Nellie Arnott's Writings on Angola, 1905-1913: Missionary Narratives Linking Africa and America. By Sarah Robbins and Ann Ellis Pullen. Anderson: Parlor Press, 2011. xliv + 337 pp. $65.00 cloth/$32.00 paper.
Reviewed by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Siena College
Born into a Congregationalist family in Minnesota in 1873, Nellie Arnott graduated from high school in Illinois, worked five years as a home missionary in Georgia and Mississippi, and, after studying at the Moody Bible Institute and Oberlin College and a period in New York State to remedy a health problem, embarked for Portuguese West Africa in 1905 as a missionary. Her brief career in Africa ended just eight years later. While home on leave in 1913, she married an old friend and settled down to obscurity in California.
These are the bare biographical bones of one of the thousands of unheralded participants in the American women's missionary movement. Yet, at the turn of the twentieth century, Arnott was a household name within a small, widely scattered, yet dedicated community of women readers. Supporters of foreign missions eagerly sought her byline in missionary periodicals.
By unearthing Arnott's writings, Sarah Robbins and Ann Ellis Pullen have done more than recover a life. They trace Arnott's development as a writer, highlight her participation in a transnational network of writers and readers, and show how her narratives helped to shape the imagination of new constituencies of American supporters for Protestant missions in Africa. In the process, the authors demonstrate the relevance of a transnational women's literacy network as "a key site of American culture-making" in the early twentieth century (xv). They argue that Arnott and other women missionaries operated in social networks based on accepted literacy practices that turned them into "early practitioners of global communications bound up with both nation-enhancing and transnational social goals" (xxxii).
By the time Arnott traveled to Africa, sponsored by the Congregationalist Woman's Board of Missions of the Interior (WBMI, affiliated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions), two-thirds of all American Protestant missionaries were women. They were aware that all but their most private correspondence might find its way into public forums. They wrote in several different genres and for a variety of audiences and purposes. Their writings have provided the foundation for individual biographies and wide-ranging histories of the women's missionary movement. Robbins and Pullen are interested in Arnott's experiences, but they are more Concerned with examining how Arnott and the managers of the WBMI represented themselves and their work in Africa to their readers in the United States.
One of the book's strengths is its organizational structure. The first part offers a critical analysis in three chapters, in which the authors provide a biographical sketch of Arnott's life, a historical background of the American missionary enterprise in Portuguese West Africa as context for her narratives, and a literary analysis of her texts situated within scholarship on travel writing. In the second part, Robbins and Pullen include a selection of Arnott's writings, inviting readers to connect the previous section's analysis with these texts. In an appendix, the authors highlight the editorial revisions that WBMI managers made to Arnott's works. …