Reform (American History Through Literature)
Material and political changes transformed America at a dizzying pace in the 1820s and 1830s. The expansion of industrialization, the creation of roads and canals to connect manufacturers to new markets, westward migration, a prolonged period of economic depression following the panic of 1837, and the broadening of voting rights triggered vast social upheavals. Reform movements were often attempts to cope with the consequences of these changes. Some movements wanted reform of institutions like prisons, schools, and asylums. Others looked to individual regeneration to transform the whole society. Some reformers drew attention to a particular group's suffering: Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1840), for example, pressed for expanded legal rights for sailors. Others, like the founders of Brook Farm, sought "radical and universal reform."
A powerful source of reform emerged from the Second Great Awakening, the religious revivals sweeping the nation from the 1790s through the 1820s. Like the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, this series of revivals emphasized individual, often emotional religious experiences. Yet unlike the first period of revival, the Second Great Awakening had an even broader impact. The disestablishment of religion in the early national period and the deism associated with America's founding fathers (that is, their belief in the power of reason and the existence of a Supreme Creator and their skepticism about supernatural religious explanations) seemed to threaten the nation's Protestant moral foundation. Moreover, many Christians attributed certain social ills (drinking, dueling, disregard for the Sabbath, and the like) to Chris-tianity's decline. Ministers such as Lyman Beecher (1775863) and Charles Grandison Finney (1792875) responded with messages about wickedness, conversion, and the imminent return of Christ. Moving away from the Calvinist doctrines (such as predestination) associated with the initial Great Awakening, they preached individual moral agency and personal salvation, moral improvement and perfection, and a responsibility to hasten the coming of God's Kingdom.
These religious ideas contributed to the desire for reform and creation of voluntary benevolent societies such as the American Education Society (1815), American Bible Society (1816), and American Tract Society (1825). These organizations distributed religious literatures, but their members also led efforts to stem Sabbath-breaking, drinking, and other forms of vice. Various female moral reform societies focused on ending prostitution, sexual exploitation, and the sexual double standard. The ostensibly moral concern with sexual vice also helped justify the not-so-pious demand for reform literature featuring fallen and wronged women in texts like Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures (1836) and George Foster's New York by Gas-Light (1850).
Evangelical reformers also played important roles in other reform movements. Theodore Dwight Weld (1803895), a disciple of Finney, began his career distributing tracts and preaching against strong drink. In 1829 Weld shifted his efforts to the campaign against slavery and authored two antislavery classics, The Bible against Slavery (1837), which dismantled biblical pro-slavery arguments, and American Slavery As It Is (1839), the text that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) to write Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851852).
Evangelical reform spread popular literature as tracts, sermons, Sunday school books, and temperance testimonies. The revivals also had an important influence on developments in literary style. Religious writings became more emotional and imaginative, formally less rigid, and theologically less rigorous. Antebellum religious texts began to rely on vivid narratives to illustrate, edify, and entertain. This "new religious style," as David S. Reynolds calls it in his study Beneath the American Renaissance (p. 15), reshaped not only evangelical writing but also the style of liberal reformers, popular writers, and transcendentalists.
Like evangelical reformers, transcendentalists emphasized moral perfectionism, individual moral agency, and the possibilities for a new social order. The transcendentalists, however, developed a radically individualistic form of perfectionism that looked with suspicion on institutions like churches and reform organizations that would impede self-culture. In his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) urges the individual to "Trust thyself" (p. 260) and to see "Society . . . in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of it members" (p. 261). Faith in the personal nature of one's salvation and distrust in social institutions were not inconsistent with evangelical reform, but Emerson took these ideas in a fresh direction. Nonconformity becomes a requirement for selfhood: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" (p. 261). And conventional moral categories become subjective constructions: "Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this" (p. 262). Such reliance on oneself poses a danger to reform because it means opposition to collective action that might sway one from his or her individual path. Thus, Emerson distrusts the "foolish philanthropist" and those clothed in the "bountiful cause of Abolition" (p. 262). Henry David Thoreau (1817862) was an even harsher critic, diagnosing reformers as "sick" (p. 181) in "Reform and the Reformers" (1844) and calling philanthropy "greatly overrated" (p. 52) in Walden (1854). To many reformers, these transcendentalists were pretty poor activists. Their idealist thinking lent itself to social critique but not social action, and their affirmation of individual integrity looked like a pointless self-absorption. In "The Transcendentalist" (1842), Emerson acknowledges such criticism: "The philanthropists inquire whether Transcendentalism does not mean sloth" (p. 203).
