Robinson lived among the yellowing wallpaper for as long as she could manage. She thought a baby would solve the problems with her marriage (it never does). She braved her own depression and painstakingly drew herself out from the domestic hollows where her in-laws preferred that she dwell. She escaped the constraints of maternity with her imagination, entertaining her life-threateningly asthmatic son, George, by writing adventure stories, which she illustrated with anthropomorphic animals and “children with paper doll–like articulated limbs.” She mimicked the style of John Martin’s Letters, a popular children’s magazine that George enjoyed from his sickbed. When one of her stories was accepted to that same magazine, Robinson committed firmly to the philosophy of fake it till you make it.
Emboldened by the reception of her creative work, which she published under the pen name Comfy Lady, Robinson joined the local community theater and thus embarked on a crusade to scandalize her new relatives. She soon delivered a spectacular performance. Her local reputation as an illustrator gained her the commission for a children’s book written by a patient at the Brattleboro mental hospital. The author, Robert Wallace, was “a darkly handsome flaneur where Christie was a tightly wound moralist,” and their literary collaboration soon verged into dangerous territory under the very noses of the Crowells, whose house Wallace visited daily. Wallace was relentlessly optimistic — some said maniacally so — and Robinson was irrepressibly nostalgic. She convinced him that California was the antithesis of all that ground them down; California was the answer to their dreams.
The story of Robinson’s misadventure in Vermont and rise to fame in California is told in Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert’s new book, Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman.
Robinson and Wallace’s Golden State ambitions settled on the mining town of Hornitos in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. His discharge from the mental hospital was engineered by Robinson’s “Petition and Citation for Guardian of Insane” and — even more implausibly — her father-in-law’s $2,500 for Wallace’s bond. Walking down the street in Brattleboro had felt like confronting “a living wall of eyes.” In Hornitos, traversing the unpaved streets stirred the wraithlike dust of other people’s aspirations. By the time Robinson, Wallace, and George arrived in 1915, Robinson later wrote, “the old pans and picks rusted in the gorges where, half a century before, the owners had thrown them down.” The trio lived in a shack without electricity, running water, or an indoor toilet. But George breathed freely there, and to Robinson, freedom was more important than anything else.
For a while, Robinson’s husband sent money out west. When he eventually realized that he had been cuckolded, the funds dried up. Ever the grifter, Robinson found work in the gold mines, “sewing a long, loose skirt from tent canvas and borrowing a man’s flannel shirt, hobnailed mining boots, and sombrero.” Scheeres and Gilbert show us Robinson’s constant resolve “that if she looked the part, she’d get the part.” Her new job was mucking, panning, and timbering through “Days that ate like acid. Days when the flesh shriveled and shrank from the scorched bone.” The grueling work diminished her body, and Crowell attempted to hack away at her spirit, as did the divorce scandal in which a court ruled Robinson guilty of desertion. Crowell’s petition for divorce accused her of adulterous acts “with one Robert Wallace, and others to your petitioner at present unknown.”
Robinson nevertheless refashioned herself into a wholesome “Aunt Elsie” persona, writing children’s pages in the Oakland Tribune. With young readers captivated, she began to write for their parents as well, dishing out sarcastic advice: “Is your husband or your complexion growing dull? Let us then discuss the value of soft soap on complexions — and husbands.”
Guile and gumption, stick-to-itiveness, an all-American bootstraps mentality: these were the virtues Robinson aimed to impart to the readers of her newspaper columns. In her 1934 autobiography I Wanted Out!, Robinson suggested her success was a product of the pioneering spirit bred among her generation of Californians:
I “rassled” with words, stopped to cook a rabbit — wrote again — stopped to kill a rattlesnake — wrote again — stopped to mend overalls or work out a Boy Scout knot — went on again, while the stars flared and faded […]
Ninety-nine out of one hundred women would give their eye teeth to live, at least once in their lives, exactly as I did … without benefit of housekeeping, and in the exclusive and highly diverting association of cowboys, gamblers, miners, hobos, barkeeps and various incognito gents who traveled fast and light and answered no questions.
