Read CHAPTER XIII of Maria Mitchell: Life‚ Letters‚ and Journals, free online book, by Maria Mitchell, on


Miss Mitchell was a voluminous letter writer and an excellent correspondent, but her letters are not essays, and not at all in the approved style of the “Complete Letter Writer.” If she had any particular thing to communicate, she rushed into the subject in the first line. In writing to her own family and intimate friends, she rarely signed her full name; sometimes she left it out altogether, but ordinarily “M.M.” was appended abruptly when she had expressed all that she had to say. She wrote as she talked, with directness and promptness. No one, in watching her while she was writing a letter, ever saw her pause to think what she should say next or how she should express the thought. When she came to that point, the “M.M.” was instantly added. She had no secretiveness, and in looking over her letters it has been almost impossible to find one which did not contain too much that was personal, either about herself or others, to make it proper; especially as she herself would be very unwilling to make the affairs of others public.

“Oc, 1860. I have spent $100 on dress this year. I have a very pretty new felt bonnet of the fashionable shape, trimmed with velvet; it cost only $7, which, of course, was pitifully cheap for Broadway. If thou thinks after $100 it wouldn’t be extravagant for me to have a waterproof cloak and a linsey-woolsey morning dress, please to send me patterns of the latter material and a description of waterproofs of various prices. They are so ugly, and I am so ditto, that I feel if a few dollars, more or less, would make me look better, even in a storm, I must not mind it.”

“My orthodoxy is settled beyond dispute, I trust, by the following circumstance: The editor of a New York magazine has written to me to furnish an article for the Christmas number on ‘The Star in the East.’ I have ventured, in my note of declination, to mention that if I investigated that subject I might decide that there was no star in the case, and then what would become of me, and where should I go? Since that he has not written, so I may have hung myself!

“1879. April 25. I have ‘done’ New York very much as we did it thirty years ago. On Saturday I went to Miss Booth’s reception, and it was like Miss Lynch’s, only larger than Miss Lynch’s was when I was there.... Miss Booth and a friend live on Fifty-ninth street, and have lived together for years. Miss Booth is a nice-looking woman. She says she has often been told that she looked like me; she has gray hair and black eyes, but is fair and well-cut in feature. I had a very nice time.

“On Sunday I went to hear Frothingham, and he was at his very best. The subject was ‘Aspirations of Man,’ and the sermon was rich in thought and in word.

... Frothingham’s discourse was more cheery than usual; he talked about the wonderful idea of personal immortality, and he said if it be a dream of the imagination let us worship the imagination. He spoke of Mrs. Child’s book on ‘Aspirations,’ and I shall order it at once. The only satire was such a sentence as this: on speaking of a piece of Egyptian sculpture he said, ’The gates of heaven opened to the good, not to the orthodox.’

“To-day, Monday, I have been to a public school (a primary) and to Stewart’s mansion. I asked the majordomo to take us through the rooms on the lower floor, which he did. I know of no palace which comes up to it. The palaces always have a look as if at some point they needed refurbishing up. I suppose that Mrs. Stewart uses that dining-room, but it did not look as if it was made to eat in. I still like Gerome’s ‘Chariot Race’ better than anything else of his. The ‘Horse Fair’ was too high up for me to enjoy it, and a little too mixed up.

“1873. St. Petersburg is another planet, and, strange to say, is an agreeable planet. Some of these Europeans are far ahead of us in many things. I think we are in advance only in one universal democracy of freedom. But then, that is everything.

“No, 1875. I think you are right to decide to make your home pleasant at any sacrifice which involves only silence. And you are so all over a radical, that it won’t hurt you to be toned down a little, and in a few years, as the world moves, your family will have moved one way and you the other a little, and you will suddenly find yourself on the same plane. It is much the way that has been between Miss and myself. To-day she is more of a women’s rights woman than I was when I first knew her, while I begin to think that the girls would better dress at tea-time, though I think on that subject we thought alike at first, so I’ll take another example.

