Days with Abby Morton Diaz
by Harriet A. Townsend, 1916
From Reminiscences of Famous Women by Harriet A. Townsend. This edition originally published in 1916.
The etext has been reformatted, redesigned and hyperlinked to add to its usefulness as a research document.
This version: Copyright © 2000 Jone Johnson Lewis. All Rights Reserved.
One who has ever come under the spell of the quaint personality of Mrs. Abby Morton Diaz will never forget her. It was the writer's privilege to know her intimately and to fully appreciate her unusual life.
Coming recently in touch with a child who was reading for the first time "The William Henry" books, I found him so eager to hear all that I could tell of the author and so enthusiastic over her stories, that I am moved to record my impressions of a woman whose word by tongue or pen was a source of moral uplift always worth while.
Abby Morton Diaz was born in Plymouth, Mass., and was a direct descendant of George Morton, one of the original Pilgrims: her father was by trade a ship-builder; he was a remarkable man for his time, early became a leader in temperance and anti-slavery work, was interested in all the vital questions of the day, and was a co-laborer with the celebratedMann in promoting free education. Abby grew up in an atmosphere of reform; she was early trained to be interested in great issues and to take as her watch-word the old Greek saying, "It is not life to live for one's self alone, let us help one another." For a time the father and daughter were members of the Brook Farm Community, but returned to Plymouth when that experiment proved impracticable.
Mrs. Diaz was married young and was left alone with several small children; she was obliged to earn the wherewithal to feed, clothe and educate them, and to that end, developed rare accomplishments; she became an excellent nurse, often in her own town and nearby; she taught singing and dancing to both old and young. The story of her village dancing classes is very amusing; the music was usually provided by an old, blind fiddler, to whom Mrs. Diaz sand the directions; if for any reason the musician failed to appear, she sang all the music for the dances, and such rare rollicking roundelays as she could sing all her life, to the delight of the children she met on the way.
Mrs. Diaz was a born teacher, and her inventive faculties were marvelous. No picnic, festtival or good time in her native town was complete unless she was there to plan and direct she was always the embodiment of good cheer.
When her sons were grown and independent, Mrs. Diaz removed to Boston, where she resided for several years, and later made a home for her grandchildren in Belmont, not far away. With more leisure at her command she became prominent in educational and philanthropic lines, was an early convert to the cause of Woman's Suffrage and gave it loyal service. She was a prominent member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, of which Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was the leading spirit for a quarter of a century. Mrs. Diaz was a disciple of the so-called New Thought in its broadest and most liberal sense.
Mrs. Diaz became a Director of the Boston's Women's Educational and Industrial Union at the time of its organization, and served as its President twelve years, upholding and strengthening inevery way its noble endeavor for the educational, social and industrial advancement of women. She organized the Protective Bureau, which has proved such a beneficient agency to women in Boston and other cities.
It was her supremest joy to awaken women to a sense of their own vital needs and to make them realize their power to help each other. She defined and settled values, taught that real wealth is not material, that it does not consist of clothes, nor houses nor social standing, that "poverty of the soul" is the worst of all; she illustrated the thought of Emerson-"It is the fine souls who serve us and not what is called fine society." In pursuance of her efforts for the welfare of women, Mrs. Diaz went to other cities "a cheerful traveler" both singing and sowing by the way, and the seed took root in many fields and reaped abundant harvest. The key note of her life work was the thought that the elevation of women means the elevation of the race. She taught of the possibilities of women as to the development and moulding of character and that "applied Christianity" means equalization of opportunities, notequal distribution of goods or acquirements, but equal chances for the elevation of all human kind. "Thought centers" were established wherever she went, no earnest soul with whom this rare woman came in contact could resist her appeal to serve and self forego.
Unselfish to a fault, her modesty as to attainments was unusual. Mrs. Diaz was the soul and heart of every good object which she originated or espoused, and she fairly radiated life and sunshine. To enumerate or make note of all the germs of good set free in the hearts of hitherto thoughtless women by this brave "apostle of right living" would be impossible.
Mrs. Diaz was a "practical idealist" in the all meaning sense of the term; she was simplicity itself in dress and manner. I well remember the first time I met her, at the Boston Women's Union, when it had its unassuming quarters in Tremont Street. She was busy with Protective cases and I bided my time; when it came, I heard a cheery voice say "next" and at once our friendship began. The kindly brown eyes, the strong hand extended to greet a newfriend, the simple and neat attire so in accord with her principles, all helped to make a rare personality.
This busy earnest life went on giving joy and courage wherever it touched, for a period of four score years and more. Mrs. Diaz never seemed old, and to the last week of her life continued her service to humanity. Courageous and happy, she approached the heavenly life eager to begin her mission there-to her brave soul Heaven was only another name for opportunity where "in tune with the Infinite" no failure nor disappointment could come.
These are days when mothers and teachers are everywhere alert, seeking for literature which shall not only amuse but give to the child a moral impetus. Mrs. Diaz began early to write for publication; her first sttory was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly (she always aimed high) during Mr. Field's editorship, and from him she received generous appreciation. She wielded a brilliant and witty pen, and her contributions to the various periodicals were soon in demand. The author was very modest; from the "Woman's Journal"we learn that she called her first literary effusions "poverty cake" but that they were to become more than "pot boilers" was soon evident. Mrs. Diaz grew mentally and spiritually with every breath she drew. In the few precious moments of leisure possible to her she made herself familiar with the best in literature.
