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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,233

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This is the grave of Susan and Anna Warner.

Susan Warner was born in 1819 and Anna Warner in 1827 on Long Island. The family was downwardly mobile. Their father had been well-off but he lost most of his money in the Panic of 1837. Their mother died in these years as well.

The family moved to West Point, New York after they lost their sweet house in New York City. Anna and her sister Susan became moderately famous for their sappy Victorian era stories. This was the era of pure, unadulterated sap. No one reads any of this stuff anymore and for good reason. The closest thing to anyone reading any of this is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which combines being a politically important novel with also being unreadably awful. You definitely don’t want to go deeper than that into this literature. But both Warners were successful, Susan a bit more generally. They both used pseudonyms–Susan published as Elizabeth Wetherell and Anna as Amy Lothrop.

Susan hit it big in 1850 with a book called The Wide, Wide World, which was a bestseller and helped solve the family’s financial problems. It’s a fairly typical sentimental story about a young girl whose mother is dying and who is in love with a man and they have to overcome all kinds of obstacles before they can be together but then finally they are. This has received some attention from contemporary scholars who do a gender analysis of the book and others like it, but it’s been considered basically unreadable since around 1900, when this type of thing mercifully went out of fashion.

In 1860, Sarah wrote a book called Say and Seal. Susan wrote most of the book. But in the classic style of that era’s literature, there was a scene where a child dies. Victorians were obsessed with death, and most specifically, the right kind of death, which meant being surrounded by your family in a big bed where God was right around the door. This helps explain the response to the Civil War, which was the opposite of this good kind of death and which led to things such as the ridiculous table knocking spiritualists, as these people were so desperate to communicate with their dead relatives.

Well, Susan may have wrote most of that book. But as the child was dying, the book needed a poem to send the child off. And that poem was something Anna provided. Susan needed some kind of poem and asked Anna to write it. That poem was titled “Jesus Loves Me.” The poem itself is actually kind of long and it is the total cheesy schmaltz of the era. Nothing interesting there. But it is worth nothing that the emotional language of this poem is like 5 years old, which says plenty about the emotional maturity of a lot of northern Victorians.

Well, the book itself was pretty popular among the women who bought this kind of thing. So it got known. But it didn’t became a hymn for children until 1862, when William Batchelder Bradbury wrote the music for it and added the famous chorus of “Yes Jesus Loves Me” etc. This kind of career–providing music for bad mid 19th century poetry–was a pretty going concern for a number of people at this time.

Other than this, the Warners continued writing her books. In fact, Anna has about 30 novels overall, none of which anyone but scholars of the period’s literature read and I’m not real sure how much even lit professors of 19th century America really read this stuff at this point, except, again, for gender analysis of the mid 19th century.

This post has brought back trauma from having to go to Sunday School when I was a kid so I will stop now. The Warners lived near West Point for the rest of the lives as the U.S. Military Academy grew up around it. Susan died in 1885 at the age of 65 and Anna lived all the way until 1915, when she died at the age of 87. Today, the site of their home is a museum run by the Academy.

Susan and Anna Warner are buried in U.S. Military Academy Cemetery, West Point, New York.

If you would like this series to visit others involved in creating 19th century hymns, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Batchelder Bradbury is in Bloomfield, New Jersey and Fanny Crosby is in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

And if people hear you singing “Jesus Loves Me” while you are on the way to the polling booth, you can blame me.

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