Despite their ambivalence about reform, transcendentalists were among the most significant reformers in American history. At times, Emerson embraced reform without hesitation. In "Man the Reformer" (1841), reformers become transcendentalist heroes: "What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good?" (p. 146). On certain humanitarian issues, Emerson joined the public fray. In a public letter to President Martin Van Buren (1838), he protests the government's removal of Cherokee Indians from their lands in Mississippi and Georgia. Native Americans were not the focus of a major antebellum reform movement, but the horrific history of white-Indian relations did provoke writers such as Emerson, Lydia Maria Child in Hobomok (1824), and Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Hope Leslie (1827) to draw attention to the unjust treatment of American Indians. Although he avoided public comments on slavery for several years, Emerson spoke in support of abolition in the 1840s and later threw himself into the increasingly fierce battles over slavery with addresses on the radical abolitionist John Brown (in 1859) and the Fugitive Slave Law (in 1854), the harsh federal law passed in 1850 requiring northern states to return runaway slaves.
Despite its sharp criticism of reformers, Walden has long been recognized as a reform classic because of its anti-authoritarian stands, its criticism of society's corrupting influence, and its insistence that reform begin with the individual. Instead of joining those who were "hacking at the branches of evil," Thoreau in Walden was "striking at the root" of social wrongs (p. 51). A committed abolitionist and ardent admirer of John Brown, Thoreau opposed the imperialistic Mexican-American War and refused to pay his poll tax in protest. This act of civil disobedience led to a night in jail and the most famous reform essay in American literature, "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849). In that work, Thoreau defends those who would disobey "unjust laws" (p. 233) and resist morally bankrupt governments. He seeks instead the development of democracy redefined in terms of "progress toward a true respect for the individual" (p. 245).
Other transcendentalists were typically less contrary about reform. In "The Laboring Classes" (1840), Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803876) examines the exploitation of the working classes and argues, "men are rewarded in an inverse ratio to the amount of actual service they perform" (p. 255). To correct problems created by class hierarchy, he advocates radical reform of the economy and state, one that includes the abolition of inherited wealth, by force if necessary. Although he would eventually abandon transcendentalism for Catholicism, Brownson's essay and his journal, the Boston Quarterly Review (which enthusiastically championed transcendentalism), defend the individual against the corrupting influences of a damaged civilization. Concern with workers, economics, and poverty inspired a number of nontranscendental authors as well. In The Quaker City (1844845), the reform-minded George Lippard (1822854) uses lurid images and sensationalistic plot lines to attack social injustice. The dramatist Dion Boucicault (1820 or 1822890) exposes the poverty of urban tenement life in his play The Poor of New York (1857), which takes place during the panics of 1837 and 1857.
Another radical transcendentalist of the 1840s, Margaret Fuller (1810850), championed the equality of the sexes. The editor of The Dial from 1840 to 1842, Fuller published her pioneering feminist essay "The Great Lawsuit" in 1843. A hopeful and learned tour de force, "The Great Lawsuit" provides an androgynous image of the soul: "There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman" (p. 418). Such a vision supports her contention that the social restriction of women because of their wrongly imagined difference from men should be removed: "We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man" (p. 394). In 1845 she expanded the essay into the feminist classic, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In 1844 Fuller left parochial New England to work as a book review editor for Horace Greeley's New-York Daily Tribune. In 1846 she became a foreign correspondent and saw Europe on the brink of and in the thrall of the Revolutions of 1848. In a series of thirty-seven dispatches, she shared these experiences and her reflections on them. During three whirlwind years in Europen which she had a son, married an Italian aristocrat named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and participated in the Italian revolution of 1848849uller developed a perspective on reform more expansive and radical than her transcendentalist friends had ever imagined. In 1850, as she was returning to the United States with her manuscript on the history of the revolution in Italy, her ship wrecked off Fire Island, New York, claiming the lives of Fuller, Ossoli, and their son, Angelino.
