Stanley Blair, Ph.D., associate professor of English, recently gave a presentation on Margaret Widdemer (1884-1978), an award-winning poet and novelist who grew up in Asbury Park. The presentation was sponsored by the Monmouth County Historical Association.
The Association’s Digital Education Archivist, Dana Howell, said, “We were pleased to again receive Dr. Stanley Blair as a presenter for our Historically Speaking lecture series. Dr. Blair is fast becoming a favorite of our audience for his ability to take a subject and make unique and fascinating connections to life and literature. With over 500 views and counting to his last lecture on our YouTube channel, people are definitely interested!”
This presentation focused on Widdemer’s 1915 novel “Why Not?” Blair showed, through nine correlations, how the novel’s setting fictionalizes two Monmouth County communities near campus: North Asbury Park and Wanamassa in Ocean Township. He went on to discuss how the novel was then adapted into a 1918 silent film, “The Dream Lady,” directed by one of America’s first female film directors, Elsie Jane Wilson. Blair also discussed his discovery, last summer, of a partial manuscript of the novel in Widdemer’s papers in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University. In turn, the discovery suggests a possible autobiographical approach to the novel.
“Surprisingly, this fascinating local is little-known for all her outstanding accomplishments. Dr. Blair truly shined a well-deserved light on her, bringing yet again another interesting Monmouth County character to a new generation,” Howell said.
Several Monmouth University students attended the presentation. Kendal O’Neill, a junior health studies student, said that the presentation was “extremely educational, interesting, and unique”: “I am not from the Monmouth County area, so being able to learn about the history around my college was a really cool opportunity. I actually live in Pennsylvania and was surprised to hear Margaret Widdemer was born in Doylestown,” less than an hour from her home. Also from Pennsylvania, junior business student Alana Aufiere “was pleasantly surprised about Widdemer’s ties back to Asbury Park, which were very cool especially because I am not from here. Learning about her was interesting and sentimental to me because this place is my second home away from home. Getting the opportunity to learn more about someone who grew up here and understands the history of such a beautiful place brought me great joy.”
Similarly, junior English student Sabine Saavedra “was amazed by how much local history I learned about. Though I don’t know much about the history of Monmouth County, I loved learning how I attend an institution in the same county where writers such as Margaret Widdemer came from.” Junior early childhood-elementary education student Ali Georgelos added that the presentation “brought up many connections that I would have never thought of. I did not know of Margaret Widdemer prior to this but, I do find it quite interesting that she passed away in a small town only ten minutes away from where I grew up in Upstate New York.”
Students also remarked on the portion of the presentation in which Widdemer’s novel could be understood as challenging heteronormativity. Saavedra said that “what truly caught my attention was how society viewed one’s sexuality, and how society had established what was considered ‘normal.’ Sydney’s preference to cross-dress as a man and Jim Mattison’s attraction to male attributes gave me a sense of how these characters expressed their sexuality and gender identity. This adds not only interesting character background but also a real situation in a time period when people were not as open-minded as society today.” Georgelos agreed that “some of the major parts of her novel were about facing and battling society at the time. I find it very brave that she was willing to write and talk about these issues, such as sexuality in the characters of Sydney and Jim Mattison.”
Some students saw relationships between the presentation and their work as students. For example, O’Neill was able to connect the presentation content and the content of a course she was taking: at one point, “I realized the presentation was raising the concept of ‘regionalism’…. That is always encouraging when you learn something in class and then see an example in real life.… More terms such as ‘literary dialect’ and ‘phonemic orthography’ were brought up, which were previously discussed in class.” In contrast, for Saavedra, the presentation challenged her to read beyond what she was learning in courses: “After the presentation, I became more intrigued by Margaret Widdemer’s work, as I would like to look more into writers from local areas. I plan to read more into her works beyond what was shown in Dr. Blair’s presentation about her, as I think it’s important to broaden my perspective of different viewpoints, especially from different time periods. As an English major, I appreciate having access to these sorts of events, so as to learn more of writers that I would otherwise have little knowledge about.”
Blair’s presentation is available online, via the Monmouth County Historical Association’s website and on YouTube.