“I have learned to think that a young girl would better not walk to town alone, even in the daytime. When I came to Vassar I should have allowed a child to do it. But I never knew much of the worldnever shallnor will you.  And as we were both born a little deficient in worldly caution and worldly policy, let us receive from others those, lessons,do as well as we can, and keep our heart unworldly if our manners take on something of those ways.

“Oc, 1875.... I have scarcely got over the tire of the congress yet, although it is a week since I returned. I feel as if a great burden was lifted from my soul. You will see my ‘speech’ in the ‘Woman’s Journal,’ but in the last sentence it should be ‘eastward’ and not ‘earthward.’ It was a grand affair, and babies came in arms. School-boys stood close to the platform, and school-girls came, books in hand. The hall was a beautiful opera-house, and could hold at least one thousand seven hundred. It was packed and jammed, and rough men stood in the aisles. When I had to speak to announce a paper I stood very still until they became quiet. Once, as I stood in that way, a man at the extreme rear, before I had spoken a word, shouted out, ‘Louder!’ We all burst into a laugh. Then, of course, I had to make them quiet again. I lifted the little mallet, but I did not strike it, and they all became still. I was surprised at the good breeding of such a crowd. In the evening about half was made up of men. I could not have believed that such a crowd would keep still when I asked them to.

“They say I did well. Think of my developing as a president of a social science society in my old age!”

Miss Mitchell took no prominent part in the woman suffrage movement, but she believed in it firmly, and its leaders were some of her most highly valued friends.

“Sep, 1875. Went to a picnic for woman suffrage at a beautiful grove at Medfield, Mass. It was a gathering of about seventy-five persons (mostly from Needham), whose president seemed to be vigorous and good-spirited.

“The main purpose of the meeting was to try to affect public sentiment to such an extent as to lead to the defeat of a man who, when the subject of woman suffrage was before the Legislature, said that the women had all they wanted nowthat they could get anything with ’their eyes as bright as the buttons on an angel’s coat.’ Lucy Stone, Mr. Blackwell, Rev. Mr. Bush, Miss Eastman, and William Lloyd Garrison spoke.

“Garrison did not look a day older than when I first saw him, forty years ago; he spoke wellthey said with less fire than he used in his younger days. Garrison said what every one saysthat the struggle for women was the old anti-slavery struggle over again; that as he looked around at the audience beneath the trees, it seemed to be the same scene that he had known before.

“... We had a very good bit of missionary work done at our table (at Vassar) to-day. A man whom we all despise began to talk against voting by women. I felt almost inclined to pay him something for his remarks.

“A group from the Washington Women Suffrage Association stopped here to-day.... I liked Susan B. Anthony very much. She seemed much worn, but was all alive. She is eighteen months younger than I, but seems much more alert. I suppose brickbats are livelier than logarithms!”

Miss Mitchell was a member of several learned societies.

She was the first woman elected to membership of the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences, whose headquarters are at Boston.

In 1869 she was chosen a member of the American Philosophical Society, a society founded by Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science made her a member in the early part of its existence. Miss Mitchell was one of the earliest members of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. At one period she was president of the association, and for many years served as chairman of the committee on science. In this latter capacity she reached, through circulars and letters, women studying science in all parts of the country; and the reports, as shown from year to year, show a wonderful increase in the number of such women. She was a member, also, of the New England Women’s Club, of Boston, and after her annual visit at Christmas she entertained her students at Vassar with descriptions of the receptions and meeting of that body. She was also a member of the New York Sorosis. She received the degree of Ph.D. from Rutgers Female College in 1870, her first degree of LL.D. from Hanover College in 1832, and her last LL.D. from Columbia College in 1887.

Miss Mitchell had no ambition to appear in print, and most of her published articles were in response to applications from publishers.

A paper entitled “Mary Somerville” appeared in the “Atlantic Monthly” for May, 1860. There were several articles in “Silliman’s Journal,”mostly results of observations on Jupiter and Saturn,a few popular science papers in “Hours at Home,” and one on the “Herschels,” printed in “The Century” just after her death.

Miss Mitchell also read a few lectures to small societies, and to one or two girls’ schools; but she never allowed such outside work to interfere with her duties at Vassar College, to which she devoted herself heart and soul.

