An Immense Intimacy: What I Learned at the Susan B. Anthony House

23 Jul 2009

sbah-house-2006I have been to many historical sites in my time, looking for presiding genii, the spirits of the men who lived or died there. But most of these places felt empty. Their famous residents were always out, visiting Washington or Paris, or floating in the vast nameless space of the grave. Though the men associated with them felt the need to go back and connect with something after the whirlwind of their public lives had died down, these spots can be overwhelming in their echoing abstractness.

Susan B. Anthony, though, is always home, at 17 Madison Street. She’s up in the attic, in that wonderfully close, Woolfian, “room of one’s own,” endlessly writing to Congress. And she’s in the low-slung bed in the downstairs bedroom, gasping out her life alone after a long train ride home from Washington, her face turned to the window, where she sees women yet unborn. And, most vividly, she’s sitting bolt upright in the chair in the parlor, waiting for the man who will come to charge her with the crime of voting. But she is rising, always rising, to face him, insisting that she be arrested. And then the two of them leave the house and…the vision fades, dissolving into the public glare.

In Ms. Anthony’s house, I felt for the first time the actual world that 19th Century women inhabited, the enclosed quality of their lives, that at once proscribed them – giving to each of their actions an acute importance, as if each going out was a political act – and gave them an empathy for humanity that was grounded in the immense intimacy of a pair of teacups, or the light filtering through heavy curtains. The humbleness of the house and its location, and the painting, papering and other renovations that were going on when I was there, were far more evocative than the vast galleries and safeguarded relics of America’s more famous addresses.

If anybody asks why they should visit the Susan B. Anthony House, I would refer them to Marley’s Ghost, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “Not to know,” it laments, “that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

A different ghost haunts the house at 17 Madison Street. It is there now, active in each room – writing, dying, arising – but above all reminding us that justice and change come from people. Even though the spirit will forever haunt that space, a part of it always manages to escape by the front door, inside the conscience of the visitor who goes back out onto the street seeing new opportunities to enrich the lives of others, and who, after a life well spent, may remember Susan B. Anthony, working inside the sphere that was allotted to her, and say, “Such was I! Oh! such was I!”



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