Books

Iowa City author's new book focuses on first muckraker

Miriam Alarcon

Jeff Biggers will read from his latest book Feb. 20 at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.
Miriam Alarcon Jeff Biggers will read from his latest book Feb. 20 at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

The search for the origin of a word led Jeff Biggers to Anne Royall, a sharp-tongued, quick-witted satirist of early 19th century America. Royall, Biggers discovered, was a far more colorful and influential figure than most histories acknowledged, and so he set out to write “The Trials of a Scold: The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall.”

In this e-interview, Biggers, who splits his time between Iowa City and Italy, discusses the origins of the book, Royall’s amazing story, and his next project.

Q: How did you happen upon the story of Anne Royall, and what initially captured your attention and led you to writing about her?

A: I came across Royall many years when I was doing research for my book “The United States of Appalachia” on the origins of the term “redneck,” which Royall is credited with first publishing in the United States in 1830. I immediately read her controversial books and writings and the records of her “common scold” trial in 1829. I found Royall to be funny, outrageous and incredibly insightful.

I kept asking myself, how has one of the most famous women of her time been so overlooked in history? Here was a “woman politico” a generation before the women’s suffrage movement, a pioneering travel writer and satirist who broke ground a generation before Mark Twain, an investigative journalist who took on bankers and prison conditions half a century before muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly, and the author of 10 original books. The answer to that question was far more complex and fascinating than I had ever imagined.

Q: What were the particular research challenges you encountered — and how were the folks at the University of Iowa Library (among others) able to help? What would say was the most surprising thing your research uncovered?

A: I did a large part of my research at the UI library (along with tracing Royall’s journeys across the country and into the Library of Congress). The library cafe became my lifeline as I read 30-odd years of newspapers (1820s-1850s) through the microfiche machines, online and in print. I consider a corner desk in the UI library stacks upstairs my second home. And I consider librarians the great wizards of our times — and in fact, I dedicated my book to my high school librarian, who rescued my education, piled me down with books, and set me off on my journey as a reader and writer.

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Q: In the text itself and in the words of some of those whose blurbs appear on the cover, a case is made that Royall serves as a role model for people today or a harbinger of the current moment or a reminder that history moves in cycles. What do you think readers of your book should take away from Royall’s story as they consider our contemporary political and cultural landscape?

A: Anne Royall published her first book at the age of 57 in 1826. She didn’t have a second life, as the saying goes; she had three or four or five lives, reinventing herself along the back trails of America as a travel writer, as a social and religious critic, and then as a satirist and newspaper publisher. Just as her male counterparts in politics, religion and the media couldn’t handle her feminist undertakings and working-class origins, they disparaged her age. Royall was routinely called an “old hag,” or “crazy old woman,” as if older women were unreliable, nasty and mad. ... For more than a century and a half, that has been the prevailing narrative around Royall.

Nevertheless, Anne Royall persisted — she defied her skeptics as a prolific literary force, satirist and social critic, and published a newspaper in Washington for 25 years until the age of 85. She dealt head-on, defiantly, and hilariously with multiple levels of discrimination as a single woman shattering the ceiling of female participation in politics, religion and media in Washington, D.C., and literally breaking ground across the country on wagon trails; as a working-class woman who openly cohabitated with her husband before their wedding, condemned as a concubine and prostitute and left penniless; as an older woman who endured beatings, horse-whippings, and ultimately a humiliating trial in the national spotlight, only to get back up and write again.

Q: You split your time between Iowa City and Italy. What roles do those locales play in your life in general and as a writer, in particular?

A: We are lucky to be rooted in “two worlds.” My wife, Carla Paciotto, who is originally from Spoleto, Italy, and I remain active on various theater, education and immigration projects in Italy, including a recent play and book we authored, “Damnatio Memoriae,” on the ancient role of migration. Here in Iowa City, I launched the Ecopolis theater and regenerative city initiative and Climate Narrative Project to essentially find new ways to bring together the community and use the arts, storytelling and science to effectively communicate stories that inspire people to take action. I currently work with schools, universities, and communities across the country ... setting up Climate Narrative Projects and Ecopolis programs now ...

Q: What are you working on next?

A: My next book, “Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition,” is coming in July. It looks at how courageous and often squabbling resistance movements have insured the bench marks of our democracy — movements that served on the front lines of the American Revolution, the defense of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the defeat of fascism during World War II, and various civil rights struggles. In dealing with the most challenging issues of every generation, resistance to duplicitous civil authority has defined our quintessential American story.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.