Uptown Girls & Charity

Uptown Girl in the Social Settlement: Richard Harding Davis’s “Eleanore Cuyler”

In 1892, Richard Harding Davis published the book Van Bibber, and others, which includes a rather cynical depiction of an uptown woman’s experience in social settlement work. The woman, Eleanore Cuyler, is depicted as a social work dilettante, who enjoys the dramatic and showy moments of her good works, like when she presents legislation about kindergartens. Before entering settlement work Eleanore imagines herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, bringing solace and health to the needy.

Davis was a writer, war correspondent,  journalist, and the son of Rebecca Harding Davis, who wrote the novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861).

Van Bibber, and others includes the story “Eleanore Cuyler” about an uptown woman from high society who is dedicated to her freedom as a single woman of means and refuses to marry or even commit to any of her suitors. When her dearest friend Wainwright asks her to marry him, she is forced to decide: except his offer and turn her back on her freedom or reject him and remain independent. She rejects his proposal and Wainwright, leaves for work in the London theater. After some time casting about in a melancholy state, Eleanore determines to throw herself into work in the College Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, against the advice of her mother and doctor.[1] Eleanore feels “mentally tired” and decides that she needs a “change of air and environment, and unselfish work for the good of others, and less thought of herself” (Davis 104). She leaves her posh home uptown to live in the College Settlement, but the more romantic work of “a Father Damien[2] or a Florence Nightingale” goes to women who are “wiser” and whose pleasant and practical demeanor baffle her. Eleanore had envisioned herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, but the women who run the settlement have seen many would-be social workers come and go; therefore, Eleanore is relegated to less heroic tasks, like reading the Bible in German to an elderly woman and helping with a summer vacation program for working-girls out on Long Island.

Upon working there for some time, Eleanore is not only ashamed at how tiny her contribution feels to the work of the College Settlement, but she is also ashamed of the amount of excitement her presence generates when she visits her former neighborhood and society friends. “The good she did now, it was humiliating to acknowledge, was in no way proportionate to that which her influence had wrought among the people of her own class” (Davis 107). Her life on the east side is exciting and exotic to the men and women of her uptown community.

With time and the grinding poverty of her surroundings, Eleanore grows weary of her work:

She had grown sceptical as to working-girls and of the good she did them—or any one else. It was all terribly dreary and forlorn, and she wished she could end it by putting her head on some broad shoulder and by being told that it didn’t matter, and that she was not to blame if the world would be wicked and its people unrepentant and ungrateful. (Davis 126).

At this moment of resignation, Wainwright reappears. Wainwright, back from London, has tracked Eleanore to a dingy airless tenement apartment where she is reading aloud from the Bible. He announces that he has a carriage waiting downstairs to take her away from all of this. She consents this time and they are married soon after. We have a story book ending and the young woman is returned to her rightful place, beside her husband, in the home.

This story suggests that there is a curiosity about the lives of these women in the social settlement. This curiosity is borne out in the frequent publication of newspaper articles that describe their real-life work. These women working in the poorest neighborhoods are not unlike missionaries who worked abroad and bring back interesting tales to their home congregations. Many of the articles describe not only the work that they have undertaken, but also the philosophy behind it (Knight 248). Jane Addams published many of her speeches and philosophical texts in newspapers including her famous speech

Unlike Addams life of commitment to the settlement and progressive reform, Davis’s story presents Eleanore as a woman who dabbles in social work until the point when her commitment to independence and freedom gets the better of her. She denies the “true love” that is right in front of her and then throws herself into settlement house work as an escape from her discomfort upon being left behind by Wainwright. Eleanore finds that her deepest romantic desires win out; she longs for the arms of Wainwright not for independence and work. On one hand, Davis’s depiction of Eleanore is a demeaning picture of a woman who might work at a social settlement as an emotional escape, but on the other hand, the women who run the College Settlement, who run the organization, are depicted as serious, wise, and happy. The settlement house veterans have experience and expect the newcomers to prove themselves before they are given the most critical or sensitive work.

In 1893, a newspaper article appeared that detailed how the publication of a work by Jacob Riis’s has caused a disturbance between neighbors of the College Settlement – who the writer acknowledges see themselves in Riis’s depictions and feel that their character has been besmirched – and the settlement house workers. The unnamed reporter goes on to note that Davis’s story is also offensive to the educated women of the College Settlement, whom he denotes by their degrees as “M.A.’s and A.B.’s.” “Eleanore Cuyler” is offensive because it implies that “their self-sacrificing work in the slums was but a panacea for unrequited affection” (“Made Trouble for College Women”). However, the “spirited M.A.” that the writer quotes in the article notes that Davis was using Rivington Street to add “color” and that many other locations could have been used. By using the College Settlement in his story Davis, “inadvertently [. . .] impugned our motives in living here.”

Perhaps the newspaper article was trying to stir up controversy where there was none, but it is reasonable to assume that the fictional depiction of one high-society woman’s rather superficial decision to join a social settlement may present a picture of a type of woman who lacks the commitment and training to accomplish much. However, the larger context of the story seems to paint the College Settlement as a serious institution that is run by competent women for whom running off with a man is not an overriding desire. That the College Settlement is the setting of a short story of Davis’s only a couple of years after its creation is testament to the notoriety and currency that it had achieved in New York.

[1] The College Settlement opened on Rivington Street in New York’s east side just weeks after Hull-House in 1889. Women who’d graduated from the seven sister colleges on the east coast organized the College Settlement. (Knight 192)

[2] Father Damien (also now known as Saint Damien of Molokai) was a Belgian priest who ministered to people with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in Hawaii. Eventually he contracted Hansen’s disease and died in 1889.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *