Civil War Author Interview: Diane Monroe Smith on Fanny & Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Diane Monroe Smith is the author of Fanny & Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a dual biography that sheds new light on the overexposed Chamberlain and the underexposed Fanny.

How would you characterize each of these people separately, as marriage partners?

My research shows that Joshua, though an ambitious and independent nature led him to strive for positions of leadership, was an idealist, for the fields in which he sought influence were invariably ones that he saw as beneficial to mankind. As a student, an educator, a soldier, a politician, and even as an entrepreneur, he expended tremendous energy on undertakings he viewed as contributions to the common good, and in which personal gain took a back seat. A daring and tenacious character afforded him a number of triumphs in his life, as diverse as that of winning the hand of Fanny Adams to his victories on the battlefield, but it is, perhaps, his response to failure that is most revealing. Where no amount of effort or self-sacrifice could achieve a goal he had set for himself, he was possessed of a remarkable resiliency that led him, through his life and to the very end of his days, to continue to strive to be involved in some service to his fellow man.

These qualities attracted and won Fanny Adams, for she, too, was an idealist. She has been sadly misrepresented by many Chamberlain biographers, for no better reason than that they failed to take the time to investigate her life. A happy and intelligent child who grew into a well-adjusted adult, early influences were remarkable only in that she received unusually good training in the arts for a woman of her time, and she was encouraged to demonstrate her intellectual and artistic abilities. Embracing the Transcendentalists’ views on the power of music, art and poetry to uplift the masses, Fanny’s ambitions to become an artist and musician were unconventional for a woman, but her determination to follow her own heart regarding her religious beliefs and to choose who she would marry, if she married at all, were not.

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It’s interesting that her father was a Congregationalist minister and that she was an Emersonian or Unitarian – and that Chamberlain was aiming for a ministry in the Congregationalist system.

Though the choices she made brought her into conflict with her adoptive father, they were among the few decisions that her society allowed women to make for themselves. Joshua found in Fanny’s artistic crusade an idealism to match his own, yet her world was so far outside his own experience that he found it intimidating. Unsure of himself and jealous of her circle of friends, the tormented letters he wrote during their courtship were somehow translated into depictions of Fanny as a cold woman, incapable of love. Meanwhile, those critics who have not battered Fanny’s reputation by painting her as selfish and unstable, seem determined to portray her as a rebel or early feminist, but evidence tells otherwise.

While pointedly rejecting the bohemian life style adopted by many 19th century artists, she also displayed a real desire to please loved ones in all matters except those in conflict with her most personal convictions. Fanny did refuse to accept Joshua’s decision to enter the ministry in a religion she herself could not embrace, but it was the only time that she refused to support him in a cause he held dear. She believed Joshua was destined to do great things, but persistently urged him to find an alternative to the church. After a long struggle over this issue that lasted throughout their courtship & engagement, once married other pathways to a life dedicated to public service were found. In marriage, Fanny and Joshua enjoyed a romantic and passionate love, shared many intellectual interests, and sustained one another through the many blows life rained on them and their families through the years. Fanny, who willingly exchanged her life in the arts for that of wife & mother, supported Joshua’s many crusades, including his military service during the Civil War. The Chamberlains’ relationship, that would last more than 50 years, proved strong enough to survive even the terrible tensions and changes that war brought to their lives.

You characterize their relationship as “enigmatic” – does your book resolve the enigma?

Actually, it was my publisher who added the word “enigmatic” to the title. The original title was Fanny and Lawrence: A Biography of…. I also agreed to their request that “Joshua” replace “Lawrence” for the sake of recognition, though everyone in his family called him Lawrence. In the give and take of the editorial process, there were other issues I was more concerned with than these changes. However, if one is inclined to believe that examination of the characters of Joshua and Fanny Chamberlain and their relationship has proved challenging to biographers, then perhaps the inclusion of “enigmatic” in the title is not misplaced. Considering how far off the mark some observations have been, there just may be an “enigmatic” quality to their lives! Have I resolved the enigma? No, there are still many things I’d like to know about Fanny and Joshua Chamberlain, but 8 years of research and the discovery of a substantial amount of new archival material did fill in many gaps and offer a rewarding number of new insights.

