Our Famous Women
Published in 1884
Mary Clemmer
by Lilian Whiting in Chapter XI

Mary Clemmer Ancestry: The Clemmer family trace their origin to the Alastia, France, on the border of Germany. Their name in the fatherland was spelled Klemmer. In 1685, Louis XIV persecutions of the Huguenot went past the borders of France, for many miles into the heart of Germany. The Clemmer family was among millions who fled from their native soil to seek refuge in strange lands. They settled in Berks County, Pennsylvania., before the American Revolution.

Jonas Clemmer, the father of Abraham Clemmer, an educated man, a teacher by profession, died when his son was five years old, his death changing the entire destiny of his child.

The mother of Abraham Clemmer, born Barbara Schelley, came also from Huguenot stock. Male members of many generations had been practitioners of medicine or professors o f medical science. Her brothers were educated as physicians and the sons-in-law today are physicians in the State of Pennsylvania. Barbara, although denied the liberal education of her brothers, in no less degree professed the instinct of healing and became famous in the country around her home for her knowledge of medicine and skill of healing the sick. She died in 1837, age 62, in the Pennsylvania homestead where she lived from her youth.

Mary Clemmer, at the request of a writer, writes of her father: "Abraham Clemmer carried in his bearing and on his face the visible stamp of a superior race. He was of fine stature with an alert step and haughty poise of head. His features were patrician in outline and expression. His forehead high, his hair black and curling, brows arched, dark hazel eyes, nose finely aquline, mouth exquisitely cut, an Apollos with a suggestion of disdain in its curves, yet full of sweetness. This was the beauty of his prime. In old age it became still more uncommon and in death was so remarkable that those who had never seen him in life, looking upon him in his last sleep, recall his face today with the seal of peace upon it, as one of the most noble they ever gazed upon in death.

His temperament was of the poet loved nature and finding perpetual satisfaction and solace in the presence. He loved music with an enthusiasm that was in itself an inspiration. Wrote with great elegance, drew remarkable accuracy and was a natural linguist. What in his whole life he never attained was the power of calculation indispensable to merely material success. Born of a race for many generations devoted exclusively to artistic and scientific pursuits, this calculating insight, this forthright of money getting, the commercial instinct that commands financial gain were left out of his temperament and mental make-up. He lived and died a poor man, bequeathing to his children as their supreme inheritance the necessity of shaping life for themselves. His generosity was a fault giving to others often unworthy what he should have kept for himself and his children. In his whole life I never heard him speak to the detriment of any human being. The absent were always safe in his kindly and gentle speech. His youth glowed with fire and reams of the future whose fulfillment the limitations of his lot made impossible, with only a little more iron in his nature he could have compelled adversity to have yielded to fortunes he could have commanded friends who never dreamed they could have served him until it was too late.

It was not in him. He yielded to the blows of adverse fate he never struck back. He accepted at last the fact of material failure as the final sum of his lot accepted it with a gentleness and a patience which lifted its very pathos into the atmosphere of serenity. He mellowed into old age with a childlikeness and sweetness of temper which won the hearts of all who approached him.

Years of wasting malady he bore with a patience that was angelic. He drew constant solace from nature. The joy of sight never failed him on earth; not til the day he died was his chair by the window vacant where for years he gazed out on roses in his garden and on the gay sight of the streets of the capital city. That Sabbath morning, 1881, when asked if he felt able to go down stairs for the first time he shook his head. Before another morning God took him. We laid him in God's acre in the city of Washington D.C.

The mother of Mary Clemmer, born Margaret Kneale, came from the Isle of Man, a little island in the stormy tossed Irish Sea. It has a government of its own, a house of Parliament, a people descended through generations of noble blood, a striking and eventful history. In Hawthorn's English notebook, he recorded his impressions of this historic spot; the island history dates back to the time the Norsemen were mighty in the west. Wordsworth's famous line, "The light that never was on sea or land," is in a poem suggested by a picture of Poele Castle in a storm. Just outside the ramparts of the castle Margaret Kneale was born and under its ancient archways she played through her childhood. An old legend runs that it was enshrouded with vapor and here the Vikings held their sea-throne. The island is 75 miles from Liverpool.