When the failure of her health became apparent to the members of her family, it was with the utmost difficulty that Miss Mitchell could be prevailed upon to resign her position. She had fondly hoped to remain at Vassar until she should be seventy years old, of which she lacked about six months. It was hoped that complete rest might lead to several years more of happy life for her; but it was not to be soshe died in Lynn, June 28, 1889.

It was one of Miss Mitchell’s boasts that she had earned a salary for over fifty years, without any intermission. She also boasted that in July, 1883, when she slipped and fell, spraining herself so that she was obliged to remain in the house a day or two, it was the first time in her memory when she had remained in the house a day. In fact, she made a point of walking out every day, no matter what the weather might be. A serious fall, during her illness in Lynn, stopped forever her daily walks.

She had resigned her position in January, 1888. The resignation was laid on the table until the following June, at which time the trustees made her Professor Emeritus, and offered her a home for life at the observatory. This offer she did not accept, preferring to live with her family in Lynn. The following extracts from letters which she received at this time show with what reverence and love she was regarded by faculty and students.

“Ja, 1888.... You may be sure that we shall be glad to do all we can to honor one whose faithful service and honesty of heart and life have been among the chief inspirations of Vassar College throughout its history. Of public reputation you have doubtless had enough, but I am sure you cannot have too much of the affection and esteem which we feel toward you, who have had the privilege of working, with you.”

“Ja, 1888. You will consent, you must consent, to having your home here, and letting the work go. It is not astronomy that is wanted and needed, it is Maria Mitchell.... The richest part of my life here is connected with you.... I cannot picture Vassar without you. There’s nothing to point to!”

“May 5, 1889. In all the great wonder of life, you have given me more of what I have wanted than any other creature ever gave me. I hoped I should amount to something for your sake.”

Dr. Eliza M. Mosher, at one time resident physician at the college, said of her: “She was quick to withdraw objections when she was convinced of error in her judgment. I well remember her opposition to the ground I took in my ‘maiden speech’ in faculty meeting, and how, at supper, she stood, before sitting down, to say, ’You were right this afternoon. I have thought the matter over, and, while I do not like to believe it, I think it is true.’”

Of her rooms at the observatory, Miss Grace Anna Lewis, who had been a guest, wrote thus: “Her furniture was plain and simple, and there was a frank simplicity corresponding therewith which made me believe she chose to have it so. It looked natural for her. I think I should have been disappointed had I found her rooms fitted up with undue elegance.”

“Professor Mitchell’s position at Vassar gave astronomy a prominence there that it has never had in any other college for women, and in but few for men. I suppose it would have made no difference what she had taught. Doubtless she never suspected how many students endured the mathematical work of junior Astronomy in order to be within range of her magnetic personality.” (From “Wide Awake,” September, 1889.)

A graduate writes: “Her personality was so strong that it was felt all over the college, even by those who were not in her department, and who only admired her from a distance.”

Extract from a letter written after her death by a former pupil: “I count Maria Mitchell’s services to Vassar and her pupils infinitely valuable, and her character and attainments great beyond anything that has yet been told.... I was one of the pupils upon whom her freedom from all the shams and self-deceptions made an impression that elevated my whole standard, mental and moral.... The influence of her own personal character sustains its supreme test in the evidence constantly accumulating, that it strengthens rather than weakens with the lapse of time. Her influence upon her pupils who were her daily companions has been permanent, character-moulding, and unceasingly progressive.”

President Taylor, in his address at her funeral, said: “If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell’s thinking or utterance....

“One who has known her kindness to little children, who has watched her little evidences of thoughtful care for her associates and friends, who has seen her put aside her own long-cherished rights that she might make the way of a new and untried officer easier, cannot forget the tenderer side of her character....

“But if would be vain for me to try to tell just what it was in Miss Mitchell that attracted us who loved her. It was this combination of great strength and independence, of deep affection and tenderness, breathed through and through with the sentiment of a perfectly genuine life, which has made for us one of the pilgrim-shrines of life the study in the observatory of Vassar College where we have known her at home, surrounded by the evidences of her honorable professional career. She has been an impressive figure in our time, and one whose influence lives.”