Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tall Tales about Rebecca

Several generations of Jewish women in Philadelphia have been brought up on stories about Rebecca Gratz. I know because I have spoken to audiences who could cue me if I faltered in my narration. However, some of these old, beloved stories are not quite true.

The inaccuracies survive because Rebecca is not a major historical figure -- scholars have not been swarming over the Gratz papers for decades to verify or debunk every anecdote about her. In the decades following her death, the first stories to be printed were from family and friends. The newspaper and magazine writers who popularized Rebecca during these years accepted the memories as true since they had no way to verify the facts. Some of them must have suspected though that people may simply misremember events long past and that relatives may have their own agendas.

In 1929 Letters of Rebecca Gratz was published. Covering her correspondence with her family in Kentucky between 1819 and 1866, it gave readers, for the first time, Rebecca in her own words. The book demonstrated that behind the romantic stories was a woman of substance. It also inspired in 1935 the most insubstantial of biographies, Rollin G. Osterweis's Rebecca Gratz: a study in charm.

Although Osterweis would go on to a long career as a professor of history and oratory at his alma mater Yale, his book on Rebecca was the work of an enthusiast, not a scholar. He made use of the correspondence found in Letters as well as some other material which had become available, but he did not have access to most of the family papers which were still in private hands. For the many years not covered by his sources, he fell back on the old family stories -- and to fill out the book he used his imagination to create scenes and dialog.

I think that most readers realized that it was unlikely that anyone was sitting there taking notes as Rebecca and Samuel Ewing had their final painful conversation. However, Osterweis did more than put words in the mouths of his subjects. Places and dates, which readers might be more likely to assume were based on primary documents, often turn out to be as bogus as the conversations.

Other enthusiasts have taken up the subject of Rebecca in articles and histories over the years. Their most common mistake is not understanding that her opinions were private ones expressed in personal letters. Their work often gives readers the impression that she was a public figure fighting against the many social ills of the time, up on the platform beside Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Angelina Grimke. This "activist" version of Rebecca might have also been an attempt to make her seem more like the twentieth century's idea of a heroine. Ironically, it was her determination to keep to her private life which contributed to the nineteenth-century's admiration for her.

In the 1970's some anecdotes about Rebecca's life appeared in Stephen Birmingham's The Grandees: America's Sephardic Elite. Birmingham differed from other Rebecca enthusiasts in that his main interest was not in her, but in the great story he could craft around her, even if he had to fabricate much of it himself. For instance, he used an erroneous Spanish derivation for "Gratz" to shoehorn her Ashkenazic (northern European Jewish) family into a book about American Sephardim (Jews from the Mediterranean area). The problem with Birmingham is that his stories are so good as stories, people still cannot resist repeating them despite the disservice they do to Rebecca Gratz. His baroque embroideries deserve and will get a post of their own.

And then there are the simple mistakes, which, once made, are picked up and used repeatedly until everyone takes for granted they are true. For instance, somewhere along the way someone got the idea that Samuel Ewing was two years younger than Rebecca. If this were so, he would have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of nine. Since there is no mention of his being a child prodigy and since the Ewing genealogies and a family history indicate Ewing was born in 1776, it seems that he was five years older than Rebecca, in those days the appropriate age difference for courtship. A recent mistake was in Cokie Roberts' Ladies of Liberty in which Samuel Ewing was referred to throughout as Samuel Erving.

In the early 1990's a large cache of Gratz family letters and other documents became available, making possible the first real biography: Diane Ashton's Rebecca Gratz: women and Judaism in antebellum America. Ms. Ashton, unlike earlier researchers, had an embarrassment of riches from which to sculpt her biography. The Gratz material now accessible is a collection so large that I have been writing this blog for a year and have repeated very little which is in the Ashton book. This is in part due to the fact that my interests are slightly different from hers: where Ashton keeps Rebecca in the steady middle distance, I zoom in on the human interest and go to wide angle for the societal context. The difference illustrates what works in different media: linear biography for a printed book, a collage of posts on the internet to build up a picture of a person and an era.

Having brought up others' errors, it is only right that I confess my own. About three years ago I wrote a brief biography of Rebecca for a study group at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. I recently reread it and cringed -- I had made my share of false assumptions and outright mistakes of fact. My research has been a constant revision -- every time I read a new letter there is the possibility that much I think I know is going to change.

The most recent of such moments came when I read a friend's description of Sarah Gratz's illness. (See Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady.) Although I had been aware that Sarah had some kind of health problem from the few family letters written during the period 1812-1817, I had had no suspicion she might have bipolar disorder. I felt profound pity for her (I have read so many of her letters, that rightly or wrongly, I feel like I know her) and astonished respect for Rebecca for her devotion to her sister under the most difficult of circumstances. This period must have been one of the greatest trials of Rebecca's character and her faith and no one had known it had ever occurred.

Fortunately when I read this letter, I had not written a post about the "quiet family years, 1812-1817." I may not always be so lucky. At least with a blog I can readily correct posts in which I have erred, an option not so easy for those who have committed themselves in print. Although I have gone back and tidied up my writing from time to time, I have made no substantive changes -- yet. When I do, I will post a notice of the revision.

(Letters of Rebecca Gratz is accessible on Google Books. One caution: the editor, Rabbi David Philipson, states in his introductory remarks that he has excised material which the family found too sensitive. The result is that Rebecca seems to have had a somewhat more serene life than is true.)


  1. Ronald Z. SchwartzAugust 5, 2010 at 8:29 PM

    I read a few of her letters today. I thought it interesting that she refers to herself in the third person, very formal.

    How do you know she was manic?

  2. I'm unfamiliar with any letters in which Rebecca Gratz refers to herself in the third person. She usually writes in the first person. Where did you read the third-person letters?

    It was not Rebecca but her sister Sarah who seems to have been bipolar. See my post, "Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady," dated March 2, 2010, for the evidence of her condition.


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