A Catskill Catalog: September 19, 2012

The other evening I got a chance to tell a few interested folks about Mary Elizabeth Osborn. She was a wonderful writer, a great chronicler of rural Catskill Mountain life, a scholar, poet, critic, and novelist. And she was born and raised in Margaretville.

Faye Van Benschoten used to tell me about Mary Elizabeth Osborn when, as a young man, I worked summers in the hay fields of her family’s New Kingston farm.

“You’ve got to read her,” she’d urge, but somehow I never did, until a few months ago. Wow! Taking Faye’s advice was a revelation, one I wish I had not been so decades-long slow in seeking.
Perhaps it was that Mary Elizabeth Osborn’s novels and stories seem aimed at a readership of young girls, back at the time when books were neatly gendered. Hardy Boys for Johnny; Nancy Drew for June. Today, your chapter-book reading Gracie is apt to read the same Diary of a Wimpy Kid as my chapter-book reading Rocco. So, maybe it’s time for an old Landmark Books reader like me to broaden, and read Mary Elizabeth’s Osborn’s 1942 novel Days Beyond Recall.

The book is the story of Gwendolyn Hewitt, a teenager from Haynes Hollow, up Dry Brook, in the days before Elvis’s generation invented the idea of teenagers as an identifiable group. There were no jalopy cars and poodle skirts to mark independence and rebellion in Gwendolyn’s day.

Gwen Hewitt lives on a hard-scrapple farm with her Ma and Pa. When she goes to town – to Margaretville – she rides dirt roads in a buggy, pulled by a horse named Frank. She feels a strong and confusing interest in a neighboring farm-boy, Russell Haynes. She is about to finish her schooling and leave home. It has been arranged for Gwen to move to the village to work as the live-in hired girl for an older, single gent, Mr. Martin. And, though the book was published in 1942, Mr. Martin is not always a gent.

The Hewitt family needs Gwen to take this job, five or six miles down the road, living, alone, in the home of essentially a stranger. The Hewitt family is poor. Gwendolyn will earn some much needed cash, and take her meals elsewhere, lightening the pressure on the family larder.

This is a time and a place quite different from our own. Reading Mary Elizabeth Osborn opens up the past. Better than any history text are her descriptions of life on the farm, tucked up in a Catskill Mountain hollow, isolated even from the closest neighbors. There are, today, people in our midst who do remember.

And, despite Gwen’s profound lifestyle differences from those of today’s reader, the feelings of being on the cusp of adulthood, soon to leave behind home and childhood, those feelings still ring true today. Mary Elizabeth Osborn conveys inner character. She’s a good writer.

Mary Elizabeth Osborn was born around the time the 19th century turned into the 20th. She was educated in local schools, graduated high school here, attended the State College in Albany, and got a masters’ degree in literature at Columbia. She went on to teach English at Hood College, in Frederick, Maryland, then an all-women’s school. Professor Osborn made a career there.

She wrote and published poems, book reviews, and insightful letters to the Saturday Review.
In 1933, she published a book on Adelaide Crapsey, “the only internationally acclaimed poet from Rochester, NY.” Ironic, today, both Mary Elizabeth Osborn and Adelaide Crapsey are largely forgotten, the biographer as obscure as her subject.

We can change that. Days Beyond Recall has been digitalized and is available to anyone through the Internet. You can read it on the screen, or download and print a copy. A book about Hewitts and Hayneses and Martins, living in a hollow, up the brook, and down in the village, just might be worth having.

Or, you can search the libraries and used booksellers for Another Pasture (1938), Listen for the Thrush (1945), and Fair Weather North (1950). These and other books are out there. Since, all of Mary Elizabeth Osborn is out-of-print, you can only find her used.

Today, Roxbury’s John Burroughs is a lot more widely recognized than he was 30 or 40 years ago. His reputation has been revived through people’s interest in nature, the outdoors, simple living.
Mary Elizabeth Osborn’s rural characters are the personification of a sustainable lifestyle, based on locally produced food, and regionally available resources. With sustainability the watchword of our time, this is the right time for Mary Elizabeth Osborn, Margaretville’s classic Catskill Mountain writer.

If we become her readers, our own Margaretville writer will once again be read. It’s simple, really, like life used to be up in Haynes Hollow, before these new-fangled changes come along.
billbirns@gmail.com