Tuesday, March 3, 2009
"The Pack Revealed"
(Here’s another installement in Eberle’s Women’s Art is Women’s Work series. This picks up immediately where the last installment ended, so if you haven’t read it, you may want to check that one out here.)
The Lamplighter was singled out for particular notice by Hawthorne among the works of the pack of scribbling women who troubled him so much. Published in 1854 and selling 40,000 copies in two months, Maria Susanna Cummins’ The Lamplighter was outsold by only one other book in nineteenth century America—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. A person does have to ask herself if it’s maybe just too much of a coincidence that commercially successful literature was being mostly written by women at the time when the idea became prevalent that popular literature must be second-best to the “real” thing. Domestic fiction, also called sentimental or women’s fiction, held sway from the 1820s into the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Several writers of the popular domestic fiction genre also wrote household handbooks and cookbooks and combined their writing careers with work in social reform movements.
African American women began publishing a wide range of literature during the nineteenth century. Books, poetry, essays, and articles by African American women were also excluded from the defined categories of “greatness” of the times. Many of these writers were powerful social activists and it is ironic, to say the least, that at a time when male writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville were considered models of progressive social philosophy and daring thought, their African American sisters, often so much more daring and merging their written philosophies with effective social activism, were disregarded almost entirely by critics forming the ideology and politics of “greatness” in literature.
Hallie Q. Brown, born in 1845, authored a collection of sixty biographies of black women born in the United States and Canada between the 1740s and 1900, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. Among these women of distinction were political and social activists, teachers, musicians, missionaries, nurses, public speakers, pioneers, a doctor, a Civil War spy, organizers, and suffragists. A number of them were also writers, or writers by proxy, including Phillis Wheatley (1754-1783), Isabella Sojourner Truth (1777?-1883), Mrs. Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1900), Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849-1916), Josephine Silone Yates (1852-1912), Susie I. Lankford Shorter (1859-1912), and Victoria Earle Matthews (1861-1898).
Hallie wrote many of the biographies in the collection using a variety of source materials and she collected others. The entry on Frances Harper (1825-1900) includes part of a letter Frances wrote about her experiences as a public speaker. Frances began writing articles at the age of fourteen and spent many years as a platform lecturer, electrifying her audiences much as Sojourner Truth was said to do. Hallie credits her with being the first African-American woman to write a novel, Iola Leroy: The Shadows Uplifted (1893.) Here’s what Harper wrote to a friend about her experience:
You would be amused to hear some of the remarks which my lectures call forth. ‘She is a man,’ again ‘She is not colored, she is white. She is painted.’ I am constantly talking and how tired I am some of the time. Still I am standing with my race on the threshold of a new era…. I am going to have a private meeting with the women. I am going to talk with them about their daughters and about things connected with the welfare of the race. Now is the time for our women to begin to try to lift up their heads and plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone.
Hallie includes events of the times in framing her selection of Frances’ writings:
The tragic and bloody deed which terminated in the capture and death of Margaret Garner in Ohio called forth the following from her pen: “Rome had her altars where the trembling criminal and the worn and weary slave might fly for an asylum; Judea her cities of refuge; but Ohio with her Bibles and churches, her baptisms and prayers, had not one temple so dedicated to human rights, one altar so consecrated to human liberty, that trampled upon and down-trodden innocence knew that it could find protection for a night, or shelter for a day.”
Hallie also describes her own meetings with some of the women in the collection, creating sketches that combine history with compelling narrative:
The compiler of this sketch visited Sojourner Truth in (her) humble home a few months before her death. Seated in a large arm chair with an open Bible on her lap, her face wreathed in smiles, she recounted many thrilling events of her long and remarkable life. So far back in history had she led us that a little girl who had been an attentive listener innocently asked, “Sojourner, did you see Adam and Eve?” As we left that heroic character she said “I isn't goin' to die, honey, Ise goin' home like a shootin' star.”
Sojourner Truth is one of the most well-known of the historic figures Hallie described. Harriet Beecher Stowe worked with Sojourner Truth and revered her as many others did; abolition was one area of social reform where women could reach across the color barrier to some degree. Lydia Child, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote fiction, books on the domestic arts, books for children, and took an active role in the fight to end slavery and for the rights of woman. Hallie includes some of Lydia Child’s biographical writing in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. The nineteenth century witnessed a remarkable surge of women involved in social reform movements, including the temperance movement as well as many movements for women’s rights-- addressing issues that ranged from women’s legal status to their undergarments, with Amelia Bloomer and the women’s dress reformers. Looking back, it seems to have happened quite suddenly-- as if upon hearing an inner voice as Sojourner Truth did, women left their hearths almost in a body and took to the streets, to pulpits and platforms, and innumerable club meetings, working with and for each other in greater numbers than ever before in history.
Several American women writers during the era of the domestic novel and its demise fit more comfortably into the categories of writing traditionally defined as worthy— the best-selling author Fanny Fern (1811-1872), for instance, received high praise from Hawthorne although her works are not well-known today. Some of the names of these authors, however, are more familiar: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), Kate Chopin (1851-1904), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), Edith Wharton (1862-1937), and Willa Cather (1873-1947).
Definitely a candidate for having the best girlhood nickname, the young Sara Parton was known among her friends as “Sal Volatile” (the common term for the smelling salts that were used to revive fainting women.) Sara Payson Willis Parton (1811-1872) was later to become well-known under her nom de plume Fanny Fern. Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio became an immediate bestseller in both America and England in 1853. Soon afterwards, she became one of the first women columnists in America.
Hallie Q. Brown quotes a George Eliot poem as seeming to “breathe the prayer” of one of the women she admired, Victoria Earle Matthews (1861-1898). Victoria was an organizer of the group that later became the National Association of Colored Women. She established a “Home for Colored Working Girls” in New York City which included a library of books by African American authors; she used these books as the basis for her course on “Race History.” Hallie quotes these words from George in her honor:
May I reach the highest heaven.
Be to other souls a cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smile that knows no cruelty,
So may I join the choir invisible,
Whose music makes the gladness of the world!
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009
Pix from top:
Title page from The Lamplighter
Title pages from Uncle Tom's Cabin
Hallie Q. Brown
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Victoria Earle Matthews
Be sure to stay tuned for more installments in this series!