Writing and Reading Augusta Browne: Composer and Woman of Letters in Nineteenth-Century America

Augusta Browne’s life speaks to me as an American, as a woman, and as a musician. An inspiration as I worked on the manuscript of Augusta Browne was imagining my book on the library shelves in the ML410 classification (biographies of composers), standing somewhere between such European masters as Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner, and adjacent to music colleagues including the avant-garde American composer Earle Brown (1926–2002) and the British medium Rosemary Brown (1916–2001), who created piano pieces “transmitted” to her by deceased musicians such as Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. While the ML410 holdings are most familiar to students and scholars of music—who may comprise the largest audience for Augusta Browne—they are not the only academic group who will find relevant material in this life study. Audiences for Augusta Browne will include readers in such varied disciplines as American studies (history, literature, or culture), women’s studies, and Victorian studies, from undergraduates working on college papers to scholars and specialists.

The structure of the book grew out of an effort to give due coverage to Browne’s activities as a music teacher, keyboard performer, composer, writer, and journalist. To serve readers in different disciplines, I chose to devote the later chapters (legacy chapters) to more detailed exploration of music, prose, and music journalism, although some coverage of these is written into the nine life chapters. I tried to provide a level of detail in the index that would facilitate access to topics of interest in varied fields.

Two advertisements for Augusta Browne as a musician from twenty years apart illustrate her multiple pursuits within the profession. Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune on April 10, 1841. In June 1841, the Browne family began advertising “Musical Tuition on the Pianoforte” in the Tribune, but by November Augusta had earned her own advertisement as she sought a niche in the competitive market as a teacher and composer in New York City.

Image author’s own

Two decades later, the New York Observer ran an advertisement during October 1861, as Browne began to resume teaching after a long period of mourning and depression after her husband, John W. B. Garrett, died in 1858.

Image author’s own

During her lifetime Browne may have been better known as a writer than as a composer because of the convention of reprinting between journals and newspapers known as printer’s exchanges. Browne termed herself an “authoress,” but this word seems dated or antiquated to me, so I opted for “woman of letters” to describe her multi-faceted literary activity (poetry, short story, memoir, essays in the arts, Christian devotional literature). “Composer and man of letters” is immediately comprehensible for a musician and journalist like Virgil Thomson (1896–1989); woman of letters is less frequently heard, although it is hardly a new phrase. Virginia Woolf is one well-known author associated with the expression. Augusta Browne earned distinction as a music essayist when she was cited among “American Female Writers” in the Lady’s Almanac for 1854, with its fanciful title page vignette showing a woman of letters at her writing desk as the winged hourglass reminds her that tempus fugit.

Image author’s own

As an independent scholar without an academic affiliation or checkout privileges, I have to make use of quick search strategies when I am able to visit a university library. Always carrying a long list of titles and sources to study, I describe my onsite technique as dip-and-flip because there is not time in a single visit to devour books cover to cover (COVID-19 restrictions have even eliminated the possibility of spending a day at the library for much of 2020). I suggest to other scholars that they seek out their topics of interest in Augusta Browne by consulting the index, flipping through chapters, and dipping in and out as it suits their quests. Americanists may enjoy the life chapters, literature specialists will be drawn to chapters that focus on the woman of letters, and musicians can find greater depth of coverage in the chapter titled “Legacy in Music.” Augusta Browne’s American story will resonate with many readers.

More blog posts about Augusta Browne are available at https://bonnymillermusic.com.

This guest post was written by Bonny H. Miller, a pianist and independent scholar who has taught at universities in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Augusta Browne
By Bonny H. Miller
9781580469722, Hardback, £61.75 or $81.25

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