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The hidden highbrow of Pocahontas

by BROOKE GREENBERG | March 26, 2023 at 1:49 a.m.

Humans like to live on slightly elevated sites with a view of water. Flat farmland nearby is desirable as well. If you like to see human affinities explained away by people in the field of evolutionary psychology, then the appeal of Pocahontas, Ark., is obvious.

But human affinities are queer, and Pocahontas has some appeal I can't define. It's not the oldest town site on the Black River; Davidsonville is. But Pocahontas holds the old brick Randolph County courthouse, and there is still commerce in the blocks surrounding the courthouse square. It seems like a place where life can happen.

And death. Jeannette Howard Foster spent her last years in Randolph County. She is buried there.

Foster invented the field of lesbian bibliography. Born in 1895 to a midwestern family of New England descent, she matched her childhood yearnings for certain Sunday school teachers and older girls to a short story she encountered when she was 13 or so, "The Lass of the Silver Sword" by Mary Constance Dubois.

Walker Percy, my favorite sulky Catholic conservative, would say that this is the great mystery of reading: coming across what you thought were your thoughts or feelings, strange, reprehensible, special, or unique as you thought they were, in the written work of another human being. Robinson Crusoe sees the human footprint upon the beach and knows he is not alone.

That's what happened to Jeannette Foster. From her first reading of "The Lass of the Silver Sword," she had a hankering to find other accounts of what she had known as a young girl. As she put it about later readings, "I was very much interested and relieved ... to learn that I was not an isolated specimen, but that I was a pretty good copy."

It offends me when people use the word "obsession" to mean an object of desire that can easily be bought over the counter. What Foster developed upon her first reading of "The Lass of the Silver Sword" was a proper obsession.

Here is what she sought to do: find every mention of the love of a woman for another woman, be it written by a woman or a man, going back to Sappho of Lesbos, who wrote around 600 B.C. As Foster defined it, she was reading to find content by or about "sex variant" women, or "women who are conscious of passion for their own sex, with or without overt expression."

If lesbian bibliography sounds like a small obscure field of endeavor, consider that women who manage to pair off with other women represent a small fraction of women who have experienced lesbian desire. But the latter group, inclusive of the former, tend to leave a good record in print, while "experts" put out a great deal of literature attempting to define and explain the phenomenon.

That is in our age. Now go back to Sappho and to the Bible (consider the story of Ruth and Naomi, written between 500 and 300 B.C.), then skim through books of the centuries to the present, and document every instance where a woman loves another woman. For bibliographic efficiency, try to restrict your catalog to those instances of love between women that have an obvious erotic element.

That is a lot of reading. And Foster did it.

Joanne Passet wrote a good biography of Foster, which can be checked out from the Main Library of the Central Arkansas Library System. I mention this because I enjoy the thought of would-be censors combing over the biography "Sex Variant Woman" to be rewarded with lines like these:

"Deciding that they were compatible, Tish and Jeannette began talking about moving in together. As she contemplated that possibility, Jeannette's Yankee thriftiness shone through: As a single working woman, she appreciated the benefit of shared housing."

Talk about corrupting youth. That was where I quit trying to keep track of Foster's infatuations, lovers, and domestic partners. Her list is impressive, and while no one woman met all three criteria fully, many seem to have met at least two.

Foster left a long chain of women, all cultivated later as friends, as she moved across Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and Missouri, working to support herself, her research and, during the Depression, her parents in the suburbs of Chicago or in Ludington, Mich.

Foster studied chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago because of her infatuation with a high school chemistry teacher. She took the scientific rigor developed as a young woman and applied it to the art of acquiring and cataloging books. Her biographer chronicles her graduate work, years of teaching English (she hated grading papers) and library science, and various grants and summer positions she took in order to gain access to collections that held books that might hold accounts of love between women.

She worked as the first (and only) professional librarian at Alfred Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, which is where she would meet Hazel Toliver, a native of Arkansas who eventually brought Foster here.

Lillian Faderman is the best writer to consult to understand the way literate Americans understood love between women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and gives credit to Foster for making her work possible.

Foster finished her bibliography in the 1950s. It covered 324 works of literature and history that at least mentioned what she called "sex variant women" (the word "sex" attracted readers). She also consulted some 300 "scientific and psychiatric" works to lend extra respectability to her scholarly work on what was, by the 1950s, a controversial subject.

Foster had to self-publish the study she had worked at for 20-some years. Then Vantage Press, after going over serious libel concerns, brought out "Sex Variant Women in Literature" in 1956. Foster and Toliver, her last partner, retired to the Pocahontas area in 1974, along with Toliver's mother and another woman.

Foster was somewhat disabled by spinal surgery and checked into the Randolph County nursing home in 1975, dying in 1981. In the meantime, she entertained quite a few friends and fans.

Brooke Greenberg enjoys email from readers: [email protected]

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