In the late sixties, "The William Henry Letters" appeared, published first in "Our Young Folks, "the juvenile magazine which preceded "St. Nicholas." The William Henry books are perhaps the most popular of her writings; their quaint philosophy, their bubbling wit and high moral teaching make them classics of their kind. The doings of the "Summer Sweeting" folks became household tales in many homes. "William Henry" around whom the interest centers, when a motherless child of ten years, had to be sent away to boarding school for fear that his grandmother would spoil him; we watch the development of character in the boy, revealed through his letters home and their answers, we become acquainted with the Summer Sweeting Farm family, grandmother, ever loving and anxious for her pet, even willing to sell her gold beads for his benefit; the father, a quiet, solemn man of high moral instinccts; Uncle Jacob, forever jolly and ready for a good time, Aunt Phoebe, the very soul of hospitality; their girls, Hannah Jane, Lucy Maria and Matilda; Little Tommy the baby boy of the family, always in mischief; Georgiana, William Henry's little sister, who wore pink shoes on great occasions; each one a distinct individuality well worth our acquaintance. Later the circle widens as William Henry makes friends; and we come to know "the schoolmaster" of whom Billy writes, "he likes a boy who can run fast if he knows his multiplication table well" (that professor has followers in these days in our large Universities.) Dorry, a rich boy, becomes a chum of William Henry to their mutual benefit. We meet Bobby Short, the boy with a strong sense of humor, and find him always bursting out at the slightest hint of fun. The boys go to dancing school and learn how to toe out and to bow. Billy becomes a favorite with the Two Betseys, "the lame one and the other one" who keep a little shop where the school boys spend their pennies. His description of them in the letters isirresistible, we meet them afterwards and go with them on a surprise visit to grandmother, where they have the jolliest time in their lives. Other interesting characters appear as the story develops and we come to know William Henry and his friends to our hearts content.
The Summer Sweeting folks own a "Corry Pond Lot" and so much depends on its sale-oh, the good things that will happen when that lot is sold; among them Aunt Phoebe will have a new black silk dress and Lucy Maria, the would-be teacher and artist, may go to Boston to fit herself for her chosen profession. Alas, we all have our "Corry Pond Lots" and wait for them to be sold!
The third book of the William Henry series takes Lucy Maria to Boston, where she becomes the seamstress in a rich woman's home for the sake of the "main chance;" to Lucy Maria the "main chance" means opportunity for growth in things worth while. William Henry has begun his business career in Boston and through the Lucy Maria letters, we come again in touch with him and the dear home people.
Mrs. Diaz said once in answer to a dear friend who spoke of her delight in the book "Lucy Maria," "it must have many faults, for it was written before I had the responsibility in regard to the English language which, in some degree, I have now, but I am sure of the ideas, and remember that in writing that book, I tried to gather up, and express as many as possible, thoughts that would be helpful to young girls." When urged to have Lucy Maria go west and teach the Indians, she answered, "O, I am too busy now to stop and earn my living."
There should be a revival of interest in the William Henry books; they will never grow old nor cease to sow seed.
At a Union talk in a distant city, a mother came to Mrs. Diaz, saying "I want to greet you and thank you for help and guidance. I have brought up my boys on your William Henry books, I could not have done without them."
"The Cats Arabian Nights," written at the request of her publishers, is intensely amusing. It pleased Mrs. Diaz to know that the fun in the story so appealed to the type setters that they stopped to read it through before completing their task.
"Polly Cologne," a book for small children, details the adventures of a rag doll which got lost and stirred up the whole neighborhood in search for it. The pictures in this little volume are very funny.
Mrs. Diaz was an expert housekeeper, none could excel her; the plea in "Domestic Problems" for simplicity in the home is practical and convincing.
"Bybury to Beacon Street" gives reports of the Bybury gatherings of a village mutual improvement club, and has had a large sale. Readings by the author from this book were always popular; the ideas as to how a woman may enjoy the delights of mind culture and still fulfill her home duties are still pertinent. Need for improvement in the life of our rural communities was anticipated and emphasized by this far-seeing, practical homemaker.
Wherever she went, Mrs. Diaz was the children's friend. One little fellow, whose father was a monument maker, at whose home she visited, expressed his admiration as follows: "Papa, I want you to select the very finest tombstone in your yard and send it to Mrs. Diaz as a present from me." She always told this story with keen zest and appreciation.
The Woman's Journal has said that Boston should erect a statue to Mrs. Diaz, and the suggestion is made that there should be the new edition of her books which she so much desired to make possible. Far better than any marble statue do they exemplify the life and aspirations of a woman whom it was a rare privilege to know and is a joy to commemorate. For such as she Lowell has spoken the fitting word.
"To write some earnest verse or line
Which seeking not the praise of art,
Shall make a clearer faith and manhood shine,
In the untutored heart.
"He who doth this in verse or prose,
May he forgotten in his day.
But surely shall be crowned at last with those
Who live and speak for aye."
Introduction | Julia Ward Howe | Susan B. Anthony | Frances E. Willard | Maria Mitchell | Abby Morton Diaz