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Ohio Grad Student Researches Vermont Masculinity

State of the Arts


Published November 5, 2008 at 7:17 a.m.

As every upstart flatlander who moves to this state eventually learns, born-and-bred Vermont men pride themselves on being hardworking, uncomplaining and self-reliant, yet quick to lend a hand. But it may take a complete outsider such as Ohio resident Charlotte Rodabaugh — a PhD candidate in history at West Virginia University — to trace that code of manhood back 150 years.

Rodabaugh is writing her dissertation on attitudes about masculinity held by Yankee men who moved West during the antebellum period. She thinks Vermont men’s attitudes stand out from the general New England code of male behavior at that time: They seem more rooted in pride in the state’s history, more solidly based in shared trust. Her evidence? A cache of letters exchanged among one Oscar Learnard of Bakersfield, his father and his Norwich Academy buddies. Rodabaugh discovered the letters at the Spencer Library in Lawrence, Kansas, where Learnard migrated as a young lawyer in the 1850s.

Seeking more old letters to test her theory, Rodabaugh applied for and recently won the Vermont Historical Society’s Weston A. Cate Research Fellowship, a grant of $1200 designed to encourage historical research on Vermont. Part of that went toward Rodabaugh’s first trip here in mid-October; she spent a week at the VHS’ research library in Barre.

“In the Vermont men’s letters I’ve read so far,” Rodabaugh says by phone from Ohio, “I saw what appears to be a more palpable sense of home than in other New Englanders’ letters. The way they talked about their identification with Vermont, the way Oscar said, ‘Ethan Allen would approve if we do it this way’ — those kinds of references are more numerous than anything else I’ve seen.”

Typically, she explains, New Englanders on the frontier referred to their origins in letters only to provide “a litany of what ancestors needed to know. For Oscar, it was explanatory. It explained why he was what he said he was.”

Some perceptions of manhood she has uncovered in her research so far match what she has seen in Yankee letters and diaries generally. If you failed to succeed on the frontier, for instance, the fault was assumed to be in your character. But the VHC archives also revealed, Rodabaugh claims, “more evidence of high levels of cooperation between Vermont men. If two men liked the same girl, they both agreed not to pursue her.”

As part of the Cate Fellowship, Rodabaugh is required to write a scholarly article and submit it to the VHS’ biennial journal Vermont History, though publication is at the discretion of the editor. Awardees are given a year to complete their research.

Rodabaugh became interested in perceptions of manhood during the antebellum period — a time of fierce competition among middle-class men — when she came upon the personal papers of U.S. Representative Joshua Giddings while earning a master’s in history at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Giddings’ family had migrated from New England to northeastern Ohio in the early 19th century. Though Congressman Giddings became a leading opponent of slavery, Rodabaugh discovered while reading his personal diaries and letters that he did so only after a male mentor breached his trust.

Rodabaugh says she had no preconceptions of Vermont, let alone Vermont men, before she drove up a few weeks ago with her daughter and infant granddaughter. (She began her PhD at the age of 50 after her three daughters were grown.) “I never gave Vermont a thought before in my life,” she says, laughing. “If you had said to me, pick out the places you’d want to study, Vermont would never have been one.”

But after a week at the Maplecroft B&B in Barre, Rodabaugh says, “It was clear Vermonters were used to being viewed as living in another place. The people at the VHS pointed out how many books have been written about that question — What is it with Vermonters? Is this another place entirely? That question’s been there since Vermont’s founding: Who are we, and how do we define ourselves?

And after experiencing the state in peak foliage — and its “shockingly charming” views — Rodabaugh understands the nostalgia Oscar Learnard voiced in his letters for the Green Mountains of home.

“By the end of the trip,” Rodabaugh says, “my daughter was saying, ‘How can I get a job here?’”