Elia Peattie's Impertinences

By Josh Anchors

Impertinences: Selected Writings of Elia Peattie, a Journalist in the Gilded Age
Edited and with a biography by Susanne George Bloomfield
University of Nebraska Press, 335 pp., $20.00

In “Defending Omaha,” the first of Elia Peattie’s articles to appear in Impertinences, Peattie defends her city against those who complain that it is “a great deal hotter than the country” (21). “Wicked, commercial, unpleasant we may be,” she writes of Omaha, “but we are not any hotter than any other place. It seems such a small point to stick for that our critical neighbors might grant it to us” (22).

Peattie maintains healthy doses of this charming and clever sauciness throughout many of her remaining articles, which must have indeed seemed impertinent for a woman to be writing at the time. Most readers of the Omaha World-Herald, however, found Peattie’s style refreshing and her voice compelling, if not occasionally provocative. Though Peattie was one of the first women journalists in Nebraska in 1888, there is little evidence that she was impeded by the challenges of entering a male-dominated profession. She was a prolific, and often bold writer, who tackled subjects such as capital punishment and lynchings, the Wounded Knee Massacre, prostitution, poverty in Omaha, schools and child rearing, the New Woman, and the plight of various labor groups in Nebraska.

This compilation of Peattie’s articles from her eight years (1888-1896) with the World-Herald provides a valuable lens not only into the history of Nebraska and frontier society, but also into the life of a woman attempting to balance her family and career. Despite the difficulties of raising four children, caring for a sickly yet supportive husband, and gaining respect as a professional woman, Peattie still managed to crank out a significant body of work that includes collections of short stories, children’s stories, and poems, popular novels, drama, magazine features, and thousands of newspaper articles, editorials and reviews. As the literary critic for the Chicago Tribune from 1901-1917, her husband Robert estimated that she typically read ten books a week and wrote more than five thousand columns (pg. 257).

Reading over Peattie’s World-Herald articles from over a hundred years ago may seem a somewhat tedious task for the contemporary reader, but editor Susanne George Bloomfield does a masterful job of contextualizing each article to make the compilation both informative and readable. It must also be recognized that Peattie wasn’t a typical writer simply following a journalistic formula. “Peattie prided herself on the controversial nature of her editorials,” writes Bloomfield, “which were often a cross between a feature story, a personal essay, and political or social commentary, and her voice became stronger as she grew in experience and maturity” (73).

The more one learns of Peattie’s life, the more one realizes that she was a consummate writer who often wrote to put bread on the table. During one particularly difficult time, she remembers writing one hundred stories in one hundred days and sending them all off to magazines. Children needed to be fed, a roof needed to be fixed, a husband needed to be cared for; this was the formidable reality of Elia Peattie in the late nineteenth century, and it is the reality for many professional women today. A less gifted writer than Elia Peattie may not have been able to support her family on writing and may have had to revert to a more traditional female role. Peattie, however, supported her family well on the written word, and contemporary readers are fortunate that her talent and life are gradually being uncovered and exposed.

Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7