In the summer of 1916, Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, two young Smith college graduates, abandoned the comfort and frivolities of their East Coast society lives and ventured to the rugged outpost of Elkhead, Colorado. There, the women encountered blizzards, kidnappings, and even a dose of romance, much of their story documented in Woodruff’s eloquent letters.
Nearly a century later, Wickenden-Woodruff’s granddaughter and executive editor of The New Yorker-stood before a crowd of Wesleyan students in the Russell House living room to discuss her new book about the women, “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”
“I love talking at colleges, I really do,” Wickenden said after her Wednesday evening lecture. “It’s great to talk to younger people and also to have them relate to the story when so many generations have gone by.”
In April 2009, Wickenden wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “Nothing Daunted,” about her grandmother’s year in Colorado, but found that the length constraints of the piece were restrictive. In discovering her grandmother’s letters from the time, Wickenden found inspiration for an an entire book.
“There I was, a middle-aged editor, reading my grandmother’s letters from when she was twenty-nine,” Wickenden said.
Wickenden showed photos as she relayed stories about her grandmother and her friend. She described their transformation from high-society girls in Auburn, New York to women riding horses for miles through the Colorado snow to teach poverty-stricken children.
“They were bringing culture to the West,” she said.
Wickenden traveled throughout Colorado to gather information for her book, speaking with former students of Dorothy and Rosamond and with others who knew them. She detailed the women’s East-Coast naiveté and the sense of endless possibility that pervaded the outlook of the time.
“Everyone that I researched, from the aristocrats of Auburn to the industrialists of Denver, and even the homesteaders of Elkhead, who had nothing, all had this exhilarating optimism about the future,” she said. “They thought America was the best country in the world and that they were going to be part of building it—and they actually were.”
She said her research could not have been delayed any longer because of the age of the people and places her grandmother knew.
“They’re the kinds of people that tend to get overlooked in history books; they’re just forgotten,” she said. “A lot of the people who have connections with these families are beginning to die off, so I feel that I got it at the right time.”
Throughout her talk, Wickenden expressed the awe she felt while reading these letters and listening to her grandmother’s stories. She attempted to recreate many of the scenes from the letters, including driving up “Hell Hill” on her way west.
“Part of what I was doing [was] reliving all of this,” Wickenden said.
Wickenden described her grandmother’s support for women’s rights and the settlements that popped up following the Homestead Act—but not without the classic elements of a Western.
“A Western needs romance and violence, of course,” she said.
But Wickenden refused to divulge the story’s ending. During the Q&A, one audience member asked what became of Dorothy and Rosamond and was directed to read her book to find out.
“I thought it was a very engaging talk,” said Kate Gibbel ’15 after the presentation. “It was also cool to see an acclaimed journalism editor talk about a different sphere of nonfiction. She was clearly very inspired and excited by her grandmother’s history and that enthusiasm carried over into the presentation.”