Shades of Greying
O My America!: Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)
“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. A lament, yet one that bubbles with latent wisdom. What is middle age for, after all, if not living a life infused with the lessons of youth? A woodshed has many practicalities.
Perhaps, Sara Wheeler suggests in her book, O My America!: Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World, the decisions made during middle age need not be so bleak. For why not build a bridge to the moon after spending five decades determining all the ways not to get there? Faced with turning 50, or what she refers to as “that treacherous female age,” Wheeler set out to find inspiration—and found it in a group of women who looked at their postmenopausal years and saw not an end, but a new beginning.
O My America, written in six parts, tells the stories of 19th-century Englishwomen Fanny Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird, and Catherine Hubback. Unified by their strong wills, physical strength, and unwillingness to cow to the social conventions of the time, the women—writers, homesteaders, actresses, and convalescents-cum-adventurers—paid no mind to their aging bodies, and instead set out on a series of brilliant and trying second acts, all on the foreign soil of young America. Their profiles, woven together with tales of Wheeler’s own journey to retrace their steps, celebrate the possibilities of what Wheeler refers to as life’s “Frumpy Years.”
The book opens with the tale of Fanny Trollope, a woman whose husband had an uncanny ability to court disaster. Trollope was living in destitution when social reformer Fanny Wright appeared in public and proposed the dazzling idea of moving to a utopian community in Tennessee. Trollope needed barely more than glance at her miserable surroundings to agree to the adventure, pack up three of her five children, and kiss her husband goodbye. What transpired, however, was a series of disappointments and heartbreaks. After arriving at the “utopian community” and discovering it was, in reality, malarial and filled with settlers on the brink of starvation, Fanny moved her family to Cincinnati, a city heady with the stench of its primary export: pig.
Trollope found the frontier spirit “exhilarating” but was less impressed with American society, writing, “The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavoring to account for it.” After a failed business attempt in Cincinnati—a grand bazaar that no Ohioans took interest in—Trollope packed up her bags and her now tubercular children and returned to London. It was there, inspired by the horrid manners she had witnessed, that the 53-year-old wrote and published Domestic Manners of the Americans, a scathing review of the great American way. The book became so ubiquitous that “trollopize” became synonymous with “to abuse the American nation.” She went from living the life of a pauper to that of a famous writer and socialite, and spent the second half of her life comfortable and wealthy.
The women’s stories differ greatly in narrative—Fanny Kemble was a brilliant English actress touring the American countryside until she was waylaid by a romantic affair; Rebecca Burlend was a homesteader fleeing the increasing cost of living in England—yet a common theme runs throughout: each of these women reached a point where her situation was no longer sustainable, and rather than fade into misery, each, like Trollope, took drastic measures to improve her life.
Taken individually, each chapter reads as an engaging story about a woman’s life during the frontier years in America. The women Wheeler has selected are witty intellectuals who are impressively strong-willed and independent (given the time period). The problems with O My America begin when Wheeler introduces her flimsy intentions for writing the book, and ensues with her personal narrative, which is sprinkled throughout.
Talking about her motivation for writing the book, Wheeler, a mother of two children, describes her source of conflict—a fear of turning 50, and the realization that “Often I felt like two separate people: writer, and domestic slave.” Many a female writer have grappled with the struggle to reconcile the roles of writer and mother, yet Wheeler gives no more depth to this fear. We journey along with her on a superficial and cathartic adventure that seems to end with a restorative sigh, a flurry of blustery sentiments (“Sail into decrepitude with dignity!”), and some armchair philosophy: “In order to go forward, one has to leave so much behind. Let’s face it, I look crap in shorts.”
With another narrator at the helm, one who established a strong voice and a more complex persona, that last cheeky statement could at least be construed as funny. But by the end of Wheeler’s narrative, the reader feels no more connected to her than she did at the beginning. There is a pervasive sense that Wheeler is undergoing something more dramatic than a milestone birthday, but no details emerge. Her own story, compared to those of her subjects’—Trollope watching her children die, Burlend harvesting an entire field of wheat as her husband hovers near death, or Hubback bidding her mentally ill husband goodbye and setting sail for a new life in California—sounds trite and woefully unaware. She acknowledges the women’s hardships, but rarely gleans much perspective from them.
In her introduction, Wheeler writes, “50 is a tough age, as I have indicated. Role models are scarce for women contemplating a second act.” The statement is no doubt true. And yet, while this book certainly paints a picture of strong, mature women, the idea that these pioneers could be role models for Wheeler, a woman seemingly unable to balance her id and superego, makes the premise of the book seem forced. The hardship and struggle that these women endured can undoubtedly lend perspective to the continued promise of new beginnings, whether one is 30, 50, or 75. But the book concludes with Wheeler’s voice offering an uninspiring screed at the end of an otherwise gripping story. O My America’sstrength lies in its value as historical nonfiction, a mosaic of women living long ago, defeating the odds time and again, and as a reminder that a challenging new time of life can always be tempered by perspective. One can only hope, upon completion of the book, that Wheeler can truly learn from “her girls,” as she calls them, and begin to see the more nuanced gifts that middle age can proffer.