The Passion of Abby Hemenway: Memory, Spirit, and the Making of History
Abby Maria Hemenway's life and work offer a unique portrait of a 19th-century literary woman. Hemenway is chiefly remembered as the editor of the Vermont Historical Gazetteer, a five-volume compendium of the state's local history published between 1860 and 1892, a monumental work that is still in constant use today by historians and genealogists. Hemenway never married, and at the age of 36 she formally converted and entered the Catholic Church, which anchored her life for the bulk of her professional career.
For 30 years, Hemenway managed her own publishing empire, engaging hundreds of people to write for her and countless others to help in various ways. No one else in the US attempted to do what Hemenway did: to collect and publish single-handedly the history of every town in her state. And she accomplished this feat in spite of obstacles posed by her status as a single woman, and a devout Catholic, not simply in post-Civil War New England, but also in a field of endeavor overwhelmingly dominated by elite Protestant men. Frequently told that "history is not suitable work for a woman," she persevered and eventually triumphed, though not without considerable adversity.
Hemenway's life is a wonderful and gripping story of survival and accomplishment, struggle and betrayal, driven by her passion for storytelling, oral history, spiritual experience, and the sacredness of everyday life. Hers is an epic life principally because she viewed her work of preserving Vermont's history as a holy cause, worth fighting for at all costs. She endured floods and conflagrations, chronic indebtedness and lawsuits, yet she never let any of these difficulties hinder her work. To this day, our knowledge of Vermont history, and the light it sheds on community life in the early republic, owes a great debt to Hemenway and her Gazetteer.
Deborah P. Clifford, author of two previously published biographies, is herself a gifted storyteller. She skillfully narrates Hemenway's life story with verve and insight.
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