Through Robinson’s words, we hear reiterations of the mythology of the American Dream centered on an extraction economy and built through generations of colonization. “It’s amazing what you can do, if you can’t do anything else,” Robinson humblebragged in her 1934 autobiography. “Was any adventurer ever really born ‘brave’? Was there ever an adventure that was not bought at the price of fear and agony? Are not the bravest also the terrified? I know it was so with me.”
Scheeres and Gilbert’s biography sweeps across the narrative arc that Robinson first set in type, a history that foregrounds its dazzling subject, sometimes at the risk of overshadowing figures whose lives are even more remarkable than her own. In Hornitos, we learn, Robinson found “a true friend, a cheerleader” in Luola Rodgers, the town’s self-appointed postmaster. She was one of five daughters born to Sarah Quivers and Moses Rodgers, himself born enslaved in Missouri and taken to California when his slaver joined the Gold Rush. When California entered the Union, Moses Rodgers was freed and then began what Scheeres and Gilbert describe as “a spectacular rise to regional fame and fortune by using his mining acumen to run the Washington and Mount Gaines Mines.”
When the Rodgers family relocated to Stockton, California, so their children could continue their education beyond primary school, Luola stayed behind in Hornitos. Her sister, Vivian Rodgers, became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, and then died young, at 30 years old, of typhoid fever.
The Rodgers family history is recounted in two short paragraphs, buttressed by footnotes that document research in census records, government printing-office documents, death certificates, local newspaper archives, and a 1919 book, The Negro Trail Blazers of California. As I was whisked through Robinson’s adventures, I turned back to Luola and the Rodgers family, wanting to know more about the five sisters and wondering how their life stories could be detailed by updated historiography and the rich archives available to researchers.
Robinson cast Luola Rodgers as a supporting character in I Wanted Out!, and here — as a Black, queer, feminist artist and entrepreneur — Rodgers’s story pushes against the constraints of her role. We learn in a parenthetical aside that when Rodgers and her domestic partner, Jennie Gagliardo, died, the people of Hornitos erected a plaque in their honor. Scheeres and Gilbert interviewed residents who still remember Rodgers’s kindness doling out sweets to the town’s children. She taught local girls to sew on an old treadle machine that she kept in the post office’s storeroom, crafted embroidered linens so delicate that they were shown at the 1915 World’s Fair, and taught Robinson to type, lending her the Smith Premier machine from the back of the post office.
If Robinson hadn’t learned that essential skill, she never would have waltzed into New York City’s Plaza Hotel, a coyote pelt — shot by George — thrown over her shoulders as an extemporized fur stole, to meet the editor who would make her the highest-paid newspaper woman in William Randolph Hearst’s media empire.
Prolific even in death, Robinson had churned out so much advance copy that her column “Listen, World!” appeared in newspapers across the United States for two months after she died in 1956. Robinson’s self-fashioning dictates much of this biography’s plot — long italicized passages from I Wanted Out! suggest that the book has three authors rather than two. But in the epilogue, Scheeres and Gilbert give us glimpses of Robinson’s “increasingly progressive” politics. We learn that as fascism took hold in Europe, she advocated for the United States’ responsiveness to Jewish refugees. She attacked white supremacy among the Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization refused to allow Paul Robeson to use their Washington, DC, concert hall. She excoriated the perpetrators of a 1930 lynching in Texas. She was unafraid to tackle the president of the United States himself and described FDR’s third term as “political log-rolling.” All of this activism came through her column, published after her memoir set the tone for her life story.
At the end of Robinson’s life, readers are left with little sense of how her first published short story — about an “enslaved girl,” Pun Yee, who was captive in San Francisco’s Chinatown — is connected to a developing social consciousness that deepened through her experiences in the American West. The gap between Robinson’s interest in others’ drama and her late-blooming activism against structural inequality is unresolved. Ultimately, the book raises questions about the limits of Robinson’s feminism, the powerful mythology of California’s exceptionalism, and the best approach to writing the life of a subject who is so domineeringly charismatic. In this captivating biography, Scheeres and Gilbert let Elsie Robinson speak for herself, leaving us with an indelible impression of a life lived with ingenuity and courage.
Lauren Arrington is the author of three books, most recently the biography The Poets of Rapallo (Oxford, 2021). She is currently writing a group biography of radical women artists in the Depression-era United States.