Searching for E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown

This article by literary historian Kim Roberts, who documents the oftentimes obscured and vanishing places where writers lived in DC, reminded me of my own search for a now-forgotten writer in one of DC’s most famous neighborhoods.  It’s not often that I get to do a bit of literary sleuthing, but searching for what’s left of E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown feels that way, because her presence has been so neatly eviscerated. Southworth (that’s Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, for those not in the know) was one of the most popular authors of romance in the nineteenth century. She wrote more than 60 novels with some pretty phenomenal names that would not at all sound out of place as Lifetime movies (Cruel as the GraveTried for her LifeRetribution). The plots of these novels are equally fantastic: characters cross dress and rise from the grave; they encounter Confederate pirates off the coast of Africa; they start their lives as penniless orphans and inevitably become adopted by fabulously wealthy men. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Southworth was a literary star, so much so that her home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., became a tourist site.

A copy of Southworth's novel How He Won Her. Image: Jill Caddell

A copy of Southworth’s novel How He Won Her. Image: Jill Caddell

Southworth died in 1899, just on the cusp of the twentieth century, and with that new century Southworth’s literary legacy was steadily forgotten. Her Georgetown home, a quaint cottage with gingerbread house-like gabling, was torn down. Like Richards, I often walk or drive past the site where the home stood (on the bluffs near Georgetown University overlooking what’s now Key Bridge and the Potomac—basically at the top of the infamous Exorcist Stairs) and think about Southworth. What remarkable knowledge she would have had of the river, of the bridge (it was the Aqueduct Bridge then), of all the goings on of her neighborhood.

One day a few years ago I decided to track down the little bit of Southworth that’s left in Georgetown: her gravesite. When Southworth died in 1899 she was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, a lovely spot on the edge of Georgetown leading down into Rock Creek Park. Several famous people are buried there, including Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Washington Post editor Katherine Graham, and several miscellaneous Civil War generals. Also buried there, for a few years, was Lincoln’s son Willie, who died in February 1862. (Lincoln often visited the quiet spot where Willie was buried, on a hill at the edge of the cemetery overlooking Rock Creek, and even though Willie was exhumed in 1865 to travel back to Illinois with his father, visitors still leave pennies on the site of his first burial.)

Southworth’s grave is marked on a map of the cemetery, so I figured she’d be fairly easy to track down, but the size of the cemetery and the fact that the section she’s buried in is overgrown made it quite difficult. Eventually I found a gravestone in about the right spot, but couldn’t make out the words on it; using my finger, I traced the letters engraved on it: E.D.E.N. This was it.

Southworth's grave, Georgetown, Washington, DC. Image: Jill Caddell

Southworth’s grave, Georgetown, Washington, DC. Image: Jill Caddell

A few months later, I took my friends Jon and Brigitte to see Southworth’s grave (and thank God for grad school friends who are also obsessive over nineteenth-century minutiae). Jon thinks and writes about paper and printing, which came in handy as we again tried to make out the letters on Southworth’s grave. We didn’t bring rubbing papers, but Jon rubbed some dirt into the stone which instantly made the sunken letters appear.

Jon makes the words appear. Image: Jill Caddell

Jon makes the words appear. Image: Jill Caddell

Southworth’s novels are brilliant, swashbuckling, fun reads, and they’re also incredibly subversive of nineteenth-century gender roles. Thankfully, literary critics have finally begun to acknowledge Southworth’s influence, and her work has gained new attention in scholarly circles. I often stumble upon copies of her novels in antique malls, languishing unread among the other forgotten books of long ago. Southworth may be difficult to find in Georgetown, her beloved home, but her words remain—if you know where to look.

Reading Southworth in Puerto Rico, November 2012. Image: Jill Caddell

Reading Southworth in Puerto Rico, November 2012. Image: Jill Caddell

Further Reading: For critical takes on Southworth’s novels, see Melissa Homestead and Pamela Washington, eds., E.D.E.N. Southworth: Recovering a Nineteenth-Century Popular Novelist. For more on the Southworth cottage in Georgetown, see Ghosts of DC. For more general information on Southworth, see Paul Jones’s blog Southworthiana.

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