NONFICTION: Historian uses the work of three generations of writers in order to tell their stories.
Big boxes, little boxes, trunks, hatboxes, dresser drawers and paper bags: the written history of women’s lives is often found in the least likely of places, forgotten or dismissed for being inconsequential and unimportant to the broader cultural history of our country. In “The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters,” Sallie Bingham, a champion of women’s history, pulls out her own family’s box and opens it to share with readers.
Have you heard of any of Bingham’s relatives? Most likely, you have not. There are three generations of writers’ work that reside in the “soft cornflower blue” box she pulled from her late mother’s house: writing from her great-grandmother Sallie LeFroy, her grandmother Helena Caperton and her mother, Mary Bingham. As Bingham sifted through the box, she thought about the legacy of the written word in her family.
“I am taller than these women were, or would have wanted to be, and my life has provided me with many options they could not have imagined. In many ways I live in a world they could never understand. Yet the one trait that links us is a certain unyielding resilience.
“Would the blue box reveal the source of this singular trait?”
Bingham begins with her great-grandmother’s story; not only the carefully crafted 19th-century memoir that LeFroy had written for her daughters, but the darker times in LeFroy’s past filled in by Bingham through letters, photographs and historical documents. She traces the family lineage to her grandmother, who was forced to make a living with her writing after the death of her husband, well-known for his financial missteps. Helena struggled, “always hating her typewriter,” to keep her family going in the manner to which it was accustomed, including the debutante rituals that were an integral part of Southern life.
One man advised Helena to view her daughters as her “most valuable assets,” and from that point on she groomed her daughters to become marriage material, but also (wisely) made sure that each one was able to be “self-supporting as a stenographer, secretary, librarian, ‘athletic dancer,’ or playground director.” Bingham’s mother, Mary, went the way of academic and writer, but not without some bumps in the road, especially where her long, fraught courtship with Bingham’s father, Barry Bingham, was concerned.
What if we all opened these hidden “blue boxes,” as Bingham has so expertly done, and read women’s stories not as trivialities but as vital pieces of our country’s history? In the meantime, “The Blue Box” is a perfect start.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.