Scudder, Vida Dutton

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SCUDDER, Vida Dutton

Born 15 December 1861, Madura, India; died 9 October 1954, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Daughter of David C. and Harriet Dutton Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder spent her lifetime attempting to unite literature, socialism, and Christianity. She was a member of the Wellesley College Department of English for 41 years (1887-1928) but achieved her fame as an activist Christian socialist. She helped to found college settlements on the East Coast, working at Denison House in Boston. She was a tireless advocate for higher education for women, took a public role in the debate of the issues of her times (workers' rights, democracy, social community), and was a prolific writer. She was above all an idealist with strong leanings both toward the world and its politics and the church and its organizations.

Born in India where her father served as a Congregationalist missionary, she was related to old New England families through each parent. When her father died suddenly in 1862, the infant Vida and her mother returned to the Dutton home in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Scudder grew up surrounded by doting grandparents, distinguished aunts and uncles, and a devoted mother.

Scudder spent much of her childhood in Europe; she absorbed as much from her mother as from their travels. This exposure set for life her devotion to beauty and tradition. In 1878 she joined the first class of Girls' Latin School in Boston and in 1880 entered Smith College. After graduating from Smith, she spent an academic year at Oxford University, among the first American women to be accepted as special students there, where she heard John Ruskin present the last set of lectures he gave before he retired. Through these lectures she became aware of the "plethora of privilege" in her life. She came away from Ruskin and Oxford filled with a social radicalism, and returned to Smith to obtain her master's degree. Ruskin's ideas gave Scudder a way to link literature to social reality and social purpose.

Scudder accepted a position in the English Department at Wellesley College in 1887. She chose Wellesley over Smith so she could remain with her mother. From the outset, both a great love of letters and a growing social concern animated her teaching. Her two earliest books, The Life of the Spirit in Modern English Poets (1895) and Social Ideals in English Letters (1898), reflected this combination.

While teaching gave her more self-confidence, Scudder continued to worry about "privilege unshared." This concern led her in 1887 to form a college settlement organization, the college Settlements Association. When the first settlement opened on Rivington Street in New York City in 1889, Scudder, as secretary of the electoral board of the association, promoted its work on college campuses. In 1893 she took a leave of absence from Wellesley to join in the official opening of Denison House in Boston's South End. For the next 20 years she was an integral part of the continued existence of the settlement.

Scudder's deep commitment to social activism informed her teaching career to such a degree that rather than writing the literary criticism that would have given her more prestige among her colleagues, she wrote books designed to convince people that their beliefs should commit them to "social reconstruction." It was perhaps a natural progression for Scudder to decide in 1889 to become a member of William D. P. Bliss' Society of Christian Socialists, a charter member of the Brotherhood of the Carpenter, and an active worker in the Christian Social Union. Her settlement work and her friendships with the women in settlement neighborhoods turned her attention to the practical side of the labor question. Yet these priorities often put Scudder in conflict with the Wellesley College administration over her socialist activities.

In 1911 Scudder was a founding member of the Episcopal Church Socialist League. The goal of the League was to encourage the application of Christian principles to industrial and social relations. In Socialism and Character (1912), she tried to reconcile the apparent differences between Christianity and socialism. Through her socialist connections, Scudder was asked to speak in Lawrence, Massachusetts, during the 1912 textile strike, where her speech led to demands for her resignation from Wellesley.

Scudder weathered this storm and remained at Wellesley until her retirement in 1928, when a new phase of her career began. Years of research on the early history of the Franciscans resulted in her major work, The Franciscan Adventure (1931), and established her as a leading Franciscan scholar. Her greatest contribution to the growth of Christian social thought in the United States came through her writing. Her autobiography, On Journey (1937), provides a perceptive review of 75 years of social history and of her own religious ideals. Only age could curtail her activities, because her interest in the social questions of her time never waned. In 1952 she published My Quest for Reality, a sequel to her autobiography. She died suddenly in 1954.

Other Works:

The Witness of Denial (1895). Introduction to the Study of English Literature (1901). A Listener in Babel: Being a Series of Imaginary Conversations (1903). Saint Catherine of Siena as Seen in Her Letters (1905). The Disciple of a Saint (1907). Le Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources (1917). The Church and the Hour: Reflections of a Socialist Churchwoman (1917). The Social Teachings of the Christian Year (1921). Brother John: A Tale of the First Franciscans (1927). The Privilege of Age: Essays Secular and Spiritual (1939). Father Huntington (1940).


NAW: The Modern Period (1980). DLB: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1880-1900 (1988).