Sunday, February 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist by Gary Scharnhorst

Several months ago, I read Matthew Goodman’s book Eighty Days about Nelly Bly’s race around the world in 1889. I was intrigued by this celebrity journalist and even more intrigued by her rival, Elizabeth Bisland. However, these two were relative newcomers to the field. Kate Field (1838-1896) was a famous woman of letters/journalist who predated them by many years.

Although famous in her time, Kate Field has slipped into obscurity. I chanced upon a biography written by Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, and learned a great deal about this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1838 to parents who were celebrated actors of the time, Kate had an unconventional upbringing. Her father not only acted, but he also wrote for a number of newspapers, showing Kate that this was a viable way to earn a living. She was introduced early on to influential people and perfected the art of networking.

At age 16, after the death of her father, Kate went to Italy to study voice. Bronchitis put an end to her studies, but she began writing letters for publication in newspapers back in the states. She became fascinated by Italian politics and, for a while, reported on the goings-on in that country, until her editors, put off by her increasingly biased articles, declined to print any more. She continued writing less controversially on her travels. When she returned to the U.S., she went on the lecture circuit, a more lucrative career than reporting. She was an instant hit.

Having mastered self-promotion, she applied her skills to promoting products. She became a spokesperson in Britain for the newfangled telephones, even getting the queen to listen in and purchase a couple. By all accounts, her advertising campaign was a great success.

In addition to advertising products, Kate used her writing and lecturing platforms for many political causes. She made enemies in the feminist community because she was anti-women’s suffrage. (She was also anti-universal suffrage, preferring property requirements.) She went on the attack against Mormonism. She was also anti-Temperance. Or, as she preferred to say, she was pro-True-Temperance, which was NOT abstinence. She became a spokesperson for the California wine industry, insisting people were better off drinking good wine in moderation.

Despite constant work, Kate was always in need of money. She decided to turn her hand to acting, believing it would be more remunerative than writing. Acting was in her blood. Nevertheless, her first attempts on the American stage were panned. Undaunted, she returned to Europe and tried again, using a stage name. There she was more favorably received.

Kate Field was a whirlwind. She had her admirers and detractors. (Mark Twain couldn’t stand her, but they competed for some of the same audience and dollars.) She was intelligent and a biting critic. She was kind to her friends, but quick to turn on them when they disagreed with or criticized her. (She handed out criticism freely but was very thin-skinned.)

The biography is balanced, highlighting her versatility and perseverance, but not sugar-coating her faults. She left behind a large body of work and, whether admired or not, she deserves to be remembered more than she has been.

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