Mary Clemmer writes of her mother and her parentage: "In 1827 my grandfather, William Kneale, a deeply religious man and studious man, desiring for his young children a larger outlook and more extended educational advantage than the Isle of Man at that time afforded, sold his patrimony. With that and his proud, high-spirited wife, born Margaret Crane, sailed for America. His destination with his family was the State of Ohio, but meeting friends from the Island at the city of Utica, New York, he paused on his journey and never resumed it. He at once purchased a homestead which now is in the heart of the city of Utica, is still in possession of the family. In this homestead grew to womanhood and was married, Margaret Kneale. She was dazzling fair, wide-eyed, blue-eye, daughter of the Vikings. She brought to New York the best inherited traits of her ancient race pa passion for liberty in its relation to the whole race an intense desire for knowledge and absolute faith in God.

In the city of Utica where Margaret Kneale chanced to be making a casual visit, she met and married Abraham Clemmer and here Mary Clemmer and other children were born.

As a child she is described by those who have know her from infancy as being beautiful and engaging in manner and living much of her ideal world, even those early days, seated in her rocking chair or wandering in shaded grounds. She would compose rhymes, repeating them to herself long before she learned the use of a pen. When she had just passed childhood, business circumstances led Abraham Clemmer to move to Westfield, Massachusetts, where two brothers of his wife, one Honorable Thomas Kneale, had already settled.

In due time Mary Clemmer entered the academy of Westfield, one of whose early teachers long before her birth was the famous Mrs. Emma Willard. It was one of those stable and stately schools of the past where young men were fitted for college and young girls were taught dubious French and to read fluently Virgil and Homer. Naturally enough, books were her passion. While a student of this academy, her first verse was put in print, read as a school exercise it pleased one of her teachers and impelled him to send it to a friend who printed it in the Springfield Republican. In every life there is an hour when the keynote of the figure is struck. At Westfield this hour had come to Mary Clemmer when she heard the poem, "Picture of Memory," by Alice Cary read as a library exercise and listened to the professor speak of the life of its author. "It fell upon me like a tale of romance; I went on thinking of her." (This she said in referring later to this time.) In that hour was forged the unseen links of a chain of lifelong friendship between two noble women. The subtle affinities of nature reached through time and space. Years after when grown to early womanhood she went to New York and the woman-poet she had cherished as an ideal became to her a wise counselor, the tender friend, while in turn the young girl became Alice Cary's perfect biographer.

When Mary Clemmer at this time went to New York, she went hearing another name. While yet a schoolgirl with no knowledge of actual life, no desire of her own to impel her to the step she took, moved by misfortune that had fallen upon her home, she yielded to the wises and will of others and was married to a man many years her senior. All that spiritually right in this relation called marriage was its final legal annulment. When by mutual good will the two honorably parted, she in law became again by title Mary Clemmer.

Before this separation occurred in the flower of her youth while living in New York her artistic nature found its expression. Beginning with no special training for an actual knowledge of journalism, she groping her way, obeyed the law of necessity and through her obedience to it, at last came her opportunity. In a letter to a friend who writes, "No one can grow as a writer unless she grows as a thinker. Few appreciate the value of the discipline of trained facilities that come through doing faithfully and well the drudgery, so to speak, of intellectual work. I once entered into a written contract to write one column per day in advance, on any subject I was instructed to write on for three years and at the end of that three years I had not for a single day failed in fulfillment of my task which included everything from book revision, common advertisement, comments on government, public view of affairs. You see that I did not miss the apprenticeship for literary work.

It was a toilsome time but one positive satisfaction I feel in looking back is the consciousness of the entire command it gave me of all my mental forces. It cured me utterly of the mental perversity that waits for the inspiration of creative moods to do what is necessary to be done. No matter how great the disinclination, whenever I had anything to do, I did it, illy sometimes, sometimes better, but I did it the best I could at the moment. The final result was not inferior in style but a much higher aggregate of forces and of command.

