“Something Came into Our Love”: Harriet Hosmer, Ellen Tucker Emerson, and Female Subjects’ Sexuality in Their Own Words

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:50 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kate Culkin, Bronx Community College, City University of New York
The analysis and interpretation of nineteenth-century American women’s relationships with one another, particularly in terms of understanding same-sex sexuality, has been a complex and contested topic since at least the publication of Carol Smith Rosenberg’s essay “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in 1975. In this paper, I will discuss my engagement with and contribution to this discourse through my work on the biographies of two American women: Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) and Ellen Tucker Emerson (1839-1909).

Despite similar backgrounds—they were both middle-class, white women from Massachusetts—their lives and their historical legacies are very different. In her lifetime, Hosmer achieved international fame as a sculptor. Though largely-forgotten after her death, Hosmer’s reputation has grown and both her work and her relationships with women have been the subject of scholarly analysis over the past forty years. Emerson, the daughter of Lidian Jackson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, has received little attention, despite her critical work for her father as secretary and editor. Obscured through the editing and selection of the published two-volume edition of her letters, in addition, are her passionate feelings for Ida Agassiz and her partnership with Anna McClure.

I will discuss how the different levels of public awareness of Hosmer and Emerson and their respective sexualities have influenced my experiences and approach to writing about them. As such, I consider academic debates, personal privacy, and the sometime conflicting roles of biographers and historians in interpreting a subject’s life. I will stress the importance of deep immersion into the writings of my subjects, as a way to familiarize myself with their voices, to understand the meaning of their relationships, and to allow them to speak for themselves.