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Van Alstyne, Frances (Jane) Crosby

VAN ALSTYNE, Frances (Jane) Crosby

Born 24 March 1820; Putnam County, New York; died 12 February 1915, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Wrote under: Fanny Crosby and some 200 others

Daughter of John and Mercy Crosby; married Alexander Van Alstyne, 1858 (died 1902)

At the age of six weeks, Frances Crosby Van Alstyne was permanently blinded as a result of an eye infection treated by hot poultices that destroyed the optic nerves. This trauma was compounded when her father died before she was one year old, but as an eight-year-old she wrote the lines: "O what a happy soul am I! / Although I cannot see, / I am resolved that in this world / Contented I will be!" Van Alstyne spent her childhood studying the Bible and developing the powers of her memory. In fact, she later told friends she had memorized the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms, and most of the New Testament.

At the age of fifteen, Van Alstyne enrolled in the New York Institution for the Blind, where she remained as a student for the next eight years. While there she developed her poetic talents by reciting topical poems for visitors, such as Jenny Lind and Henry Clay. She also recited on fundraising tours for the institution from 1842 to 1844. One of her favorites on such occasions began: "Contented, happy, though a sightless band, / Dear friends, this evening we before you stand." After graduating at the age of twenty-three, Van Alstyne stayed at the institution and taught a number of subjects for the next 15 years.

Van Alstyne's first volume of poetry, The Blind Girl, and Other Poems (1844), was published when she was twenty-four. Ironically, the preface states that "any pecuniary advantage" to the authoress will be appreciated since she is in "declining health." Van Alstyne died at the age of ninety-five. The volume concentrates on the extremely morbid subjects so popular at the time. Typical poems are "My Mother's Grave," "Ida, the Broken-Hearted," and "On the Death of a Child."

In her next volume of poetry, Monterey, and Other Poems (1851), Van Alstyne again appeals to her readers' sympathy: she states her health is "sadly impaired," while she hopes her "declining years" will be supported by the sale of this volume. The contents are even more maudlin, including "The Dying Daughter," "Let Me Die on the Prairie," "Weep Not for the Dead," "The Stranger's Grave," and "Reflections of a Murderer."

A Wreath of Columbia's Flowers (1858) is a collection of short fiction. Although Van Alstyne claims her writings are "natural and true to life," this volume contains the story "Annie Herbert," about a girl who hears flowers talking to her. Her final volume of poetry, Bells at Evening, and Other Verse (1897), includes a biographical sketch by Robert Lowry. Van Alstyne considered Bells at Evening her finest poetic effort. It contains such secular poems as "A Tribute to Cincinnati" and other patriotic fare. The final section includes some 65 of her most famous hymns.

Hymn writing was Van Alstyne's major claim to fame. She began writing popular songs with the composer George F. Root in 1851, and the two collaborated on about 50 songs, including "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower," which earned $3,000 in royalties. In 1864 Van Alstyne began writing hymns with William B. Bradbury, generally considered the father of Sunday school music in America. Over her long career, she wrote around 8,000 hymns. Not even she could remember the exact figure, since so many were published under her more than 200 pseudonyms. Her most successful hymns include "Rescue the Perishing" and "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," used by Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey in their missionary work and by Frances E. Willard in her temperance work.

Van Alstyne's final literary efforts were two versions of her autobiography, Fannie Crosby's Life-Story (1903) and the more detailed volume, Memories of Eighty Years (1906). In the latter volume she gives one paragraph to her marriage to another blind teacher at the institution. The two moved to Brooklyn, where Van Alstyne continued to write hymns and her husband worked as a music teacher until his death in 1902. One suspects, from Van Alstyne's autobiographical volumes, that beneath her saccharine surface she was a shrewd businesswoman who prospered by presenting to the public the popular sentiments they wanted to hear.

Other Works:

Ode to the Memory of Captain John Underhill (1902).

Bibliography:

Van Alstyne, F. C., Fanny Crosby's Life-Story (1903). Van Alstyne, F. C., Memories of Eighty Years (1906).

Reference works:

NAW (1971).

—DIANE LONG HOEVELER

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