Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Courtship of Howard and Anna Brinton: "Love Amid the Ruins"

Last night Jill and I invited s few friends to our home to celebrate the completion of my new book on Howard and Anna Brinton. Two of our guests were Muslims--a young woman of Yemeni background named Jamila and a retired professor from Algeria named Bouallem. The two others were Quakers--a young woman named Sarah who used to be part of my Quaker youth group 19 years ago (now married to a Quaker film maker), and an old Friend named Pat from Orange Grove Meeting who raises chickens and horses and makes fantastic teapots. It was a fun group. We ate cake, drank coffee, and sat by the fire and talked and talked and talked.  I imagine that Howard and Anna enjoyed many such delightful evenings with their friends and students.

I told my friends I wrote this biography in part because Howard and Anna were both strong leaders and dynamic personalities and theirs was a marriage of equals. This, to me, was fascinating and significant. Neither one overshadowed the other, as sometimes happens in marriages. (Who knew, for example, that the wife of Paul Robeson was such a gifted and remarkable woman?) Anna was a Classics scholar who earned her doctorate from Stanford at age thirty. Howard earned degrees in mathematics and physics, served as a college president, and wrote numerous books. When Howard and Anna married, they became a team, each complementing the other's personality and ministry.

This is the kind of marriage I had with Kathleen, my wife of blessed memory, who was a Methodist pastor I met at Pendle Hill, the Quaker center for study and contemplation where Anna and Howard served as co-directors for many years. And this is the kind of marriage I am having with Jill, a passionate housing justice advocate and "catalyst." Jill and I work together a team on various projects, ranging from her book to the recent gun buyback campaign.  I love the idea of marriage as joint ministry.

I decided to share with my friends the touching and romantic story of how Howard and Anna met and courted after WWI. Both had become involved with the American Friends Service Committee, which was founded during WW I  by Howard's teacher Rufus Jones so that conscientious objectors could do alternative service. After the War, the AFSC organized relief work in war-stricken areas of Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of Europe. Anna and Howard both took part in these efforts, and it transformed their lives. They met, fell in love, and married... and remained active in the AFSC and Quake peacemaking efforts for the rest of their lives. They lived not only happily, but usefully, ever after!

