Cultural Crossings in Denver: Union Station, Ume Tsuda & Others
A few photos on Denver’s Union Station in October prompted a friend to ask for more. My initial post focused on the warm and inviting lights on a cold night, when the winds blasting by the tracks outside drove me inside. I was waiting for a train to the airport after an academic conference in a posh downtown hotel. The station’s public space, I noted, provides shelter for weary travelers and for the homeless. A number of us from different walks of life that night enjoyed the beauty and festive décor. Some were feasting at eateries, some were munching on snacks pulled out of plastic bags, and others were asking for cash.
I couldn’t help but think about Union Station as a public space with a long tradition of various types of people crossing paths. Since I write and teach about people of the past, I tend to roam about in historic sites reflecting on their connection to the present. For more than a century this beautiful structure has seen people come and go. Like many other American rail stations, in the mid-to-late 20th century it faced decline but has been beautifully renovated. Here, between travels east or west, the economically privileged meet the impoverished.
Only after posting my photos did I learn that another conference attendee had written similar comments. Regina Yoong won the conference’s photo contest, stating that our conference was a “Union Station” in that it provided “an important intersection of sorts.” What struck me—in addition to the “great minds think alike” cliché—was that the station’s history captured for both of us something that we had experienced at the conference.
We had both sensed the same invigorating crossing of cultures. She had come from Malaysia but by way of Ohio. I had traveled from Missouri but to talk about Italy.
We had both sensed the same invigorating crossing of cultures. She had come from Malaysia but by way of Ohio. I had traveled from Missouri but to talk about Italy. We met during a workshop on the US Fulbright exchange program, where I spoke of my experiences as a Fulbright recipient almost a decade ago. She spoke of her more recent experiences, as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at Ohio University. Staying beyond her time as a teacher of Malay, she is now studying 19th-century American literature, with an emphasis on women writers. As a doctoral student, she was covering the conference as a reporter for the academic journal ESQ. And she writes for both Cosmologics Magazine and Parlour: A Journal of Literary Criticism and Analysis. (You can see Regina’s fascinating bio here.)
A second time at the conference Regina and I crossed paths—her coverage for the journal brought her to a session sponsored by the Margaret Fuller Society. Fuller’s story—especially her global travels and international impact—is a well-known one among scholars of American literature and women’s writing. A nineteenth-century New England author and intellectual, Fuller worked closely with Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and later, in New York, with Horace Greeley and his liberal-leaning newspaper, the Tribune. She is known as the first US female “foreign correspondent” for her reporting on the European revolutions of 1848. Sadly, upon her return to the US in 1850, Fuller’s ship went down just off shore from New York, where she, her young son, and the son’s father, Giovanni d’Ossoli, all drowned.
But more importantly to Denver as a site of cultural-crossing, Fuller’s story influenced Professor Yoshiko Ito’s presentation. Ito, a professor at Taisho University in Japan, shared another fascinating story of global influences and cross-cultural exchange. Her subject: Ume Tsuda, who visited Denver in 1898 as a Japanese representative at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs convention.
Tsuda was among the first five Japanese girls sent abroad to be educated. Only 6 when she left home and 7 when she arrived, Tsuda’s education, of course, was much more than academic—it was acculturation. The story of her acculturation, for better and for worse, is addressed in several biographies. The most recent, by Janice P. Nimura, contextualizes Tsuda’s transcontinental and global journeys. Highlights include the young woman’s resistance to marriage and to allowing her American adoptive “father,” Charles Lanman, a well-published author, to use her papers to write her biography. Tsuda also studied biology and women’s education at Bryn Mawr, the institution which served as a model for the school she established in Japan. All the biographies in English, and Ito’s presentation in Denver, point to Tsuda’s important role in fighting for female education in Japan.
Tsuda biographer Barbara Rose explains that the Japanese women said little surprising in Denver. Her talk remained in “the comparative safety of platitudes,” as Tsuda took on “the role of a wide-eyed visitor from a remote and archaic country.” Yet, as Ito explained to us, what was most important to her as a contemporary scholar and professor was the cross-cultural exchange that occurred. She continued that tradition by traveling to speak to an audience in Denver in 2018.
Ito noted that Tsuda’s work in 1901, reported in the June 4 New-YorkTribune, appeared on the same page as an announcement related to Margaret Fuller. Fifty years after Fuller’s death, the Point o’ Woods Improvement Society had selected a memorial site for a tribute honoring her, not far from where she drowned.
Although it is somewhat accidental that the two accounts appeared in almost adjacent columns that day (they were both on the Only Women’s Page), their connection highlights a point Ito made: people’s influences upon each other are not always seen, nor are they always known. Making those influences more overt benefits us all.
“people’s influences upon each other are not always seen, nor are they always known. Making those influences more overt benefits us all.”
As a case in point, Ito discussed her own reading and teaching of Fuller’s famous lengthy essay, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). While Fuller advocated for female education (among other topics), she also wrote in that essay that there was “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” This easy-to-read and politically sexy phrase is equally easy to quote. Nonetheless, Ito noted how difficult Fuller is for her students—and for herself—to read. (Those of us who teach Fuller regularly to native English speakers certainly understand. Her writings are challenging enough for our students!) Finally Ito confessed, with a few tears, how glad she is to have translated Fuller’s work into Japanese, for through translation she more fully grasps the powerful truths Fuller expressed 150 years ago.
Ito’s point was exactly my own, as I followed her as a conference presenter. My account focused on another woman’s translating work. Caroline Crane Marsh—one of three women at the center of my book project, “Engaging Italy”—also followed in Fuller’s footsteps. Believing in female education, she began instructing younger girls at age 12, when her teacher quickly snagged her as an assistant. Later, she would teach in schools in Vermont and New York.
And, like Fuller and Ito, she believed in the power of translation. Even before she crossed the Atlantic a second time, she had translated two volumes of fiction and poetry from German, learned to read French and Latin, and had begun to study Turkish. Later, she would study and speak Italian—assisting her with responsibilities as wife of the first US Minister Plentipotentiary to the new Kingdom of Italy, from 1861 through 1881.
As I shared in my message in Denver, Marsh, like Fuller believed in the importance of continually seeking new truths. They, like Ume Tsuda and the attendees at the Denver conference, often did so by studying the past and other cultures, considering what both had to offer in the present.
I began this blog by explaining how the warmth and lights of Denver’s Union Station prompted me to consider the numerous paths crossing in that space. I seem to have meandered from Denver to Malaysia and Italy, and then to Japan, New England and Italy again, with Denver as a point of convergence. So, too, many of my posts here will ask you to travel across space and time as they give you glimpses of others who have taken interesting journeys. Perhaps they will provoke you to think about your own steps in a new way.
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