Summer Suffrage Transcription Challenge: Alice Stone Blackwell and the Politics of Poetry

This July and August the Library of Congress virtual volunteering program By the People invites you to engage with the Manuscript Division’s National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records and Blackwell Family Papers.  For an overview of the By the People program and transcription work completed on digitized women’s suffrage collections thus far, see this previous Unfolding History blog post.  The goal of this summer challenge is to complete the review process for the NAWSA Records, and, as much as possible, the review process for the Blackwell Family Papers. If you participate in the challenge, you will also have the opportunity to receive a postcard from the By the People team.

Many volunteers delving into the Blackwell Family Papers may be wondering, “Why is there so much poetry in this collection and what does it have to do with women’s suffrage?” Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950), primarily known as a suffragist and feminist, dedicated her life to publishing translations of poetry to advance political causes, introduce Americans to creative works in other languages, and assist the oppressed. Over the course of her lifetime, Blackwell, in collaboration with native speakers and writers, translated poetry from an astonishing array of languages including Armenian, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, and Yiddish. A substantial amount of poetry translations, drafts of poems, and other documentation of Blackwell’s literary pursuits, located in her Subject File, has been transcribed by volunteers but many of the transcriptions still need review by volunteers.

Blackwell’s literary interests began at an early age. Born on September 14, 1857, to reform-minded parents Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell, she took classes in the liberal arts at Boston University, where she excelled in literature and composition and graduated with honors in 1881. She gained immense writing experience by contributing to her parents’ newspaper, the Woman’s Journal (1870-1931), the longest-running women’s suffrage newspaper in the United States. She was formally promoted to editor on the newspaper’s masthead in 1884. Blackwell also published her own weekly newspaper, the Woman’s Column, from 1884 to 1904.[1]  After 1920, when the women’s suffrage amendment was ratified, Blackwell continued to be active in women’s rights organizations, but she also remained devoted to radical reform and humanitarian causes through such groups as the Friends of Armenia, Friends of Russian Freedom, Sacco-Vanzetti New Trial League, American Civil Liberties Union, American Peace Society, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to name a few.

Blackwell’s interest in assisting Armenian refugees stemmed from an 1893 introduction to Armenian theology student Ohannes Chatschumian, with whom she developed a devoted friendship and an all too brief romance after meeting at a summer retreat hosted by Isabel Chapin Barrows, an early female medical doctor in the United States. It was from Chatschumian that Blackwell learned of Turkish atrocities against Armenians and developed an interest in translating Armenian poetry, resulting in the book Armenian Poems in 1896. After Chatschumian’s death from consumption in Leipzig that same year, Blackwell devoted the rest of her life to aiding Armenian refugees by publishing articles on the continuing Armenian crisis in the pages of the Woman’s Journal, operating an informal employment service, and collecting donations to aid the Armenian community. After the Armenian genocide of 1915, she republished Armenian Poems in 1917 in order to raise funds for displaced Armenians.[2]

Handwritten letter

Letter from Ohannes Chatschumian to Alice Stone Blackwell, September 12, 1895, in which he discusses translations of Armenian words and poetry meters. Box 12, Alice Stone Blackwell Papers, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Always an ongoing political project, Blackwell’s literary pursuits continued to reflect her keen humanitarian interests. Her involvement in the Friends of Russian Freedom brought her into contact with Russian socialist and political prisoner Catherine Breshkovsky with whom she carried on extensive correspondence and eventually published, in 1917, The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution: Reminiscences and Letters of Catherine Breshkovsky. Previously, Blackwell had also translated and published, in 1906, a collection of Russian poetry, Songs of Russia, and, in 1907, a collection of Russian Jewish poetry in Hebrew and Yiddish by Ezekiel Leavitt, Songs of Grief and Gladness.

Blackwell’s countless politicized poetry translations continued throughout her remaining years, culminating in 1929, when she published Some Spanish-American Poets, dedicated “to my friend Señorita Juana Palacios of Mexico.”  Palacios, a representative of the Mexican government and postgraduate student at Boston University, was one of many associates who collaborated with Blackwell by producing literal translations of poems that Blackwell would then develop into more nuanced versions. The original poems appeared in the 1929 volume opposite Blackwell’s translations, a groundbreaking approach for the period, and a format on which Blackwell insisted. [3] Blackwell also published her translations in many smaller journals and magazines, as demonstrated by the more than fifty folders of “Spanish-American poems translated by Blackwell” in the collection, many of which have transcriptions awaiting review by volunteers.

Handwritten letter on Wellesley College Spanish Language and Literature stationery

Letter from Angela Palomo, Department of Spanish Language and Literature of Wellesley College, to Alice Stone Blackwell, September 20, 1919, regarding the meaning and usage of the Spanish word “degranar.” Palomo was one of Blackwell’s many collaborators for her poetry translations. Box 20, Alice Stone Blackwell Papers, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Blackwell’s final literary accomplishment was not poetry, but a project she had known she would write since she was sixteen years old, a biography of her mother, Lucy Stone.[4]  While Blackwell succeeded in some ways in sustaining the legacy of her mother, the details of Blackwell’s own life are not well known. A book-length scholarly biography of Blackwell’s many achievements remains to be written. In the meantime, volunteers can assist in making documents related to Blackwell’s poetic humanitarian efforts and women’s rights activism, along with those of countless other individuals, more easily accessible to researchers (perhaps a future Blackwell biographer?) by reviewing transcriptions of materials from the NAWSA Records and Blackwell Family Papers.

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[1] Marlene Deahl Merrill, “Afterward,” in Growing Up in Boston’s Gilded Age: The Journal of Alice Stone Blackwell, 1872-1874 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 237-241.

[2] Susan Ware, Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019): 60-63; Geoffrey Blodgett, “Alice Stone Blackwell,” Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Edward T. James (Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971): 157.

[3] “A Notable Translator: Whose Work with Mexican Poetry is Well-known to the Review,” La Revista Mexicana/The Mexican Review 3, no. 10 (January 1920): 24; and Merrill, “Afterward,” 243.

[4] Randolph Hollingsworth, “Introduction,” in Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Women’s Rights, by Alice Stone Blackwell (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001): xx-xxiii; and Merrill, “Afterward,” 244.

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