Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Poetess’s Legacy to Universal Language

Eliza Pittsinger. California poet.
Could have benefited
universal language
It is safe to say that Eliza A. Pittsinger, a poet who died in San Francisco in 1908, is among the forgotten poets of California, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, she seems to have been something of a celebrated poet. She was born in about 1820 in West Hampton, Massachusetts,[1] to John and Mary Pittsinger. In 1842, she married one Professor Mayo[2] in Hartford, Connecticut. They separated and later divorced, with Eliza went back to using the name Pittsinger (if she ever used Mayo).

As early as 1862, Pittsinger had moved to San Francisco, where she described her profession as “poetess.” She had certainly established herself as a poet by this time, contributing a poem to the ceremonies for laying the corner stone of the New Pioneer Hall of the Society of California Pioneers, in July 1862. According to the Society of California Pioneers, this building was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Miss Pittsinger, was not a California Pioneer, as the term is reserved for those who settled in California before 1850, at which time she was still in Northampton, although the San Francisco Call described her as such in an death notice of her sister, in May 1907. At the time of Pittsinger’s death, the Call stated that she arrived in California in 1852.

Her magnum opus seems to be “Song of the Soul Victorious,” which she published in 1887. It first appeared in the March 1887 edition of The World’s Advance Thought, according to Worthington Advance (Minnesota) in April 1887. She seems to have aqcuired some fame as a poet in her day, with the The Montana Post[3] reporting in January 1869 that “Miss Eliza Pittsinger, formerly a proof-reader in a Boston printing office is now a popular California poetess.” She died on February 22, 1908, with the Call reporting that she “Meets Death She Defied in Verse.“ The Call wrote:
“The California Poetess” she was called. Her poems were recited in the schools and taught by teachers of elocution. No public meeting was complete in those days without a rendition of one of her thrilling “Bugle Peals”[4] or her “Song of the Soul Victorious,” a lyric on the immortality of life which she considered her masterpiece. From one end of the other of the state of California she was known and revered, and her fame did not rest there.

But in later days the lyrics of the gifted woman grew less inspiring, though her enthusiasm never wavered. Slowly among the rising generations of young people her popularity waned and faded away. At the time of her death her name was practically unknown save to those who remembered and could not forget her triumph of former days.
So, what does this forgotten California poet have to do with a universal language?

Months after she died, there was a battle over $1,100 that Pittsinger had left in a bank account when she died. The San Francisco Call reported that there was a “Fight Over Money Left by Poetess,” but the subhead to the article is dead wrong: “Eugene Pence, letter carrier, and Public Administrator wanta women’s estate.” The article makes clear that the Public Administrator had no personal or professional gain involved, and that if he prevailed, Pittsinger’s nieces and nephews would receive the money. But “universal language”? I’m getting to it.

Eugene Pence was born about 1868 in Illinois. In 1910 (just two years after his claim on Pittsinger’s estate), he manages the trick of showing up on the Census three times, listed as a lodger at three different Oakland residences (I’m guessing that he moved and his first address thought he had still been there on April 15, 1910 and his last address thought he had already been there on April 15, 1910). His father was James Pence, a milk peddler who later became a farmer. Eugene Pence does not seem to have been long in California when he became a letter carrier and met Pettsinger. But when did he create his universal language?

The article in the Call is the only reference to Eugene Pence’s language, undoubtably now lost.
Eugene Pence, Letter Carrier, and Public Administrator Want Woman’s Estate

Postal Man Declares He Would Use Funds to Perpetuate “Universal Language”
Eugene Pence, an Oakland letter carrier, and Public Administrator Hynes are fighting in Judge Morgan’s court for $1,100 left in the Hibernia bank by Eliza A. Pittsinger, poetess and “friend of humanity,” who died last February at the age of 80.[5] Pence says Miss Pittsinger gave him the money to be used at his own discretion of the benefit of humanity. Among the uses to which Pence said yesterday he would apply the money would be the perpetuation of a “universal language” understood only by one man, the inventor, but superior to either Esperanto or Volapuk, according to Pence, and the assistance of a San Jose doctor who has invented a new form of materia media independent of medicine or the knife and based solely on the use of different colored lights.[6]

Pence, in his testimony, said he first met Miss Pittsinger in a restaurant early in 1905. In conversation they discovered they were of sympathetic temperament, both being interested in self-culture and the uplift of humanity. Later she presented him with a copy of a pome written by her and entitled “Song of the Soul Victorious,” inscribed as given “to one who is on the upward way to the sublime heights of life.” In July, 1907, she placed $1,324 to the joint account of herself and Pence, and before her death, six months later, she withdrew $324.[7]

Pence said his sole wish was to leave the world better than he found it. “And I want to tell you I have worked along these lines for a long while, and have sometimes had to live on boiled wheat to carry the work[8] ahead,” he declared.

