A Word from the Author
How did you find out about Bryn Mawr alumna Eva Palmer?
She was in my peripheral vision for a long time. She’d pop up in various cultural materials that showed up in Greek American families. I would see pictures of the Delphic Festivals: Angelos Sikelianos would be in the front and she was in the shadow. She was very eccentric in her self-created Greek dress, and a little self-effacing—giving the limelight to other people—but interesting in the persona she was creating.
In the 1990s, several books came out—her posthumously published Upward Panic, which clarified that she was at the center of the Delphic Festivals, and also a Greek translation of her love letters to Natalie Barney. And then came In Byron's Shadow, about American and other travelers to Greece, which didn’t name her at all.
I thought that we needed to start thinking about gender and who we talk about when we talk about significant figures and their effect.
What’s your favorite part of her story?
A favorite discovery has to do with Bryn Mawr: M. Carey Thomas’s letter telling Eva to evacuate her premises, that she was suspended for a year. She did something strictly forbidden in her dormitory space, but there’s a mystery: the letter doesn’t tell exactly what the forbidden thing was.
Looking at the different versions of her book manuscript, I also discovered how self-effacing she was, not as a psychological stance but as a technique of living. She was producing a variety of masks—other personas she could be in this world she was so uncomfortable in.
How do you understand that discomfort?
In the early 20th century, it was typical of intellectuals, artists who were uncomfortable with industrialism and the monetization of society to look for another way of life, and her move to Greece was part of that search.
But Eva was a wealthy American from an old New England family and should have been the most comfortable person in the world. But her same-sex desire, her connection with Natalie Barney, the rejection by family members, and the energy that went into hiding pieces of herself—all formed a very big source of discomfort.
Then, there were the shocks life brings: her father's death when she was 14, her mother’s remarriage, a brother who died of alcoholism, another who was a brilliant pianist so terrified of performing that he never had a career.
But I think that experience of being a lesbian at the turn of century was a pretty important cause.
And she continues to define herself in a kind of quiet defiance. In the 1940s, she becomes very interested in politics. She’s back in the U.S., and she has no news from Angelos or from Natalie Barney, who’s now living in Italy. So she begins to read about politics, first the war and then the Cold War—Greece was the first theater—and then her opposition becomes political.
Why do you think she is so little known today?
For one, she left behind her New York life and disappeared into Greece. And then, when she came back to the U.S., she was impoverished, and her name didn’t carry her anywhere. Plus, her work is of the kind we don’t necessarily pay attention to. She was a great weaver and won prizes for her weaving—but do we know the names of any great weavers? Maybe Anni Albers.
But the primary cause is patriarchy. We have to dig up women who were in the periphery to find out what they did. There are many, many unknown women. And she’s one of them.
What would you ask her if you had the chance?
In writing the book, I was not really interested in her psyche. She spoke very little about her emotions, but you can see her being pushed by them. I think the trip to Greece was a primary moment, and I would ask some more about that moment when she decided to go. She gives various versions of the story of how Penelope—another mystery figure about whom we have little primary evidence—inspired her.
I don’t know that I would ever get at the real reason. But I’d like to hear that story again in whatever terms she would give it to me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.