Dead or Alive: Eleanor Brainerd in Iowa City, IA



 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. Continue reading