Teach for Frontier America: Dorothy Wickenden, 'Nothing Daunted,' at Politics and Prose

July 20, 2011


Tales of privileged individuals temporarily embracing lower-class life are a staple of modern pop culture; look at “Green Acres,” “The Simple Life” and “Undercover Boss.”

But back in 1916, long before anyone had even heard of television, two young Victorian ladies — who, conveniently, happened to be avid chroniclers of their own lives — pursued momentous fish-out-of-water experiences. Smith-educated socialites Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamund Underwood left behind comfortable yet boring lives in Auburn, N.Y., for one-year teaching positions at a schoolhouse in rural Colorado — a move that was unheard of for women of their era and upbringing. Nearly a century later, Dorothy Wickenden’s “Nothing Daunted” ($26, Scribner) recounts their tale.


Wickenden, who’s executive editor of the New Yorker and also Woodruff’s granddaughter, was inspired to research the story after discovering her grandmother’s letters from that year — which included horseback rides to work, blizzards and a dramatic kidnapping.

What sets this apart from a regular family history?
It isn’t just a family story. It’s also a story of industrial east meets west, set 100 years ago. You don’t often read a Western from the perspective of true gentlewomen.

What’s the most notable characteristic of your grandmother’s letters?
What I love the most are her descriptions of the children she and Rosamund were teaching. My grandmother had a classroom of 10 little boys and one girl. They were young, very eager to learn, but they just said the funniest things. My grandmother had a real ear for dialogue, and she was able to capture some of what they said.

Do you think there’s anything she and Rosamund purposely left out of their letters?
Because they had been brought up as proper Victorians, they really didn’t write about their romances, even though both of them had very ardent romances going on.
Both women come across as very positive about their experience, even though it seems like they were roughing it. There was one letter that Dorothy wrote to her older sister Anna, who had asked her, “Are you really as happy as you say you are?” Dorothy said, “I could so easily be homesick if I let myself, but I can’t.” My grandmother was this very stoic, make-the-best-of-every-circumstance kind of person. She watched the western women who had nothing and they never complained.

How did writing this book impact your view of your grandmother?
It’s confirmed what I loved about her. How many times does a middle-aged woman get to know her grandmother at the age of 29, before she was married?

» Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m.; free; 202-364-1919, Politics-prose.com. (Van Ness)

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