This subject begs for psychologizing and yet you seem to avoid psychohistory: why?

Attempts to “analyze” the Chamberlains have already led us down some strange and misleading roads. Fanny has suffered most at the hands of those who have made assumptions without bothering to consider the evidence of her life. For instance, because she was given at four years of age by her birth family to a cousin and his wife to adopt as their own daughter, it has been asserted that she must have been irreparably scarred for life. Once this supposition was made a substitute for evidence (in this case, evidence that showed Fanny Adams Chamberlain was a happy child who grew into a well-balanced adult), things went downhill from there. The first Chamberlain biographer, Willard Wallace, considered a scanty amount of archival material when considering Fanny, which he drew upon with little or no reference to what was going on in her or her family’s lives at the time. Slim evidence, however, did not discourage him from drawing a portrait of Fanny as a spoiled and flighty individual that, once established, helped lead future biographers down the same negative garden path.

I assure you, I am perfectly willing to consider opinions that differ from my own, but I want to see well-supported conclusions. Nor do I ask my own readers to adopt my view of things simply on my say so. I chose many times to let the Chamberlains speak for themselves, by quoting liberally from their correspondence and writings. While I believe that the biographer has an obligation to provide a framework of factual information which facilitates the process of putting quotations within the context of the subjects’ lives and their times, ultimately one should allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

Finally, I have a real appreciation for the difficulties and challenges inherent in assessing the emotional and mental health of individuals whom today’s practitioners can observe and with whom they can interact. It leaves me with little confidence in the value of attempts to psychoanalyze or profile the dead.

I applaud your restraint in handling what are, at times, painful and dramatic private events. Imagine an out-of-control Hollywood screenwriter with this material: what do you think would be “overdramatized”?

In order to answer your question, I consulted an expert on “out -of-control” Hollywood screenwriters, my son! A student in film production, Alex spent the summer before last working for Universal Studios doing “coverage”… reading scripts submitted for consideration and summarizing them.

He suggested that the rather independent Fanny would be turned into a “femi-nazi” (a militant feminist in today’s jargon). He also feared that the treatment of Fanny’s blindness in her later years would transform her into some version of an elderly Helen Keller. The thought of what a screenwriter might do with the strains on the Chamberlains’ relationship after the war, and Fanny’s accusation that Joshua was abusive in those years, merely made Alex cringe.

I was surprised to find what I think of as an over-the-top portrayal of Fanny in, of all places, a review of my book. While I chronicled Fanny’s visit to the 20th Maine’s winter encampment during the spring of 1863, the reviewer reported her presence at the front in terms so enthusiastic that it conjured up visions of her leading the regiment into battle. Several other reviewers have also taken it upon themselves to identify Chamberlain as he who won the battle of Gettysburg.

I fully understand the disdain heaped upon such statements, that magnify his and his regiment’s role beyond all sense of proportion. I don’t, however, join in on begrudging the fame that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine have won; I only wish that all such incidents of bravery and tenacity could receive such recognition. If we consider the movie, Gettysburg, we already have some idea of what a screenwriter would do with Chamberlain’s military exploits. I must say, though, that when writing about a number of his remarkable experiences, it is difficult sometimes to relate them without sounding like an out of control screenwriter!

I see some of Chamberlain’s “workaholic” behavior in modern practices. Likewise, Fanny’s late marriage, her position on having children later rather than sooner, and on earning a living as a woman are all likely to strike a chord with modern readers. How far can we take comparisons of this couple with modern couples?

Certainly a case could be made that, in order to enjoy reading biography, one must “connect” on some level with the subjects. One could even say that some degree of commonality in life experiences is a major reason for writing and reading biography.

That said, one must exercise caution when considering 19th century lives with our 20th century eyes. A 19th century husband and father, while providing the family’s income, had little or no responsibilities in the home. Being all-absorbed in one’s career would not only provoke little or no comment, but was probably considered a desirable norm. Nonetheless, I suspect that Joshua out-worked many of his contemporaries.

Today, with the roles parents play in the home and in child-rearing, we are questioning just what goals are worthy of the sacrifices that individuals and their families make. While we can consider Fanny’s desire for a “career” as a musician an artist as unusual for a woman of her time, her suggestion that they postpone having children for at least a year in order that she work after their marriage was really rather a radical idea. Wives in all but the lowest classes of their society did not work.