An important expression of reform fervor appeared in the utopian communities that flourished during the period. New communities had been established prior to the 1820s; the famously chaste Shakers, for example, founded their first settlement in 1787. After the war of 1812, many more groups created their own communities, perhaps more than a hundred before the Civil War. Many were religious, such as the Mormons, brought into existence by Joseph Smith (1805844) in 1830. Others were secular and socialist. Robert Owen (1771858), a Scottish industrialist and the author of A New View of Society (1813), started the egalitarian New Harmony settlement in rural Indiana in 1825. More than thirty communities across the United States were established using the elaborate and meticulously detailed ideas of the French utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier (1772837). Other new communities blended unconventional religious ideas with worldly concerns. John Humphrey Noyes (1811886), committed to evangelical perfectionism and to a "communism in love," founded a utopian community in 1837 and moved it to Oneida, New York, in 1848.
Two utopian communities, Brook Farm (1841847) and Fruitlands (1843), had transcendentalist origins. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799888), with British disciples Charles Lane (1800870) and Henry Gardner Wright (b. 1814), established their community, Fruitlands, on a ninety-acre farm near Harvard, Massachusetts. Based on high principles and various forms of self-denial, Fruitlands lasted just eight months. According to "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), Louisa May Alcott's (1832888) memoir of life at Fruitlands, the men who led this utopia "said many wise things and did many foolish ones," including a nobly reasoned abandonment of farm work: "the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence" (p. 548). For Louisa May Alcott, Fruitlands is a symbol of utopian idealism's practical failure, although she sees such failure with irony and sympathy: "The world was not ready for Utopia yet, and those who attempted to found it only got laughed at for their pains" (p. 549).
Longer-lived than Fruitlands, Brook Farm became a remarkable part of American literary history by attracting the interest of thinkers and writers. Emerson thought carefully about moving there before deciding against it, while Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) did join. George Ripley (1802880) and his supporters established Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, about eight miles from Boston. Convinced that their community could be an example for the rest of society, the Brook Farmers embarked on a seven-year experiment that blended communal life with respect for individual freedom, manual labor with intellectual pursuits, and utopian idealism with practical existence.
Hawthorne's letters show that he was dismayed by the endless labor and lack of writing time. Leaving after seven months, he transformed his experiences into one of the most important American novels about reform, The Blithedale Romance (1852). The narrator is the ambivalent, reclusive, but voyeuristic Miles Coverdale. Despite his initial hopes about "the blessed state of brotherhood and sisterhood" (p. 46) at Blithedale, he soon develops grave doubts: "we stood in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood" (p. 52). Hawthorne's picture of reform, particularly in its attention to Hollingsworth, reveals the ways philanthropic zeal can transform a reformer into a "monster" (p. 88) and "godlike benevolence" into an "all-devouring egotism" (p. 89). Hawthorne's attitude toward reform, filtered through the consciousness of his unreliable and hesitant narrator, seems pessimistic. The Blithedale Romance is not, however, simply an antiphilanthropic warning but rather a complex meditation on gender, programs for change, and the motivations of reformers.
REFORMING THE BODY AND MIND
Linked to evangelical, transcendentalist, and communitarian reform ideals were a multitude of attempts to improve minds, bodies, and souls through education and healthy living. Despite his failure at Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott was one of the preeminent educational theorists of the era. Seeing children as inherently good and education as the cultivation of their innate morality and inner selves, he insisted that "Instruction must be an Inspiration" (p. 18). In 1834, with teaching assistance from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804894), the sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, Alcott opened a school in Boston's Masonic Temple and began to practice what he preached. In an era of rote memorization, his pedagogy emphasized conversation, art, storytelling, and journal writing in comfortable classrooms full of light and air. He criticized corporal punishment and advocated discipline in which students took an active role. He was also an advocate of active learning involving games, exercise, and hands-on lessons. Peabody's Record of a School (1835) and Alcott's Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836837) document their pedagogical innovations, but they also generated a public outcry that led to the school's demise in 1838.