Howard and Anna: Love Amid the Ruins (1919-21)
Anna was drawn to work for the American Friends Service Committee through her sister Catharine.  While Anna was attending the Friends World Conference in London in 1920,  Catharine sent Anna a message urging her to join in AFSC’s relief work in Germany. Heeding this call, Anna immediately crossed the channel and went to Berlin where she began working for the AFSC by writing articles about the feeding of German children and students for Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals. [1] She also visited Berlin University and arranged for feeding students that needed help. While engaged in this work, she was told by Herman Newman “in his slow drawl”:
“Anna, if thee goes to Dresden, there is a young man there who will take thee for a walk.”[2]
Anna had met Howard at the Friends Conference, and evidently liked him, but was reluctant to act so boldly. She sought the advice of Violet Tillard, an English Friend whom she especially admired. Violet said firmly, ‘If respectable people can’t do what they want, who can?’”[3]
Anna went to Breslau to become acquainted with this promising young Quaker academic whom her friends kept urging her to meet. Howard vividly recalled their “historic” first date:
Anna came to Breslau sometimes to look after the student feeding at the universities. One time I joined her and [we] went to dinner together at the restaurant in the basement of the Rathaus. This was an historic occasion for us because it marked the beginning of our more intimate acquaintance. Accordingly, I keep a picture of the Rathaus in my study. Soon after I began to yearn for further acquaintance so I asked her to come and take a walk with me among the mountains on the border between Germany and what used to be Austria.
According to Howard, Anna’s mentor Violet died of typhus in Poland soon after giving Anna the friendly advice that brought them together. The priest refused to allow Violet (a Quaker) to be buried in the Catholic cemetery “so the peasants buried her at the edge of the cemetery and during the night took the wall of the cemetery down and extended it to include her grave in the cemetery.”[4]
One of Howard’s dates with Anna included a visit to the grave site of Jacob Boehme in Gorlitz. “Jacob was a shoemaker,” recalled Howard, “And the group of shoemakers erected a very fine monument on his grave.” As darkness settled on this expansive graveyard, Howard and Anna wandered about for a long time before they could find an exit. Howard goes on to describe in charming detail how their courtship progressed:
The next day we went to the mountains and followed a hilly path along the border. By evening we came to a hotel near the highest mountain of the range called Schneekoppe. At the hotel Anna refused to take a room next to mine.
Early next morning we climbed to the top of the mountain just in time to see the sunrise. It was a beautiful sight. I had brought some sausage for breakfast so we cooked them over an open fire. Anna remarked that I was a very good provider, which was encouraging.
We returned along the path…[and] our conversation consisted principally of quoting poetry.
After this trip, we exchanged a good many letters….[Anna] sent me ….a copper plate containing an image of Kant and some of his sayings. She also sent me a beautiful little book made entirely by herself and containing a number of short poems…
Anna’s memories of this time include going with Howard to the opera, to historic Krakow,  and to Munich’s Museum of Modern Art—“the first modern art museum either of them had ever seen. Both agreed it was modern; neither was sure it was art.”[5]
Another memorable episode occurred when Anna was visiting various German universities to arrange feeding programs for students. The Rector of Koenigsburg refused to speak English, so he and Anna discussed matters in Latin!
Anna and Howard had some minor disagreements during their courtship. Trained as a physicist and mathematician, Howard was more scientifically minded than Anna so she teased him by quoting James Bryce, a famous liberal British politician whose work Anna read while a student at Westtown: “No man ever nerved himself to action or comforted himself under a stroke of fate by reflecting that the sides of an isosceles triangle are equal.”[6]
Howard  paused to reflect, and after a long interval replied: “I’m not sure that’s true.”
Humorously learned banter like this was an important part of their courtship and their relationship, but there were also deeper feelings that Howard found difficult to put into words.  “I have never felt a desire to express my most intimate inward feelings,” Howard confesses in his Autobiography. “This reluctance to wear my heart on my sleeve was shared also by Anna.”  He felt comfortable sharing only the “outline of events” and omits “the strong inward feelings which can be felt but not expressed. I hope these feelings can be understood and taken for granted even if not expressed.”[7]
Strong feelings must have arisen in both of them when Anna received news that her mother was seriously ill and needed her help. As Anna made plans to leave for California, Howard struggled with the question of whether or not to propose marriage. He wanted to marry Anna, but having no job nor job prospects, he hesitated. Finally, he became clear (or as Anna might say, “nerved himself for action”) and wrote his marriage proposal in a letter which he sent to her boat in Amsterdam.
Anna’s voyage home proved extremely trying. The head of the AFSC unit in Germany asked her to escort two “war orphans” to their parents in the States. Seven-year-old Elfrieda and Rosa looked cherubic, but they caused endless mischief, cutting up pillows and scattering the feathers in a hotel room, and shouting obscenities in German at their fellow passengers on the ship. Even their evening devotions were obnoxious. In order to avoid going to bed at the designated time, they droned their prayers on and on and on, till Anna was driven to distraction.
“My great comfort was a parting letter I had received from Howard Brinton,” recalled Anna, “which I at first thought of keeping under my pillow. But I was afraid the girls would get hold of it, so I carried it in my bosom.”[8]
Anna managed to escort the girls safely to their parents, and received four dozen long-stem roses for her troubles. But then an agonizing period of waiting began. Anna had sent Howard a letter accepting his marriage proposal, but she didn’t hear back from him for several months. The President of Mills College, Dr. Aurelia Reinhardt, was convinced that the bridegroom would not appear at the wedding. Days and then weeks of waiting passed. Finally, thirty letters arrived from Howard—delayed by postwar disorganization in Europe.[9]
Howard himself arrived in San Jose on the day of their wedding, July 23, 1921. They were married in the San Jose meetinghouse, but Anna did not ask for clearness to marry from San Jose Meeting, but rather from Twelfth Street Meeting in Philadelphia, where she was a member. Permission to marry arrived from this meeting by wire and was delivered just in time by a telegraph boy on bike en route to the meetinghouse.[10]
Their new life as a couple began with an excursion to nearby Gilroy, where a rodeo was taking place. They then took a stage coach across the coast range into the mountains. They walked along a remote mountain trail for two days, never encountering another person, until they came to Big Sur, the haunt of artists and writers. They continued walking and stayed in small inns along the way until they finally ended up in Carmel, where a honeymoon cottage awaited them. For reading matter, they brought with them Jowett’s translation of Plato, which they read aloud to each other. [11]
(To be continued....)

[1] Mather, p. 10-11.
[2] Autobiography, p. 33.
[3] Mather, p. 11.
[4] Autobiography, p. 33.
[5] Mather, p. 11.
[6] Mather, p. 12.
[7] Autobiography, p. 43.
[8] Mather, p. 13.
[9] Mather, p. 15.
[10]  Mather, p. 15.
[11] Manuscript of Anna Brinton from the Brinton archives at Haverford. Also Howard’s Autobiography, p. 39.

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