of a great-aunt and the man who had left her a widow. I imagined their stories, wondered for the first time, if the Brainerd’s had children, if I would be visiting their graves, too. I wondered who else might visit this family in this place, who of the Brainerds might be left in Iowa City. Part of me had to restrain myself from telling the groundskeeper about the books, from letting him know he had a writer buried in his cemetery. That’s the thing about being in a cemetery; it stops mattering, after a while, who was a writer and who was a doctor, who was the disappointing son and who was the celebrated grandmother. When we’re dead, time tends to remember us all the same to strangers.
Ryan found the family first. Eleanor Brainerd was buried with her parents in the Hoyt family plot, a large monument with the family name providing the backdrop for a series of four smaller stones; Eleanor’s mother and father, Eleanor herself, and finally her husband, Charles. The uniform line-up of headstones looked like its own version of petrified family. The stones are all the same square shape, curved across the top, names and dates etched in the front and dotted with orange lichen. Beyond the Brainerd plot, an excavator filled in the earth.
It was only later, when we were describing our field trip to the cemetery to Ryan’s wife, that we were stuck by the placement of the Brainerd graves. It did not seem particularly remarkable that Charles was buried with his wife, but rather the order in which they were laid out. Father, Mother, Writer, Husband. He died fourteen years before his wife, in 1928, and yet she was the one buried beside her mother. They had a plan. They left a space, room to live a while before reuniting.
The groundskeeper was mistaken. Some people know exactly where they are going to end up. Eleanor Brainerd did not live in Iowa City for much of her adult life, but she knew she would return there, one way or another. She knew, as she wrote all those stories about young girls leaving, that there’s only so much you can take with you when you go away. There is always something left behind.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.