Diana Parsell – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Eliza Scidmore: The Trailblazing Journalist Behind Washington’s Cherry Trees”
Eliza Scidmore: The Trailblazing Journalist Behind Washington’s Cherry Trees. By Diana P. Parsell. Oxford University Press, 2023. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/eliza-scidmore-9780198869429?cc=us&lang=en&
1. Tell us about the book.
It’s a biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1928), a pioneering American journalist—and longtime D.C. resident—who gained celebrity for a half dozen books of travel that brought the world alive for readers back home. She helped popularize tourism to Alaska and educated readers about Japan and other places in the Far East. She made a lasting mark at National Geographic as the first woman to serve on its board and to publish photographs in the magazine. In association with John Muir and others, she used her writings to support the burgeoning U.S. conservation movement. A “Forrest Gump” of her day, she bore witness to many important events and rubbed elbows with famous people. That network of influence helped her realize her long-time dream of creating a park of flowering cherry trees in Washington, an idea inspired by her frequent travels in Japan. Despite this extraordinary record of achievement, she fell into near obscurity. My book, the product of a decade of research, tells her unknown life story for the first time.
2. What’s your thesis? Story arc?
I set out thinking I would write a straightforward biography. Because the city’s cherry trees are an important strand in Scidmore’s story, I planned to devote the last third of the book to that. Then, a great “aha” moment in the research forced me to rethink the structure. While reviewing Scidmore’s early newspaper work, I discovered a revealing column she wrote in November 1883, while reporting on the reclamation work being done by the Army Corps of Engineers along the muddy “Potomac flats” near the Washington Monument. To get a bird’s-eye view, she rode the workmen’s platform to the top of the monument, then in the final stage of construction. Describing the scene below, she told readers the area was destined to become the largest and most beautiful public park in the city—“a place of magnificence in future administrations.” It was, of course, today’s West Potomac Park. It made me realize that when Scidmore started traveling to Japan a short time later and grew enamored of cherry blossoms, she already had that riverside area in the back of her mind as an ideal spot for a cherry tree park in Washington. Thus, the intersection of her idea and the twenty-year creation of Potomac Park became the main arc of the book.
4. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject.
Chiefly, a common public perception that efforts to give Washington its flowering cherry trees began with a gift of several thousand trees from Japan. Or with a project dreamed up by First Lady Helen Taft. These are elements in the larger origin story, which has gotten muddied over the years due in part to a scarcity of official records. A lot of false misinformation has been perpetuated via the Internet, adding to the confusion. The story is complicated, and few people understand the wider cast of characters and the various circumstances that set the stage, over twenty-plus years, for the historic planting of the first cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in 1912. I tried to bring some clarity to this issue in my book. Some people have cast doubt on whether Eliza Scidmore deserves all the credit she’s been given as the chief visionary behind the trees. My evidence, which includes some newly revealed records, shows that she not only championed the idea before anyone else but also acted as a critical mediator between Mrs. Taft and the Japanese benefactors.
5. What are the classics in the field (if any)?
The only “classics” with any bearing on my book are Eliza Scidmore’s own works. Her first book on Alaska (1885) is regarded as the first book-length travelogue on the region; a later, more comprehensive version (1893) became a popular reference work well into the early twentieth century. Her books Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891) and Java, the Garden of the East are now viewed as “seminal works” of travel literature, and her book on China created a sensation in its day when published in the summer of 1900, at the height of the Boxer Rebellion.
6. What challenges did you face in this research?
At several stages I encountered obstacles to records access, for various reasons. One large collection I needed had been sent out for digitization and I had to wait months for my requested files to reach the top of the queue. In another instance, I had to find an insider who could help me gain entry to a semi-private archive where my requests for access had been first ignored, then denied. Covid-related shutdowns came at an especially inconvenient time, when I was trying to finish the manuscript. I still lacked a few essential records and was also trying to acquire photos and permissions. I’m deeply grateful to several archivists who went the extra mile to help me get the materials I needed. Adding to the hurdles, I’d been working out of a study room at the Library of Congress, which was now off limits. A lot of my reference books were on hold there, so I had to resurrect some notes and such from other sources. It made for a lot of stress and additional delays just as I had been expecting to wrap up the book.
7. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?
A twenty-year-old master’s thesis on Eliza Scidmore, written by a distant cousin of hers, primed the pump of my research for this book. The day it arrived through an interlibrary loan from a university in Illinois is when I decided that writing a biography of Scidmore might be a viable project. It gave me the basics on the family and pointed me to many useful sources. I tracked down the author in Illinois and interviewed him several times. Thanks to advances in research techniques, I was able to expand greatly on his own findings.