The public administrator, on behalf of several nephews and nieces of Miss Pittsinger, is resisting Pence’s claim on the theory that Miss Pittsinger placed the money in joint account merely so that the letter carrier could make withdrawals for her, and not as a gift.
The Call has no further information on Pence, who (if my reading of sources is correct) went on to become a pipe fitter for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He died fairly young, at about the age of 53, far younger than Pittsinger who seems to have been perhaps as old as 86 when she died. Better a poet than a pipe fitter, it seems, or maybe the boiled wheat did him in. In any case, just about everyone who has created an attempt at an international language after Zamenhof has made the claim that it's better than Esperanto. For whatever reason (even if true), that claim never seems to inspire anyone.

Eugene Pence probably didn’t prevail, and the Call makes no more mention of him, although he does pop up in the California Agricultural Bulletin of 1916 regarding an escaped mongoose. Mr. Pence had alerted Professor Warren T. Clark of
the disastrous results that had invariably followed the introduction of the mongoose into other countries.
No more of this “universal language,” alas.

But what of those poems for which Eliza A. Pettsinger was so famous? I would clearly be remiss if I didn’t give you a sample of her verse. Here are a few lines of “The Song of the Soul Victorious”:
I stand in the Great Forever,
I lave in the Ocean of Truth,
And I bask in the golden sunshine
Of endless Love and Youth.

And God is within and around me,
All good is forever mine,
To all who seek it is given,
And it comes by a law divine.

In the deathless glory of spirit
That knows no destruction nor fall,
From the immortal Fires of Heaven
To the plains of earth I call.

Who is this “I” that is speaking—
This being so wondrous in might;
’Tis part of the primitive Essence,
A spark of the Infinite Light.
There’s more, but I think we’ve had enough of that. It’s the twee sort of nineteenth-century poetry that I have no stomach for. (And for twee poetry, you can’t do more saccharine than her “Twilight Fancies,” which was reprinted in the 1919 collection Delight and Power In Speech: A Universal Dramatic Reader,[9] so she wasn’t wholly forgotten after her 1908 death. But what of her other work, the Bugle Peals, that was celebrated by the Call when she died? Oh, that’s a treasure, just not of poetry.

The entire volume is a warning (in poems) of the danger to America presented by Catholics. It’s an 1882 book of poems on how dreadful it would be to let Catholics in. The verses combine bad verse with anti-Catholic bigotry, with one poem flatly stating that “Ye Cannot Serve Rome and America (Inscribed to Traitors, and Tools of the Vatican).” But I will take my leave of Pittsinger with the opening stanza of a different poem from Bugle Peals, “Kissing the Pope’s Toe,” which goes so far as to sink into the ridiculous. In its own sorry way, it becomes amusing.
A wonderful toe doth the Pope possess!
Kiss it, ye vassals, and then confess!
Unbosom your ascents to bigots and knaves,
’Tis a custom they cherish of making ye slaves;
Of taking your money, and forging their chains
For the work of your hands and sweat of your brains!
On that note, we’ll bid farewell to “California’s Poetess,” though I still wonder about Pence’s universal language.

Update: In 1868, Eliza Pittsinger was the subject of an article in the American Phrenological Journal. The Journal noted that
Miss Pittsinger has a strong emotional nature; the middle portion of her head is large and wide between the ears, indicating that the force elements are strong, giving vigor, earnestness, and thoroughness. She has courage, fortitude, positiveness, and power; is not easily discouraged, nor easily repelled. She is qualified to elbow her way through difficulties, and make herself master of the situation.

  1. Now spelled Westhampton.  ↩
  2. This, according to a scrawled entry on an index card created by the California State Library. Her mother’s name is listed on the wrong line. I can find no other detail on Professor Mayo. Update: The 1880 Census lists a Eliza Batson living with the Holcombs at the same address the San Francisco City Directory lists for Eliza Pittsinger in 1889. The California State Library is probably in error, and her husband's name was probably Batson.  ↩
  3. No, I have no idea why they reported it.  ↩
  4. I’m getting back to Bugle Peals. Count on that.  ↩
  5. Pittsinger seems to have been somewhat older than that. In the 1850 Census, she is two years younger than her sister. In the 1900 Census, she is 11 years younger. In 1850, Almira was born in 1820, but in 1900 her birth is listed as 1922. Obviously, if Pittsinger was 67 in 1900 (as per the census), she wasn’t 80 eight years later in 1908. I may have a degree in English, but my math skills aren’t that bad.  ↩
  6. I suspect he wasn’t engaging in light therapy for depression, but probably engaging in quackery.  ↩
  7. Does that mean this account gained $100 in interest in six months? Initial deposit: $1,324, then a withdrawal of $324, should leave $1,000.  ↩
  8. I’m assuming that by “the work,” Pence means the creation of a universal language, superior to Esperanto and Volapuk.  ↩
  9. Delight and Power In Speech: A Universal Dramatic Reader, edited by Leonard G. Nattkmper and George Wharton James, Radiant Life Press, Pasadena, California, 1919.  ↩

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