Diaz, Abby Morton
Abby Morton Diaz
American author and activist Abby Morton Diaz (1821–1904) drew young children into a deeper love of literature with her 1870 publication William Henry's Letters to his Grandmother, and strove to help further liberate womankind with the power of her words, as well as with the force of her actions.
Diaz was born Abigail Morton—the only child of Patty (Weston) and Ichabod Morton—on November 22, 1821, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Ichabod Morton—a shipbuilder born and raised in Plymouth—was a direct relative of pilgrim George Morton, who wrote an account of the sea voyage and subsequent settling of Plymouth titled Mourt's Relation. He was, himself, an active social reformer, and he passed this ambitious temperament on to his daughter. Harriet Townsend's 1916 edition of Reminiscences of Famous Women recalled the author's recollections of Diaz. She began, "One who has ever come under the spell of the quaint personality of Mrs. Abby Morton Diaz will never forget her…. I am moved to record my impressions of a woman whose word by tongue or pen was a source of moral uplift always worthwhile." Diaz's mother died not long after she was born, and her father re-married and fathered five sons.
Townsend described how "Abby grew up in an atmosphere of reform;… to take as her watch-word the old Greek saying, 'It is not life to live for one's self alone, let us help one another." She became socially active early, acting as a member of the "Fragment Society"—organized by a paternal aunt to help distribute donated clothing to the poor—at the tender age of four, and later serving as the Secretary for the Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society before she had reached the age of twelve. The American National Biography's Lucy M. Freibert recorded that, according to Diaz's own recollections, in order to pay the weekly 25 cent Society membership dues, the conscientious young girl knit and sold garters and chose to forego having butter with her meals. This thread of self-sacrifice not only ran throughout her character, giving it a simple strength, but she also wove it into her future work and writing.
Diaz attended the Plymouth high school for girls—started by her father and his peers within the community—and excelled both academically and socially. In 1843, Diaz moved with her family to Brook Farm—a utopian commune formed by George and Sophia Ripley in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1841. She and two of her brothers attended the school there until their father found the Farm's financial situation to be too precarious for his liking. He and the rest of the family left, but Diaz chose to stay behind and serve as a teacher in the Farm's Infant School. On October 6, 1845 she married Manuel A. Diaz—a Cuban student from Havana who, in time, taught Spanish at the school—and they had three boys: Robert, Manuel and Charles, who died at the age of two. She remained at the Farm, teaching in the Infant School until 1847 when the utopian community was dissolved. The Diaz marriage went sour, and Diaz moved back into her parents' home to raise her boys on her own.
Freibert pointed out that, in her attempt to combine "thinker and doer in one person", Diaz threw herself whole-heartedly into multiple enterprises with the intention of maintaining a stable home life for her sons. She took over their education herself and while trying to make ends meet, she conducted a singing school, served the community as a nurse, and taught dancing in Plymouth. Eager to do her part during the Civil War, Diaz distributed Army sewing jobs to women. Freibert noted that Diaz quickly realized that these experienced, competent women were "grossly underpaid" and that "this observation motivated her later advocacy for working women." In May of 1861 Diaz's literary life took off when a story that she had submitted—"Pink and Blue: how I won my Wife"—was published in Atlantic Monthly. She was awarded a check of forty dollars for its publication, and promptly decided to focus on writing as a career.
Career as an Author
Diaz's determination and ingenuity paid off, and she enjoyed an acclaimed and prolific literary career. Over time, her stories and essays appeared in publications such as Youth's Companion, Cottage Hearth, St. Nicholas, Our Young Folks, Hearth and Home, Arena and Wide Awake. Diaz was best known as an author of encouragingly didactic children's stories. Her tales were imbued with a keen sense of humor and a genuine appreciation for the innocence of the child's mind. She believed in teaching from the heart as well as from the head, and she always claimed that it made more sense to "right form" rather than "reform" a child.
Her most beloved work was William Henry's Letters to his Grandmother (1870), which followed the trials and tribulations of a young boy's life at a boarding school. The protagonist, a roguish redhead, is sent away from his grandmother's home to prevent her from spoiling him. Children of all ages paid rapt attention as William Henry's adventures unfolded in the book's epistolary format. Two sequels followed this, in part, William Henry and His Friends (1871) and Lucy Maria (1874). Jane Benardete of American Women Writers (1979) noted that the latter was "loosely autobiographical, [concerning] a girl who took up 'school-keeping with too much self confidence' and soon concluded that it is a 'very solemn thing' to give 'even one life its first direction.' Lucy Maria wants to do 'heart-teaching,' rather than head-teaching … [and] like [Morton Diaz] at Brook Farm, [Lucy] takes her students into the woods to interest them in 'flowers, trees, insects—all natural objects.'" Diaz also wrote respected essays for adults covering domestic topics. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990) quoted Diaz as stating that housework was "woman-killing"—a problem she addressed in her 1875 essay, A Domestic Problem when she stated that men "should share household tasks, so that they may appreciate the difficulty of women's work." Benardete pointed out that many of Diaz's stories were "set in small towns that have little social life. Isolated and repressive, they are half-way stations between the old-fashioned village and the modern city." As an author, Diaz was sensitive to this transitional quality that marked her time, and it was a tribute to her skill that her characters managed to bridge the resulting gaps in their social settings.