But it was not for the sake of the arts that Fanny expressed such sentiments during their long engagement. (She had, in fact, quickly realized that life as a music teacher in Georgia was sheer drudgery.) With Joshua still months away from beginning his career, and years away from having a sufficient income to support a family, their reunion and marriage must continue to be postponed. Wishing to hasten the day when they could again be together, Fanny chaffed at the idea that her ability to contribute to their income should vanish with their marriage. Much has been made of a letter addressing Fanny’s apparent suggestions, born of her frustration, that they initially avoid sexual intimacy in order to postpone starting their family. In fact, they went on to discuss the possibility of using contraceptives, and while they employed a number of amusing euphemisms to pursue this subject, it is a startlingly candid discussion given established impressions of our staid Victorian antecedents.

Ultimately, Joshua could not abide the idea of a working wife, and in the first year of their marriage, their first daughter was born.

I started the book slightly favorable to Chamberlain and ended it mildly hostile to him, personally. Given the Chamberlain cult, I wonder if you have suffered a backlash in simply reporting the facts.

No, I haven’t. Only a few readers have expressed mild opinions that the book rather “took the shine off Chamberlain,” as one person put it. Many have seemingly relished the opportunity to see him as a human being, rather than the icon that many previous biographies have portrayed. And the examination of Fanny’s life, with the emergence of a character so different from that offered in other works, has apparently been a pleasant surprise.

In earlier Chamberlain biographies, we were introduced to Joshua as a near perfect individual, and to Fanny as a seriously flawed one. My own perceptions of and reactions to both Joshua and Fanny Chamberlain have, of course, been in a state of transition through eight years of research and writing. My research showed what many, I must think, have suspected… that they both had strengths and weaknesses, dreams and disappointments, triumphs and failures, as do we all. But while I’ve had eight years to mull over a mountain of archival material and what it revealed, I must remember that I am asking the reader to take in a good deal of new and sometimes startling information in as little time as it takes them to read the book.

Nonetheless, I confess to still being a bit startled by those who express disappointment that Joshua was less than a perfect human being. For myself, having met Chamberlain on this new ground ultimately did not diminished my admiration for him. In many ways, knowing that he struggled with some of the same limitations and shortcomings as the rest of us, and yet managed to face the challenges that he did so successfully, has rather increased my esteem for him. But then, I firmly believe that if we are to have heroes or heroines, it is profitless to conspire to portray them as perfect human beings, thereby making them icons we could never hope to emulate. It is, I assume, apparent that I am no fan of hagiography, but I would like to point out that I find the recent rash of “backlash” books on Chamberlain equally distasteful. One need only consult the sources these works have drawn upon to realize that they are biased by their exclusive consideration and use of only those sources which controvert Chamberlain’s accounts or are critical of him. I admire that approach no more than I do a predetermination to lionize him.

If you had a few hours free, which of these two would you prefer to spend it with?

No doubt about it, I would spend those hours with Joshua. I came to this project through my interest in the Civil War, and while I thoroughly enjoyed investigating both Joshua and Fanny’s lives, an opportunity to talk with Chamberlain about his war-time experiences would be irresistible.

The manuscript that I first submitted to Thomas Publications contained a good deal of material on Chamberlain’s military career that was not included in Fanny and Joshua. Not only was the manuscript 650 pages long, and that before adding the bibliography, index, photos, etc., but as my editor suggested, it was as if I had written two books, one about Fanny and Joshua and their relationship, and the other, a chronicle of Chamberlain’s military career.

Drawing on the research and writing that was excluded from this book, I am well on my way to completing another manuscript which focuses on Chamberlain’s service during the the spring of 1864, culminating with the Battle of Petersburg. It is a period I take a particular interest in, and one about which little has been written. Would I like the benefit of Chamberlain’s observations and insights on those weeks of Grant’s overland campaign? You bet I would!

I’d like to point out, by the way, that contrary to recent assertions that Chamberlain was somewhere between unreliable and a born liar, my research, revealed him to be a keen observer, a careful scholar, and an honest historian.

Thank you, Diane. We look forward to seeing that new study in something less than the eight years spent with Fanny and Joshua!