Two records collections were also indispensable. First, the digitized archives of the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Scidmore worked for the paper as a “society writer” in Washington and a traveling correspondent. My searches in periodicals databases at the Library of Congress didn’t turn up much of her work initially—until I discovered she wrote under a pen name, “Ruhamah” (her middle name). After that, I uncovered about 650 articles she published in the Globe-Democrat from 1876 to 1887. It was quite a breakthrough. Besides giving me her direct words, the articles bore datelines that enabled me to construct a chronology of her early travels.
Similarly, records of The Century Illustrated Magazine at the New York Public Library were a huge boon. Scidmore was a regular contributor for twenty-five years, an affiliation I consider the most important professional relationship of her career. She and John Muir shared an editor at The Century. Scidmore’s frequent letters to her editors are gossipy, opinionated and heavily revealing of her frequent comings and goings, especially across Southeast Asia. The letters really capture her “voice” and mindset, and I quoted from them a lot in the book.
8. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?
For sure, I wish I’d had diaries or personal papers that provided deeper insight into Scidmore’s inner life. What secrets might they have revealed? Evidence perhaps of romantic interests; revelations of regrets and disappointments she experienced along with her many triumphs. Family letters indicate that a young cousin living with Scidmore at her death in 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland, destroyed Eliza’s papers, saying it was her wish—though I personally have some doubts about that. Because biographical writing is an iterative process, I hope my book might lead to other discoveries that tell us more fully who Scidmore was.
9. Who’s your audience?
The key audience I had in mind from the beginning of this book was general readers. I began the project around the time Washington celebrated the centennial of its Japanese cherry trees in 2012. To get my oar in the water, so to speak, as Scidmore’s future biographer, I started blogging about her and my research in progress. Before long, I started hearing from a wide range of people keen to learn more about her: journalists and scholars; Japanophiles and cherry tree enthusiasts; U.S. park rangers, women’s studies bloggers, teachers and students. I wrote the book in a style that would be accessible to readers like these. At the same time, in its heavy documentation of sources, I hope the book will be useful to scholars and other specialists as a foundation for further examination of Scidmore’s life and deeper analysis of her work.
10. Tell us about you. And 11. What inspired you to write this book.
Like Eliza Scidmore, I’m a native of the Midwest who made Washington my adoptive home. Other parallels: the pursuit of journalism, working at times for National Geographic and extensive travel in Southeast Asia. I arrived in D.C. more than forty years ago, soon after college, motivated by a book-fueled yearning to experience life beyond my small Ohio hometown. Over the years I’ve held a range of editorial positions in publishing, the media and science communications. In the late 1990s I moved to Jakarta with my husband for his job, and for the next decade I worked on and off in Southeast as a science writer and editorial consultant.
It was in Asia that I stumbled across Eliza Scidmore, through a reprint of her 1897 travelogue Java, the Garden of the East. Discovering the key role she played in giving Washington its Japanese cherry trees blew me away. I had lived in D.C. over thirty years, I went nearly every year to see the trees, yet I had never heard of Scidmore. When the 2008-9 recession caused a big dip in my freelance work, I started going to the Library of Congress to see what I could find out about Scidmore. It led to my decade-long quest to tell her story.
13. What’s your favorite DC history book?
My favorite book of D.C. history has long been Patricia O’Toole’s Five of Hearts, on Henry Adams and his circle, since I first read it some thirty years ago. I liked it so much I used to reread it every few years. I admire the masterful blend of history, biography and story-telling, but most of all I love the richly evocative sense of time and place—Gilded Age Washington. I had O’Toole’s book very much in mind as a model when I set out to write my biography of Eliza Scidmore; my well-thumbed paperback copy is full of underlining, margin notes and yellow Post-Its! As it turned out, Scidmore’s early journalistic work in Washington tracked over the same period, so I really enjoyed researching that section of my book.
14. What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Alas, I’d love to do another book, as in the course of writing this one—my first—I came across another story that excites me a lot, from around the same historical period and with some strong and inspiring women characters. However, since I’ll turn 71 the same month my Scidmore biography hits the market, I’m not sanguine about having the endurance for another long-term project. Meanwhile, because I’m still active in a terrific book-critique group that’s been meeting monthly for ten years, I’ve returned to some memoir-influenced personal essays I stashed away a decade ago when I started my book. Because I love the sense of discovery and intellectual satisfaction that comes from research, I can’t imagine I’ll ever abandon altogether this crazy work of being a writer.
The Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC is featuring author Diana Parsell at their Thursday, April 20th, 2023 luncheon meeting. The public is welcomed. For further information, please check this link: https://www.aoidc.org/upcoming-events.html Bill Brown, Past-President of the AOI
the AOI has changed its luncheon venue to the Woman’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 (one block north of DuPont Circle). The location is easily accessible via the Metro Red Line using the Dupont North Exit and walking 1 1/2 block east on Q Street to New Hampshire Avenue. It is also convenient to many Metro Bus lines.