Hunting the Post-Victorian Snark

In the first few definitions, the Urban Dictionary would have you believe that “snark” is a modern term obtained by combining “snide” and “remark”. It certainly has a modern ring to it. But if you persist, you find that Lewis Carroll wrote a story in 1876, called “The Hunting of the Snark”. I find this highly satisfying, inasmuch as I have found what I can only characterize as several instances of surprising “snarkiness” – and spunk! – among women in post-Victorian America.

When we think of the Victorian era, we think of young women of gentility and refinement, whose primary focus is readying themselves for a socially acceptable marriage. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, with her plain countenance, strong opinions and independent character is the exception to the Victorian rule. Across the pond and just a few years after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, the battle between proper and spunky, marriageable or independent plays out in America – and publicly in the pages of newspapers.

I was led, unwittingly, into the post-Victorian snark hunt when I discovered an original copy of the 1915 book, The Corner Stone by Margaret Hill McCarter, among family papers. It is a sweet story of life on the plains of Kansas in the early days of homesteading, with charming illustrations by J. Allen St.John. As I was preparing to republish the book, I wanted to learn more about the author. I was impressed with her success as an author  in the early 1900’s and by the independence and strong character of her female protagonist.  I soon learned that Margaret Hill McCarter was successful in her community and in politics as well. She was the first woman to speak at a national political convention, the 1920 Republican National Convention. That discovery led to other surprises relating to the role of the Republican Party in advancing the rights of women (see my previous post, Surprise: Republican Women and Women’s Rights, 1872, 1920 and 2012).

My appreciation for McCarter had grown as I had learned more about her success as an author, in the community, and in politics. So I was surprised to find what I believe is most likely an instance of post-Victorian snark aimed at her.

The New York Tribune was among the newspapers reporting on the Convention. Their coverage included a full page article, “Women the Real Personalities in Chicago; Convention Proves Their Place in Politics” by Hannah Mitchell.  Mitchell was Assistant Editor of the Tribune’s Washington Bureau. Mitchell developed a substantial portfolio of political reporting, focused largely on suffrage and the role of women in politics. One of the earliest articles in the New York tribune under her byline is  “Little Chance Seen to Pass Suffrage In This Congress,” dated February 23, 1919. An article published on March 30, 1919 titled “’Invisible Army’ of Women Doesn’t Want to Go Home!” discusses women leaving jobs as war workers once the armistice was signed; she posits no more than 10% wanted to leave.

So, where McCarter had made her place in literary history through fiction, Mitchell was well established at the time as a reporter. It was the difference between their respective professions that was the source of “snarking” found in the last paragraph of the article posted by Mitchell on the 1920 Convention. As Mitchell does not name the target of her snide remark, it is only conjecture that she refers to McCarter. But as McCarter was one of the most prominent women at the Convention, and a writer of fiction, I’d say the chances are pretty good that Mitchell was aiming her post-Victorian snark at my new friend, Margaret McCarter.

Every newspaper man or woman knows that being a writer and being a reporter may be a very different thing. That is why so many of them smiled when one woman sent to “cover” the convention because she had made a big reputation as a writer of fiction was heard to explain: “Oh! why did I come? How can any one have rhetoric in this rush?”

Mitchell essentially snubbed McCarter in the article; to end with this small nugget was adding insult to injury. Yes, I’d say pretty snarky!

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