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Compelling Paradoxes from Larry Lipin's Point of View

October 10, 2017

The impetus for Larry Lipin’s most recent book, Eleanor Baldwin and the Woman’s Point of View, came while researching his previous book. Like an earworm that couldn’t be shaken, Larry kept coming back to Eleanor Baldwin’s story as a radical female journalist from Portland, Oregon. His book takes a nuanced and complicated look at Baldwin’s compelling, and at times seemingly paradoxical, intellectual journey in the previously forgotten account of Portland’s Progressive Era. Below, Larry gives us a glimpse into the contradictions within Baldwin’s character that made her so worth writing about.

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I first came across Eleanor Florence Baldwin while researching my book Workers and the Wild (University of Illinois Press, 2007) that explores Oregon labor and its changing relationship with nature. Baldwin had written a letter to the editor of the Oregon Labor Press (OLP) defending the right of poor working people to augment their wages and to provide some healthy leisure outside of the degradations of the workplace by fishing; she came out in support of measures that would limit the commercial take of salmon on the Willamette River.

A little later I came across a few other of Baldwin’s letters that spoke to some of the more divisive issues that made their way into that newspaper’s pages, notably defenses of the Bolsheviks and the anti-Catholicism that would be associated with the KKK. The OLP’s editor, Clarence Rynerson, had denounced the Klan as an anti-labor organization when it first appeared, but as the Invisible Empire grew more powerful in Oregon, the OLP grew more silent. It became evident that the solidarities of the trade union movement, like those of Oregon in general, had been rent apart by the Klan. Yet, Baldwin’s simultaneous support for Bolsheviks and Klansmen caught my attention. Enough so that while waiting for some materials at the Multnomah County library, I used their extensive card index (as quaint as that sounds) for individuals who appeared in the local press to seek out some information about this odd person. That led me to her obituaries.

It was then that I learned that Baldwin had been a female writer who for three years put together a daily woman’s column that had appeared on the editorial page of the Portland Evening Telegram between 1906 and 1909, that she honored the abolitionist memory of her minister father, and that she was a monetary theorist of sorts who brought nineteenth century greenbackism and anti-banker sentiment into the early twentieth century. This made her seem all the more interesting, as this Klan supporter had continually honored her family’s abolitionist stature.

Yet, there were things holding me back from committing to this project. Noting that her monetary tract—and a subsequent unpublished sequel—were held in the special collections department of the University of Oregon library, I drove from Portland to Eugene to read her tract. In it, Baldwin sought to convince her readers that money was a “force” and not a mere medium of exchange; I duly noted the argument, but came away unimpressed. The cultural use of electricity as a metaphor for both the human body and mind were familiar to me, but not that interesting. Still the contradictions of her biography bothered me and would not let me completely leave it at that. I decided I needed to read the columns.

After taking notes on many of them, I decided that this project was not worth the time that would be needed to read all nine-hundred columns, so I began to photocopy them off the microfilm reader. I knew I had a sabbatical coming up in the next couple of years and that I could use that to make sense of them. Desiring searchable data, I found a student of mine to transcribe them into word documents. That student, Caty Prechtal, soon came to know Baldwin better than I did; some of her email messages with transcribed documents came with exclamations of how interesting she was. As Ms. Prechtal had taken my Victorian gender and sexuality course at Pacific University, she knew the context in which Baldwin had lived and these expressions of interest were reasonably grounded. Her emails slowly but surely caught my attention, and so I began to read the columns in earnest.

What I found was a remarkably progressive woman, which did nothing to blunt the contradictions that I had originally found and which continued to perplex. But other things came into sharper focus. The columns made clear that Baldwin was an adherent of the emerging “New Thought” religious tradition, and Portland, I soon learned, had been a center for women who had moved into this religious belief system from spiritualism. New Thought came out of mind-cure circles in New England; it was significant enough to capture the attention of William James who wrote about it in his Varieties of Religious Experience. The gist was that the focused mind could not only cure the body, but that the collective mind could cure society of its illnesses. Though the tradition would eventually move towards the kind of mainstream religion as offered by Norman Vincent Peale or what some call “prosperity gospel,” in Baldwin’s day it nurtured a number of socialists who believed that the mind could bring forth a socialist utopia. This tradition was evident in many of her columns, as was her friendship with other local practitioners like Lucy Rose Mallory who published a monthly newspaper that melded together spiritualism, left-wing populism, and New Thought for decades, and the woman’s right activist, Clara Colby. I was pretty much convinced that I needed to write about Baldwin, if for no other reason than to alert others to the vitality of this tradition.

And, thus, I was motivated to return to Eugene to one more time go through her papers regarding the nature of money, and what I had previously thought had been incoherent became much clearer: Baldwin had been translating greenback labor theory into New Thought language. Her final and unpublished manuscript, written in the early 1920s as she was writing her defenses of both Bolsheviks and Klansmen, sought to reinvigorate the socialist possibilities in New Thought against the more individualistic and consumerist direction to which it was inevitably tending. All of a sudden, the incoherent and uninteresting was transformed into a fascinating, if unsuccessful attempt to adapt nineteenth century religious and political traditions into a meaningful political and spiritual statement for the developing mass consumer society of the twentieth century.

And in this way I committed to Eleanor Baldwin and the writing of this book.

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