Monday, June 10, 2013

Fannie Barber Knapp

Fannie Barber Knapp – Housewife and Poet (1866 -1958)

     Life in the rural Midwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries was usually anything but exciting.  Most people farmed and shopped in the nearest towns.  Local merchants flourished and town centers were filled with storefronts.  The world we live in today is much different.  We can drive to big cities to shop for a day, or attend a play or concert.  We can shop in local superstores.  Our rural communities have downtowns with empty storefronts.  Far fewer farm families remain, and many of those own thousands of acres and work the land with immense machines.  In the past things were smaller and activities more local.  

     Most rural Americas then were not exposed to the arts.  This was changed in a major way by the rural arts programs that began in the 1930’s, but before that there were some rural folk who sought fulfillment in culture and the arts.  One of these was Frances Barber Knapp, known as “Fannie” to most.  From loss and pain she forged her works of poetry, her plays, and stories.  In each of the last three issues of the Cunningham Week I have published her poems.  I believe they are fine examples of the art, and I hope you agree.  Now I believe it is time to introduce the person, because she deserves to be remembered, and her poetry deserves wider publication. 

    Fannie, the daughter of Joel Allen Barber Jr., was born into the upper crust of society in Lancaster, Wisconsin.   Her grandfather was J. Allen Barber, lawyer, member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and U.S. Congressman.  Her grandfather on her mother’s side was J. C. Cover, famous newspaper editor and later consul to Fayal. Thanks to her generous bequests to the Grant County Historical Society we have many photos of her family, as well as documents, artifacts, and a beautiful painting done by Fannie herself. She was not known as a visual artist.  Her images were conjured in poetry and prose.
     Fannie married Arthur Gay Knapp, son of C. W. Knapp.  He was a local businessman and a member of the Masonic Lodge.  If not a progressive himself, he did not attempt to limit Fannie in her personal expression.   She was a strong supporter of woman suffrage.  When the Wisconsin Legislature soundly defeated woman suffrage resolutions introduced by David Evans  in 1901 and 1902, which the Janesville Gazette headlined as a “Joke”, she took up her pen and wrote the following, which was published and entered into the legislative record:                                                                                                                                          


  This is not a great poem.  It may seem racist and condescending, but it reflects the tenor of a time when America was becoming a world power, accepting a hoard of immigrants, and struggling with the southern attempts to undo reconstruction.   As time passed and life left deep scars, her poems evolved in quality.  One of the items we have is a scrapbook filled entirely with poems she read and liked.  She worked hard to develop her own style.  She wrote about the familiar things of her world; her garden, her family, her experiences.  Her poems were the outlet for the person inside.  Small town etiquette required the suppression of emotions for the general good.   The rule was that people had enough troubles of their own without burdening them with yours.  In the poem Anniversary Outburst she wrote:

Her poems reflect a dislike for some small town ways, and gossip most particularly.  She did not condone cruelty or self-righteousness.  She did not endorse the small town class structure that labeled some families good and others bad; some as a well off “upper crust” and poor folks by definition a step down the rung.  We can only wonder what prompted her poem Without Benefit of Clergy, but we understand the situation and her feelings quite clearly:

     Fannie and Arthur had two children, Arthur Allen and Ella Maria (called Marie).  Their son Arthur, who was said to be a “talented cartoonist”, died in some tragic manner in 1924 at age 34.  I have not been able to determine the cause of his death.  Ella Maria became mentally ill and apparently never married.  She was said to be a “beautiful girl and a talented musician.”  She was confined most of her life.  She died in November of 1984 at Orchard Manor nursing home in Lancaster, Wisconsin.  After the death of Arthur Jr. his wife Florence Lathrop Knapp and their son Charles William “Billie” Knapp lived with Art and Fannie.  The child was a great comfort to them.  Outwardly Mrs. Barber remained stoic, but her poetry told of the anguish in her heart:

 Fannie and daughter Ella Maria 

                                                         Ella Maria (Marie) Knapp age 8                                                                                                                     

Fannie barber Knapp did not write only poetry.  She was also a playwright, and wrote short stories.   She was active in the Woman’s Club of Lancaster.  She wrote several plays for them, and recited her poetry for them starting in the year 1900.  In 1941, in her mid-seventies, she was chosen Poet Laureate of the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Clubs.  She wrote a number of plays: The Spite Wife (1933), Listen Dorothy (1934), Prince For An Hour (1934), Susan Of The Silver Tongue ((1935), and Trapper Grant (1936).  Sadly, none of these are available in our library or any other, with one exception; The Library of Congress has Listen Dorothy and Prince For An Hour, both of which were published and copyrighted.  The only way to view these plays is to visit the Library of Congress in Washington.  They cannot be borrowed.                            

                                                                                 Art, Fannie, and baby Arthur  

     Perhaps the most amazing fact about Mrs. Knapp is that she was a writer of Science Fiction.  In the book “Partners in Wonder:  Women and the Birth of Science Fiction” (2006), in Chapter 3 titled “Weird Sisters” the name “Francis Arthur” is shown as a contributor to Weird Tales Magazine.  Frances Arthur was the nom de plume adopted by Fannie Barber so that she could write this type of material.  Apparently she felt her fellow townspeople might look askance at this activity.  Her story, A Problem of the Dark, was published in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales Magazine.  The letter accepting her story for publication was sent to her in July of 1926.  The editor, Farnsworth Wright offered her $15.00 for the story.  The story is a tale of the death of a quarterback at a moment of anger, whose spirit inhabits an invisible scaly beast which attacks a team mate posthumously each night.  You can read the story at:!/view.aspx?cid=754998FA211FDBD5&resid=754998FA211FDBD5%211319&app=WordPdf

 Later she wrote on the rear of the letter a note to her grandson, Bill stating that she didn't really approve of these types of stories:

     Frances Barber Knapp, as she called herself in her later years, lived to the age of 92.  She remained creative into her twilight years, writing poems.  In 1946, at the age of eighty she wrote a poem called A Door in the Mountainside which won an award.  It asked in poetic terms if the atomic bomb might not be mankind’s end:  “Is it your will, stern Judge, at last to rid your world of those you saved, at bitter cost?”  She aged with dignity and even when forced to enter a The Grant County Home, was described thusly by a Milwaukee Journal reporter:  “Although she closets herself with her pen, thoughts and books each evening, during the day Mrs. Knapp joins the circle of other residents to soothe and comfort those less happy with their world.   “Life, as you know, isn’t a bowl of cherries,” the poet remarked.  “But I do know I’m needed here and I am not too old to be of some use.  And that’s what makes it worth living.”
     “I’m not a poet at all,” she said when she was 75, “but a small town woman who, between cooking, washing dishes, making beds, and working in my garden, writes a little verse.”  By her work, we know that she was indeed a poet, and a good one at that.

 Pansies by Frances Barber Knapp-on display at the museum

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