Caroline M. Congdon’s portrait from The Guardian Angel.
A few years ago, I happened upon this image of Caroline M. Congdon on the wonderful “Portraits of American Women Writers That Appeared in Print Before 1861” website curated by The Library Company of Philadelphia. At the time, I was looking for a potential seminar paper topic for a course on Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. The Library Company site includes portraits of various women authors. It is a wonderful site and I encourage you to visit. Congdon was from New York state and wrote one book of published poems, The Guardian Angel (1856). Congdon died in her late teens in 1860.
[In the end I did not write about Congdon. I wrote a seminar paper about scrapbooks, poetry, and the potential of digitizing the archive and moving beyond the limitations of the traditional anthology. I should really return to that topic someday.]
Several years have passed, but I have remained fascinated by Congdon’s image. Now, and at that time, I found Congdon’s portrait incredibly intriguing because it is different from many author portraits. It is intimate. It is inviting. It is sensual. It invokes a tension between the public and the private. The image promotes a guilty feeling of voyeurism. It was an image that I was curious to know more about.
There wasn’t much to find on Congdon online and through databases—at that time (around 2009) and now. The most interesting source of information was WordCat which revealed a curious pattern of distribution of Congdon’s work in various libraries. A search for The Guardian Angel results in around 75 search hits. Copies of The Guardian Angel exist in libraries throughout the world. Yes, the world. One can find copies of Congdon’s work in one library in Australia and another in the United Kingdom. Understandably, there is a significant representation of her books in New York, which makes sense since she was a native of the state of New York. For a book of poetry with abolitionist themes, Congdon’s book of poetry is strongly represented in the American south, too. I’m not suggesting that those books arrived in these southern locations prior to the Civil War, but I am curious about how they arrived there.
One of the interesting aspects of the descriptions of Congdon’s books on WorldCat was the lack of her portrait being mentioned. Very few libraries included documentation about the author’s portrait fronting the title page. The absence of notation about the author portrait is striking because many of the entries for The Guardian Angel note the fact that the book includes errors in the pagination.
Intrigued by what WorldCat told me about the availability of Congdon’s book, I went on ABE Books and began searching for copies of Congdon’s work. I did find copies available through several booksellers on ABE Books. Concerned about the availability of intact versions of Congdon’s book, I started calling booksellers that offered the book. My initial queries were frustrating. A pattern began to emerge: it was difficult to find intact copies of The Guardian Angel. Aside from the usual wear of age, many of these books were in good condition, but they did not include the image of Congdon. One interesting note: a bookseller I called had two copies of The Guardian Angel, but both copies were missing Congdon’s portrait. Eventually, I found sellers with complete versions of Congdon’s book. In fact, I found two from different sellers and ordered both copies.
Left: The cover of The Guardian Angel; Right: Detail of Congdon’s portrait showing The Guardian Angel.
One of the most surprising things that I discovered when I received my first copy of Congdon’s book was that The Guardian Angel (the book) was depicted in the portrait of Congdon. The viewer can see the book propped up against the apparatus that Congdon uses to facilitate her writing. The attention of the reader / viewer is centered on the book because of the proximity of the book to Congdon’s face. The book is not only in close proximity to Congdon’s head, but also her heart. The placement of the book near Congdon’s head and heart suggests a melding of those two ideas: the head and the heart are intimately connected together in the production of Congdon’s creative output. The portrait, with its emphasis on the head and the heart, foreshadows many of the themes Congdon writes about in her poetry.
Detail of Congdon’s portrait from The Guardian Angel.
Congdon’s portrait is intimate and invokes a sense of invading her privacy, but the image still invites a viewer/reader into the scene. Our first reaction is to view the portrait of Congdon as intensely private because of the author portrait conventions it rejects. Congdon’s image is not a replication of a daguerreotype produced in the confines of a parlor-like studio. The bed Condgon rests upon, her writing desk apparatus and the long feather fan all suggest that the scene depicted is Condgon’s personal and private space, her usual space of creation. The image, with Congdon’s welcoming outward gaze, invites the reader into the image and into the world of her collection of poems. A book and a scattering of papers lay haphazardly about her. But the space depicted isn’t only Congdon’s space, it is ours as her welcoming gaze outwards towards the reader/viewer invites are attention and interaction. The portrait suggests the impromptu; the reader/viewer comes upon Congdon in the process of writing. The moment seems unmediated, though surely it is one structured to portray Congdon working diligently. The image is visual proof of Congdon’s condition, the situation in which she writes, and it serves to convey the remarkable circumstances that color her moment of creativity. The presence of the book that she wrote, depicted in the image, conveys the fact that this is where this book was made, created, and produced. These were the circumstances of its production.
In addition to the composition of the image which beckons the reader / viewer, the inclusion of an inscription by Congdon provides another level of invitation to the reader / viewer. Congdon’s inscription reads “Yours most truly / Connie M Congdon.” Congdon’s inscription, like the close of a warm letter, is personal. The reader / viewer is treated as a friend of Congdon, one that is invited into her intimate moment of writing. Congdon’s use of “Yours” is personal, warm, and welcoming. Additionally, Congdon doesn’t sign her name with the more formal Caroline, but signs as “Connie,” introducing an additional level of personal connection with the reader / viewer.
The level of detail of The Guardian Angel rendered in the image raises questions. It isn’t that just the gilded image of the book is replicated in the portrait, but the embossed design of the book cover is also clearly discernable, too. Thinking about the placement of the book in the portrait of Congdon raises interesting questions. How involved was Congdon in the design of her book? Was the cover design a stock image used by the publisher, William J. Moses? When in the production of the book was Congdon’s portrait created?
Congdon is buried in New York, and you can visit her grave virtually thanks to a database entry on Find A Grave.
Note: All images included in post are of one of my two personal copies of The Guardian Angel.