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The Typical American Woman?

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

Old Days in Chapel Hill. By Hope Summerell Chamberlain. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.50.

“Old Days in Chapel Hill” is to the initiated just what its sub-title proclaims, the Life and Letters of Cornelia Phillips Spencer; to those previously unfamiliar with her work it should prove veracious social history of a sector of Southern life during a period too rapidly becoming forgotten. More specifically, this biography sets forth one woman’s share in dispelling the catalepsy into which the University of North Carolina fell in the dark days and lean years at the close of the Civil War, and if ever woman other than founder has deserved the title of mother of an institution of learning, it is she. Without the wealth to give or the jewels to pawn that Jane Stanford had, and with no personal connection with the University save that of residence in Chapel Hill, she gave even more— herself.

From the unusually full records left by Mrs. Spencer, whose deafness turned her more and more back upon herself and led her to write most minutely detailed letters, the author of this memoir has reconstructed a picture of a whole society, symbolized by these “dozen families and their doings” in the little college community, as well as a full length portrait of her whom the late Hannis Taylor designated The Typical American Woman. The book is filled with incidental yet graphic character expositions—of rough, lovable old Governor Swain, for 33 years president of the University; of the more popular but less pleasing Zebulon Vance; or of various lesser figures in college, community, or state, down to the town drunkard and (fit subjects for any “Who’s Who of Pernicious Persons”) Governor Holden and President Pool.

Mrs. Spencer herself was indeed a happy warrior, accomplished, prescient, calm, resourceful, with a nobly masculine broadness of vision and a feminine knack of getting her purpose accomplished. To her came statesmen and college presidents for opinion, fact, and action, and from her, without exception, they obtained what they sought.

She published little in book form—only two slender volumes—but she wrote much during her life of 83 years, and directed her energies skillfully. In her copious newspaper articles throughout the troubled era of Reconstruction and in her extensive personal correspondence she revealed a purpose splendidly balanced between conservatism and liberalism: she wished her State to progress but, rather than attempt to “erupt into usefulness,” she would have it make haste slowly, preserving the ideals and traditions of the ante-bellum regime as a tested basis on which to build. When she addressed to the alumni of the University of North Carolina her series of “Pen and Ink Sketches” “in the hope of kindling their attachment and awakening their interest,” she was successful at both; at the same time she was commencing the important work of her life. Her disclosure of deficiencies combined with the impeachment of Governor Holden to end in 1870 the sway of the rump faculty under President Solly Pool, in whose hands academic disintegration had become so complete that Mrs. Spencer could comment truthfully that the campus was given up to pigs and pigmies. Pool’s reign of abominations having been closed, Mrs. Spencer began the second half of her task, that of making possible the reopening of the University.

To such effect did she labor that within three years her campaign had started the educational machinery to rumbling, and within two more years the first American state university again threw open her doors to students. In 1877 the Board of Trustees tendered Mrs. Spencer formal thanks in recognition of “her unflagging interest in this institution, her able efforts on its behalf, and for her clear and intelligent reports of its transactions.” To no man did they owe a gratitude so deep.

She has waited almost twenty years for a biographer, but her story will not need to be rewritten. In the first place, Mrs. Chamberlain’s portrayal of her is pleasingly complete, and in the second, such service as hers deserves to become household tradition among her own people if it has not already become so.


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