Other educational reformers experienced more sustained success. Massachusetts's Horace Mann led the fight to create a nonsectarian and free public education. He helped establish the first teacher-training school, campaigned for public financing of schools, and championed compulsory school attendance laws. Through his nonfictionis biweekly Common School Journal (founded in 1838) and advice book for young men, A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1850)ann's influence became national. Free public education and compulsory attendance laws soon became confirmed parts of American society.
Peabody, Alcott's colleague and Mann's sister-inlaw, was another important educational reformer. Influenced by Alcott and Friedrich Froebel (1782852), the leader of the German kindergarten movement, she promoted American kindergartens and an organic approach to early childhood education that emphasized the distinctiveness of each child and cultivation of children's inner natures. In 1862 she published "Kindergartenhat Is it?" and followed up with the Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide (1863), coauthored with her sister Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (1806887).
Like the progressive educators who promoted physical activity in schools, reformers also championed exercise, healthy living, and what historians have called "body reforms," linking them typically to moral and religious beliefs. Sylvester Graham (1794851)ost famous for the cracker named after himromoted a system for clean living that included regular exercise, frequent bathing, sexual restraint, and a plain diet with no meat, spices, alcoholic beverages, or coffee. In his crusade against overstimulation, Graham delivered numerous lectures, including his anti-masturbation guide, A Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity (1834), and collected them in a two-volume Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1839). Water cures, or hydropathy method for curing physical and mental ills by cleansing the body, internally and externally, with generous amounts of pure waterecame an important focus for health reformers in the mid-nineteenth century. In books such as Water-Cure for Ladies (1844), Marie Louise Shew (c. 1821 or 1822877) and Joel Shew (1816855) advocated Graham-like dieting and bathing practices. Mary Gove Nichols (1810884) also devoted herself to the campaign for hydropathy and later authored an autobiographical novel about her reform experiences, titled Mary Lyndon; or, Revelations of a Life (1855). William Andrus Alcott (1798859) urged not only cold baths and vegetarianism but also a host of other self-help practices from right reading and good manners to temperance and "purity" in a series of popular advice books.
Orson Squire Fowler (1809887) and Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811896) made their contribution to physiological reform in America by popularizing phrenologyhe study of human skulls to determine character and health. With its lessons and drawings illustrating how physiognomy revealed personality, their Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (1849) became a widely read self-help book. Phrenology drew the attention of writers including Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe. The very jargon of this pseudoscience made its way into Walt Whitman's (1819892) poems. With phrenological terms like "amativeness" (meaning sexual love between a husband and wife) and "adhesiveness" (friendship or sociability, but also, in Whitman's use, love between men), Whitman found a vocabulary to describe the kinds of love he celebrates in his Calamus and Children of Adam poems, first published in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860).
Temperance was the leading nineteenth-century reform movement advocating healthy restraint. With origins in the eighteenth century, the temperance movement had gradually established thousands of antidrinking associations by the 1830s. As the movement grew, a large and varied popular literature opposed to heavy drinking emerged. Early temperance classics were often simple moral tales. In Lucius Manlius Sargent's My Mother's Gold Ring (1833), the ring of the protagonist's dead mother helps him conquer his desire for spirits. Lydia Sigourney encourages readers to "Drink deep, but only water" (p. 77) in her temperance poetry from Water-Drops (1848). Other temperance works conjure more sinister visions. George Barrell Cheever's notorious Deacon Giles' Distillery (1835) paints an imaginative image of cloven-hoofed demons producing liquor in a distillery owned by a Unitarian deacon. Author of An Autobiography (1845), John Bartholomew Gough, an alcoholic turned temperance lecturer, became known for his moving if gruesome stories of heavy drinking. Melodrama also played an important role. Temperance plays feature villains who tempt characters into drinking. The dramatic plots of these plays move from indulgence to disaster and despair to redemption. Sensationalistic scenes of alcoholism were often the highlight of such dramas. In William Henry Smith's The Drunkard (1844), for example, Edward, "On ground in delirium," struggles with imaginary snakes and cries, "how they coil round me" (p. 290).
