Nicholson, Eliza Jane Poitevent
NICHOLSON, Eliza Jane Poitevent
Born 11 March 1848, Pearlington, Mississippi; died 15 February 1896, New Orleans, Louisiana
Wrote under: Pearl Rivers
Daughter of Captain William J. and Mary Russ Poitevent; married Alva M. Holbrook, 1872; George Nicholson, 1878; children: two sons
Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson was raised by an aunt near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. She entertained herself by roaming the piney woods along the Pearl River, developing in her youth an affectionate regard for nature. In 1867 Nicholson began submitting the poems she had been writing since age fourteen to newspapers and magazines. Her first published poem appeared in the New Orleans literary sheet, the South in 1868. Soon poems by "Pearl Rivers" appeared in the New York Home Journal, the New York Ledger, the New Orleans Times, and the New Orleans Daily Picayune.
In 1868 Nicholson met A. M. Holbrook, owner and editor of the Daily Picayune. He offered her a job as literary editor for $25 a week. Over the strenuous objections of her family, Nicholson accepted, becoming New Orleans' first female journalist. Her lively prose and intelligent selections markedly improved the paper's literary section. In 1872 she married Holbrook, divorced and 40 years her senior. (His angry ex-wife returned from New York a month after the wedding and proceeded to attack Nicholson with a pistol and a bottle of rum. The subsequent trial was covered in scandalous detail by the Daily Picayune.)
When Holbrook died four years later, Nicholson assumed ownership and management of the Daily Picayune, which was $80,000 in debt. At twenty-seven, she thus became the first woman ever to own and operate a metropolitan daily paper. With the assistance of a loyal staff, including the part owner and business manager, George Nicholson, whom she married in 1878, Nicholson transformed the Daily Picayune into a profitable paper and the first general-interest daily in the South. Nicholson's most significant innovations were directed at women. She introduced a society column, personal notes, fashion news, home and medical advice columns, children's pages, and plentiful illustrations. Nicholson also employed talented writers, including several women. Nicholson's own poetry and prose also appeared, including columns of personal and imaginative commentary.
In 1884 Nicholson became president of the Women's National Press Association and was the first honorary member of the New York Women's Press Club. In addition, Nicholson was largely responsible for the founding of the New Orleans Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1888, and she helped gain public support for the night schools instituted by Sophie B. Wright.
Nicholson died of influenza, 11 days after her husband. Their two sons inherited the paper she had shaped, maintaining its ownership and character into the 20th century. In her only volume of poetry, Lyrics (1873), the theme is almost without exception nature and seasonal change. Nicholson's rhymed quatrains are characterized by personifications of the months and seasons and by fairylike perspectives of plants and animals. Occasionally, she writes of feminine heartbreak. Technically pedestrian, her poems reveal a delight in nature and an eye for authentic detail. To Nicholson, poetry was a "gift of song," intended to cheer and please her audience.
Two later poems, "Hagar" and "Leah," published first in Cosmopolitan in 1893 and 1894, suggest a richer dimension of Nicholson's talent. Long dramatic poems in blank verse, they are uneven but vivid and insightful evocations of their heroines' bitterness and jealousy as overlooked women. "Hagar" is the stronger of the two poems, with an effective use of meter and imagery.
Although her early pastoral poetry is slight, Nicholson's later poems reflect an ability to dramatize emotion effectively. But it is her journalistic ability that distinguishes her. Her columns are filled with a sure, lively prose, whose mark was entertaining dialogue and reflective commentary. Her paper stands as a model of innovative and responsible publishing. A remarkable and sensitive woman, Nicholson is said to have possessed little confidence in her abilities. Nevertheless, her strong sense of duty and courage often substituted for self-confidence and forged the means by which her creativity and discriminating intelligence were expressed.
Four Poems by Pearl Rivers (1900). Two Poems by Pearl Rivers (circa 1900).
The papers of Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson are in the Howard-Tilton Library of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Dabney, T. E., One Hundred Great Years (1944). DeMenil, A. N., The Literature of the Louisiana Territory (1904). Farr, E. S., Pearl Rivers (1951). Gill, H. M., The South in Prose and Poetry (1916). Harrison, J. H., Pearl Rivers, Publisher of the Picayune (1932). Mount, M., Some Notables of New Orleans (1896). Ross, I., Ladies of the Press (1936). Rutherford, M. L., The South in History and Literature (1907).
DAB. Dictionary of American Authors (1904). Living Female Writers of the South (1872). The Living Writers of the South (1869). NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Louisiana Historical Society (Oct. 1923). Poitevent Genealogy (Tulane archives, 1967). New Orleans Daily Picayune (16 Feb. 1896). New Orleans Times-Democrat (16 Feb. 1896). Teachers' Outlook (Feb. 1901).
—BARBARA C. EWELL