When the war came Mary Clemmer was literally in it. In her novel "Eirene," a chapter on Surrender of Maryland Heights was written from personal observation and experience and was published. In the spring of 1866, she wrote from Washington her first letter for the "Independent," strong in political character yet they were topics of thought rather than were surface things. The feeling that Mary Clemmer looked on all this Vanity Fair is indicated in the following extract from one of her letters: "The world I have left and the world I meet do not easily coalesce. The strength begotten of mountain heights, the peace of stormless lakes, the pervasive fragrance of the autumnal wood, the music of a tiny leaf stirring in the blue air, the rustle of a squirrel scampering thru the crusty ferns with his winter nut, the lowing of a little black cow all the sights and sounds have followed with me hither. Their music is in my heart as I confront this outer world which is no relation of mine a world of rush, hurry, of roaring streets; the work of vanity and show of treachery, of shallow insight, of harsh misjudgements and broken faith. This is not my world. I am in it but not of it."

Her first work consisted of seven newspaper letters. Each week she spent mornings in the ladies' gallery of the Senate or Hall of Representatives. Nothing, not even a notebook or pencil, indicated the professional listener. Returning to her rooms, she sent long letters and telegraphic matters by a messenger who came for them. In the evening she held herself free to receive friends or for social engagements. In her parlor might have been found the most eminent men of the day.

The esteem in which Mary Clemmer was held is indicated by impromptu notes written in the Senate Chamber about her and handed to her by a page in the ladies' gallery. The decade between 1870-1880 were years in which she achieved a great amount of creative work. During this time she wrote the lives of "Phoebe and Alice Cary" and "Ten Years in Washington." (In October 1872 Mary Clemmer completed the biography of the Cary sisters.) Here she did some of her most perfect literary work. "The intellectual life of neither man or woman can be justly judged without a knowledge of the condition which impelled that life and gave to it shape and substance." Her soul was essentially a feminine soul, loving, full of longings for home, burdened with tenderness, life-long devotion to one whatever her mental or spiritual gifts, no mere ambition could have sent such a woman out into the world to seek and to make her fortune alone. Had she married the man whom she loved she would never have come to New York at all, to coin the rare gifts of her brain and soul into money for shelter and food.

Mary Clemmer's work is characterized by spiritual insight which sees beyond. Her writings have a vitality which is felt rather than described and this type demands not so much repose as freedom; not so much time as it does the consciousness of time. Her poems express an inner flame that burns not for this world. Some of the finest of her work has been in monographs on characters with whom she was strongly in sympathy. Among these was Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, George Elliot. Much of her poetry is from the imagination and sympathetic rather than real or personal experience. For example, "The Dead Love" and "Poems of Life and Nature" were both written when a young girl with no experience of love, living or dead, and was a response to a girlfriend whose painful experience she thus interpreted. In "Goodbye Sweetheart," she touches her highest lyric force. In "Arbutus," we see the oneness of her soul with nature, also in two sonnets entitled "The Cathedral Pines." She ennobled journalism by her convictions of its moral significance. The poetry of her nature saved her from allurements of fashionable frivolities. In poetry or politics there was always the inspirational element.

Her home on Capitol Hill, Washington, is a large hospitable brick mansion, book-lined and picture-hung; its elegance and repose most of all its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Years ago Mary Clemmer purchased this house and with her parents entered it to make a home. In this household the father and mother were honored guests.

In 1881 her aged father passed away, cheered to the last by unfailing tenderness of this daughter. The mother still graces the home with her gentle presence that falls like a benediction on stranger or guest.

The reams of letters and art that seemed so remote and inaccessible to Mary Clemmer were nowhere to enter and enjoy. The following appeared in an Indiana newspaper entitled: "Literary Divorce." The announcement of the divorce of Mr. Ames from his wife, Mary Clemmer, was a shock and a surprise to her friends.

It is true they were not often together for his business kept him at Harpers Ferry while hers brought her to Washington in the winter and to the north in summer. I have known Ames eight years and seen her husband frequently during that time. I believe they are now as they always have been, the best of friends. He seems proud of her talents and understood that she could not be shut up at so uncongenial a place as Harpers Ferry. Mrs. Ames is a hard worker. Without any help from her husband she for years has supported herself and both of her parents and educated a younger sister. Mr. Ames was a clergyman when she at an early age married hm. Since she was Mrs. Ames he has had an infatuation for investing money at Harpers Ferry. Before the houses were rented a great freshet floated them down the Shenandoah River. Still he goes on buying and building. Report says that Mr. Ames has found a lady at the Ferry who likes the place and that he obtained a divorce so that he could marry again.

It is most unfortunate as a divorce always leaves something of a blight upon a woman.

Source of this contributation is Mr. & Mrs. Long