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Elizabeth Corbett

by Patricia A. Lynch

Excerpted from the expanded edition of Out at the Soldiers' Home: A Memory Book.

Elizabeth Frances Corbett was born on September 30, 1887, in Aurora, Illinois, the first of three children of Richard W. Corbett and Isabelle Adkins.

Elizabeth lived with her family at the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Milwaukee, from 1891 to 1915—a total of twenty-five years. In an autobiographical sketch composed after she had moved to New York City to pursue her literary career, she wrote, “I suppose I’m the only author in America who was brought up in a Soldiers’ Home.… As the only author who knows the ground, I shall some day have to write that book.” (1)

Elizabeth attended West Division High School and graduated with “seven hundred embryo poets” from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1910. She, however, held a “deeper secret” than her fellow poets-to-be: “They simply wanted to get poems written. In all seriousness I proposed to become a novelist.”

When the time came for the family to leave the Home grounds, they settled in a small house in Milwaukee overlooking Lake Michigan. There she composed and published her first three novels. Admitting she had all the luck, she wrote that “all the youthful poets who had graduated with hopes as high as mine, went into the advertising business.”

Elizabeth counted a number of popular novels among the fifty books she published in her long life, including several revolving around a woman named Mrs. Meigs. Her correspondence and Milwaukee Sentinel interviews confirm that Mrs. Meigs was based on Mrs. Purdon Wright, the wife of the Soldiers’ Home chaplain.

Elizabeth’s short stories appeared in Century, Scribner’s and McCall’s. These works included “The Moral Equivalent of Whisky,” a story which is “directly of Soldiers’ Home inspiration.”

“In the process of turning short story writer,” she explained, “I came to New York to set me up a studio in Greenwich Village. Everything in my place that is not painted green is painted yellow.”

Her place was also “the only studio in the Village where ‘afternoon tea’ [meant] tea and not gin.”

Having lived among the “living relics of the Civil War” and having whiled away many hours reading Civil War histories, Elizabeth had long toyed with the idea of a biography of General Ulysses S. Grant. In a 1930 book proposal, she wrote:
Good biography can be written when the author has genuine enthusiasm for the subject. I have a Civil War background, as I was brought up in a National Soldiers’ Home peopled in those days by Civil War veterans. My part of the country is Grant’s (Illinois and Wisconsin). My sympathy always goes out to the sort of character who holds his tongue and does his stuff.

In Grant’s case, the stuff itself happens to be brilliant, the doer simple, staunch, and touchingly devoid of vanity. General Grant is a perfect subject for the kind of book I can write best. (2)

Frederick A. Stokes Company agreed with her. Later in 1930 the company published her book, If It Takes All Summer: The Life Story of Ulysses S. Grant.

Elizabeth was an occasional contributor to Theater Guild Magazine, including a 1931 review, “Uncle Tom Is Dead,” in which she concluded, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only our most successful American play; it was an American institution. Its day is done. If the play is revived, it will be as a curiosity; and no one can revive the profession of Uncle Tomming. Alas, we must pay a price for our sophistication.”(3)

In 1933, George Fowler, manager of the Lyric Theatre in Summit, New Jersey, staged a series of new plays and revivals, each one lasting a week. Fowler’s first offering was “Young Mrs. Meigs,” Elizabeth’s dramatization of her novel of the same name. (4)

In that same year, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on the novelist’s appearance in Milwaukee. Her trip included a visit with the “Old Lady of the Book,” Mrs. Purdon Wright, who was 94 years old and a resident of St. John’s Home for Old Ladies.
During the interview, Elizabeth admitted she was still trying to find a way to write about her early years at the Home.

The real story of a soldiers’ home has never been written, Miss Corbett says. A soft bang of red hair lies like a cloud across the writer’s forehead; her eyes are a clear blue and very gentle and amused as she talks of the endless incidents of life there as she knew it.

There were old soldiers, puttering about, finding ways to fill the long slow days. They never listened to each other’s stories; they never really told stories in the sense that the conventional writers of fiction would have you believe. In all those years she lived there Elizabeth never heard one story of how anyone won the battle single handed or that sort of thing. They talked—when they talked—of how the hardtack got wormy. (5)

She finally wrote that real story of a soldiers’ home in 1941. Not long after D. Appleton-Century published Out at the Soldiers’ Home: A Memory Book, letters poured in from old friends and from other readers who had grown up at other branches of the National Home.

Amy Comstock, associate editor of the Tulsa Tribune, remembered, “My first music lessons, how well I recall them, were taken over there.… I remember the house so well and the family and the trudging over the clay hills between our home and the Home, if I walked. It was right near the Fire department, I seem to remember, and the horses were the delight of my soul.” (6)

Hortense Smith wrote from Terryville, Connecticut: “When I saw the book reviewed, I immediately sent for it and have had a great deal of pleasure in reading it and it brought so many happy memories of my experiences and life in the Hampton [Virginia] Home, where my father was Governor from 1915 to 1919.” (7)

Miss Smith’s father, General Joseph S. Smith, had been the Local Manager of the Home in Togus, Maine, before his appointment to the Hampton Home. She continued, “My father used to say that someone should write a book ‘My Life in a Soldiers’ Home’ and now you have done so. I wish he were here to read it.”

Elizabeth replied with an acknowledgment of having met General Smith and an explanation about the naming of “local worthies.” She wrote, “…I took good care not to mention them by name. The use of names when there are surviving relatives is one of the delicate problems about writing a book of memoirs.” (8)

She also hoped her book had another effect: “Surely I’m not mistaken in thinking that when you were reading the book it brought your father back to you for a little while, just as it brought my father back to me when I wrote it.”

Though it has been out of print for many years, Out at the Soldiers’ Home is still listed in the collections of sixty-eight libraries in the United States and at the University of Oxford, Oxford, England.

In 1954, Elizabeth Corbett returned to Milwaukee to visit her sister. During that visit she made a special point of visiting the Soldiers’ Home. By that time the facility’s name had changed to the Veterans Administration Hospital, Wood, Wisconsin.
The VA staff, including Chief Librarian Florence Markus, scheduled a special program in honor of the visit, including photographs, a radio address by Miss Corbett, a tour of the grounds, and a luncheon.

After she returned to New York, Miss Corbett began corresponding with Miss Markus. Elizabeth also provided short poems and cartoons for The Tattler, the VA newsletter, until 1968, when Miss Markus retired. We are pleased to present a selection of Elizabeth’s letters and poems in this expanded edition of Out at the Soldiers’ Home.

1. Elizabeth Corbett, “My Autobiography.” Elizabeth Corbett Collection, Milwaukee Public Library.

2. Elizabeth Corbett, “Proposal for a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.” Elizabeth Corbett Collection, Milwaukee Public Library.

3. Elizabeth Corbett, “Uncle Tom Is Dead.” Theater Guild Magazine, January 1931.

4. New York Times, November 20, 1933.

5. “Old Lady of the Book Is Visited by Novelist,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 25, 1933
6. Amy Comstock to Elizabeth Corbett, March 7, 1941. Elizabeth Corbett Collection, Milwaukee Public Library.

7. Hortense Smith to Elizabeth Corbett, March 17, 1941. Elizabeth Corbett Collection, Milwaukee Public Library.

8. Elizabeth Corbett to Hortense Smith, March 20, 1941. Elizabeth Corbett Collection, Milwaukee Public Library.

Elizabeth Corbett Collections
Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
University of Southern California, Los Angeles California

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