Townsend noted that it was Diaz's "supremest joy to awaken women to a sense of their own vital needs and to make them realize their power to help each other…. The key note of her life work was the thought that the elevation of women means the elevation of the race … that 'applied Christianity' means equalization of opportunities, not equal distribution of goods or acquirements, but equal chances for the elevation of all human kind." To this end, in 1877, Diaz helped set up the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston—an organization dedicated to providing legal recourse for women who had been economically victimized by their employers. She was a staunch supporter of lightening the housewife's load so that women had the time, energy and means to better themselves culturally, rationally and spiritually. While she did not personally desire the right to vote beyond the social issues that directly affected her, Diaz was very vocal about a woman's right to vote as she chose.
Diaz was as active outside her written musings as she was within their pages. She served as active vice-president of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston from 1892 to 1902, and kept the title until her death in 1904. Benardete explains that Diaz intended the Union to be a "'sisterhood' allying urban women of means with country girls seeking work in the city." Eager to support the women's movement outside the boundaries of her immediate geographical area, she traveled extensively in the 1880s and 1890s helping other women to establish their own local unions in New York, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Minnesota. She stopped in at feminist clubs to speak at their functions and meetings, urging women to take the steps necessary to gain their own "freedom" and making the argument that the next step to follow the abolition of slavery should be the emancipation of women from domestic drudgery.
Although Diaz was raised and remained Unitarian until her death, she was the epitome of open-minded tolerance. She was a fervent adherent of "New Thought"—an intellectual, spiritual and philosophical movement that tried to develop new understandings of old theologies in the interest of addressing social and physical ills that were not being healed by traditional faith-based religions. She experimented with metaphysical healing, and her admiration for what Notable American Women called "the Emersonian injunction to find morality in external nature and the inner voice of conscience" lead her to the firm belief that although youth takes place in an innate state of goodness, as a child grows they must be instructed in how to turn to Nature to help them maintain this innocent state. Diaz was an activist in this arena as well, and guest lectured at a gathering of the Free Religious Association. She displayed a keen interest in the infusion of spirituality and science, and was among the first of the 19th century activists to oppose vivisection as cruel and unnecessary experimentation.
The Final Chapter
Diaz died of pneumonia on April 1, 1904 at the age of 82 at her home in Belmont, Massachusetts. She had moved to Belmont in 1880 to raise three of her grandchildren who needed a home. Diaz's work entertained both the common, and the influential. United States President Theodore Roosevelt in his 1913 autobiography described William Henry's Letters to his Grandmother as "one of the favorite books of his boyhood: 'first-class, good healthy stories, interesting in the first place, and in the next place teaching manliness, decency, and good conduct.'" Her dedication to usefulness not only informed her fiction, it also guided her, time and again, into supervisory positions within her community. Freibert recorded that Diaz "held leadership roles in organizations such as the Boston Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Women's Exchange, the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association, the Belmont Suffrage League, and the Belmont Educational League." Described in biographies as "versatile", "resourceful", "energetic", "lively", "bustling" and "cheerful", Towns-end assures that Diaz "never seemed old, and to the last week of he life continued her service to humanity. Courageous and happy, she approached the heavenly life eager to begin her mission there."
Benardete, Jane, American Women Writers, edited by Lina Mainiero, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979.
――――――, Notable American Women 1607–1950, edited by Edward T. James, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.
The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, edited by Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy, Yale University Press, 1990.
Freibert, Lucy M., American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Index to Women of the World from Ancient to Modern Times: A Supplement, edited by Norma Olin Ireland, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, James T. White and Co., 1901.
The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Tumber, Catherine, Handbook of American Women's History: Second Edition, edited by Angela M. Howard and Frances M. Kavenik, Sage Publications, Inc., 2000.
The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, edited by Rossiter Johnson, The Biographical Society, 1904.
"Abby Morton Diaz," About: Women's History, http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_abby_morton_diaz.htm (January 5, 2006).
Townsend, Harriet, "Days With Abby Morton Diaz," About: Women's History, http://womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/bl_townsend_diaz.htm (January 5, 2006).