Saturday, April 22, 2023

Q&A with Diana P. Parsell


Photo by Lisa Damico Portraits



Diana P. Parsell is the author of the new biography Eliza Scidmore: The Trailblazing Journalist Behind Washington's Cherry Trees. Parsell, a longtime journalist, lives in Falls Church, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write a biography of Eliza Scidmore (1856-1928), and how did you first learn about her?


A: My accidental discovery of Eliza Scidmore on a work assignment in Indonesia about 15 years ago was like falling down a rabbit hole. I found myself confronting a whole new world of biographical writing and scholarly research.


It began when I bought the paperback reprint of an 1897 travel book, Java, the Garden of the East. The fine descriptions and engaging voice left me wanting to know more about the author, E. R. Scidmore, and what had taken him to Java a century ago.


What a shock to learn the author was an American woman who traveled widely in the Far East, published seven books, and was the first woman to serve on the board of National Geographic and to have photos in the magazine.


Most astonishing, she was credited with initiating the idea of Japanese cherry trees in Washington. I had lived in the D.C. area 30 years and went every year to see those trees. How had I never heard of this woman?


Personal curiosity drove my early attempts to learn more about her. Only gradually, once I started to uncover previously unreported information, did I see possibilities for a book. As a longtime journalist myself, I knew it was rare that you stumbled across a truly original subject. But this seemed the real thing: an extraordinary life story never fully told before. Thus began the decade-long project that became my first book.


Q: How did you research Scidmore's life, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?


A: Not trained as a historian or academic, I had no idea how to conduct research for a biography. I enrolled in a local graduate course on research techniques, and the documents I tracked down for my class paper convinced me I had the foundation of a book on Scidmore.


Luckily, the Library of Congress was nearby. I followed every clue I came across and worked to connect the dots. Over time, I found relevant material at about two dozen archives and libraries, much of it “hidden in plain sight” for years in databases, letters, image collections, public records, and other sources.


The digging led to several surprises. First, Scidmore’s incredible 40-year career as a journalist and travel writer, starting as one of Washington’s pioneering female newspaper correspondents in the 1870s. Also, her pathbreaking reporting from China. Some scholars have written that she was one of a handful of Western writer-travelers who “opened” China to mass tourism in the late 19th century, yet this aspect of her life has received little attention. 


Finally, I found evidence that Scidmore was not only the earliest visionary of cherry blossoms in Washington but mediated the offer of several thousand cherry trees Japan donated in 1912. Turns out, we owe her far more than people ever realized when it comes to the spectacle that draws more than a million people to the nation’s capital every spring.  


Q: As you mentioned, much of Scidmore's attention, for many years, was focused on the idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C.--a mission that was accomplished. In addition to the cherry trees, how would you describe her legacy today?

A: The idea of creating a park of flowering cherry trees in Potomac Park came to Scidmore once she started traveling to Japan in the 1880s. I don’t think it overly consumed her, but the personality that emerges in her writings makes it clear she was not a woman to compromise her principles, or to abandon an idea she saw as a good one.


In the end, her persistence paid off. After the men in charge of Washington’s public parks rebuffed her suggestion several times over two decades, she saw an unexpected opportunity to seek an ally in First Lady Helen Taft--and she jumped. The rest, as they say, is history.


Beyond the cherry trees, I see Scidmore’s legacy rooted heavily in her intrepid travels and journalistic work that made her an important agent of early cross-cultural understanding. Through her words and observations, she brought distant places alive for Americans in an era before photography and social media dramatically shrank our experience of the world.


By her mid-20s, she had visited more places than most people would see in a lifetime; by the end of the 19th century, her travels were so legendary she was introduced at a meeting in London as “Miss Scidmore, of everywhere.” At a time when the box camera was still a novelty, reviewers of her half-dozen books commented regularly on the “Kodak” vividness of her writing.   


Q: The writer Susan Schoenbauer Thurin said of the book, “Parsell has brilliantly rescued Eliza Scidmore, a celebrity journalist and travel writer, from obscurity.” What do you think of that description, and why hasn’t Scidmore received more attention?


A: Going into this project, I had no idea it would take so long. What sustained me was an awareness that I was, indeed, “rescuing Scidmore from obscurity.” Here was a woman tragically shortchanged in the history books despite a record of achievements that included many “firsts.”


I couldn’t help feeling that having stumbled upon her life, I had an obligation to tell her story. I didn’t find her story so much as it found me.


From the start I puzzled over why Scidmore had eluded attention for so long. When I posed the question to women’s studies experts at the Library of Congress, they explained that a scarcity of records is a common challenge in writing women’s history. For centuries, women’s lives were not deemed worthy of documenting; a lot of women’s history, as it turns out, is buried in the papers of the men in their lives. But Scidmore never married, and her own papers were destroyed by a relative after her death.


Moreover, she spent her final years in Europe. After her death in 1928, her ashes were deposited at a cemetery in Yokohama alongside the remains of her mother and her brother, who spent most of his U.S. consular career in Japan.


So, while the Japanese have paid tribute to Scidmore over the years as an early “friend of Japan,” there was no one to champion her legacy in her native America. It was only when I uncovered many of her previously overlooked articles and letters that I found the kind of primary source material that’s essential for a biography.    


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I discovered in writing this book that I love the era of 19th-century American history, especially the Gilded Age. Throughout the research and writing I kept a log of interesting “spin-off” stories I came across. The list is pretty long. One of those ideas is a great story that features women’s activism in the early U.S. conservation movement.


At this point the idea of another book seems daunting, though I might ease my way into it through blog posts and short articles.


Meanwhile, I’m in a wonderful book-critique group that’s been meeting monthly for more than a decade. To keep my place, now that my book manuscript is finished, I’ve been revisiting some personal essays-cum-memoir that I laid aside years ago. We’ll see how that goes.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe that I’m a literary late-bloomer and published this book the same month I turned 71. So it really is never too late to begin. The many painful missteps of “learning by doing” combined with the demoralizing environment of the publishing world certainly made the process very trying at times. In the end, however, I emerged feeling like a real writer for the first time.


And as many biographers will tell you, doing the research is often blissful. There are few experiences in life that match the sense of discovery that comes from going deeper and deeper into your subject.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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