Let Freedom Sing: Of 19th Century Americans (Review)

Vivian B. Kline, Outskirts Press

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Vivian Kline is a Class A name-dropper. The names she drops — Nicholas Longworth, P.T. Barnum and sister poets Alice and Phoebe Carey among them — have the satisfying clunk of historical import and might mean most to history buffs. Although, if you’re not, this is a good place to begin.

Kline, of Cincinnati, lays a rich layer of fiction over actual people and occurrences spurred by the history behind an antique postcard. In an elaborate conceit, she imagines a modern high school class writing a novel that might become a musical based on the actual travels of a 19th-century group of African-American singers raising money for their school, Fisk University. She crafts a correspondence between a surprisingly domestic Maria Longworth — who later founded a pottery, feuded publicly with another potter and, later still, embarrassed her diplomat second husband over religious issues — and Susanna Gilbert, another real person, who worked with the singers.

Some of the narrative is direct, some through letters. If the dialogue seems stilted to modern readers it might be because Kline is imitating the tone of period diaries and letters. Or perhaps she wants it to sound as though students actually wrote it? Whatever the case, it’s fun to get a look at both Cincinnati and New York City (from where Kline originally hails) in a time now generations away.

The author is scrupulous in letting us know what actually happened and what took place in her head and tells us where we can see some of the settings today. Nicholas Longworth’s house became the Taft Museum; Maria’s Rookwood Pottery is now a restaurant; and rooms from the Carey family house are at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Unfortunately, the latter have not been on view for many years.

This book lets us see where we’ve been, always helpful in deciding where we are now. Grade: B

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