The most famous temperance author was Timothy Shay Arthur (1809885), who began his career with a set of journalistic "Temperance Tales" titled Six Nights with the Washingtonians (1842). He published in 1854 the phenomenally successful Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, a novel that illustrates how drinking is both a domestic and social problem. Ten Nights narrates Cedarville's decline following the introduction of a tavern, but it is also a story of the Morgan family's tragedy and partial redemption. In one of her attempts to retrieve her father from the saloon, Mary Morgan is fatally struck by a flying glass tumbler. Before taking her final breath, however, she wins from her father his pledge, "Never to drink a drop of liquor as long as I live" (p. 75). William W. Pratt's 1858 adaptation of the novel became a stage hit.
Antebellum temperance also left its mark on authors not so immediately identified with the movement. Hawthorne authored a temperance tale, "A Rill from the Town Pump" (1835), although it throws an ironically critical glance on temperance zealots. Franklin Evans (1842), Whitman's contribution to temperance, tells the story of an orphan whose drinking leads to a series of calamitous events. In stories such as "The Black Cat" (1843) and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), Poe, a member of the Sons of Temperance, demonstrates his mastery of temperance themes and images but emphasizes the horror and despair of addiction over the possibility of recovery.
Like temperance, the antislavery movement had a major cultural influence on antebellum America. With the militant assault on slavery in David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) and the inaugural issue (1 January 1831) of William Lloyd Garrison's (1805879) incendiary newspaper The Liberator, abolitionism entered a new, more radical phase. In fiery speeches denouncing slavery and a corrupt American government, white orators like Garrison and the eloquent Wendell Phillips (1811884) demand unconditional emancipation. Despite widespread antebellum wariness about women who took an active role in public life, women contributed substantially to the antislavery movement and its literature. As daring and emotional as Garrison's orations, if not as harsh, Lydia Maria Child's (1802880) An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) uses a carefully reasoned argument and extensive research into slavery and its history in her call for emancipation. Angelina Emily Grimké's (1805879) Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) argues that slavery is a sin and makes an evangelical appeal to southern women to support slavery's abolition as part of their Christian duty.
African American antislavery activists such as Frederick Douglass (1818895) were powerful critics not only of slavery but also of racism and the paternalism of white reformers. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass directs his sharp, often sarcastic criticism at slaveholders, Christianity, and the racism of white northerners. In his orations, he takes on equally controversial topics, condemning the Constitution, the hypocrisy of the flag, and the Fourth of July, to make his antislavery point. In "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (1852), Douglass reminds his audience that the Fugitive Slave Law has made the entire United States complicit with slavery and declares unequivocally, "There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States" (p. 127). A number of former slaves stirred the movement with written accounts of their lives in and flights from slavery. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813897) combines antislavery rhetoric with elements of sentimentalism to illustrate the insidious sexual exploitation of enslaved women, while Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) tells the story of William and Ellen Craft's bold escape (Ellen disguises herself as a white man, while William plays her servant).
Fiction assumed an important place in the anti-slavery literature of the 1850s. Less radical than Douglass or Garrison, Stowe produced the most influential antislavery text, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a sprawling and contradictory but deeply compelling novel that intertwines stories of slaves, escaped slaves, slaveholders, and abolitionists. Looking for a peaceful resolution of slavery, Stowe wants to show readers the humanity of African Americans (and slaveholders) and the wickedness of slavery. The novel's enormous popularity (the second-best-selling book of the century, behind only the Bible) only exacerbated tensions between the North and South, tensions that led to the bloody Civil War that did end slavery. Several antislavery novels followed Stowe's, including the first novel published by an African American author, William Wells Brown's (c. 1814884) Clotel (1853), a story about Thomas Jefferson, his African American mistress, and their two daughters.
THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT
Women's participation in abolitionism led to a heightened realization that gendered structures of power were also in need of transformation. When their anti-slavery activism made them public figures, Angelina Emily Grimké and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792873) exposed themselves to criticism that they were acting outside women's proper sphere. In Letters to Catherine E. Beecher (1838), Angelina responded with a powerful feminist argument emphasizing women's moral agency and the evil in distinguishing, morally, between male and female. Sarah followed up with Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1838), a theologically grounded defense of gender equality and women's agency. Although they are not the first feminist works in American literary history, the Grimkés's texts provided a rhetoric and an example that would prepare the way for the women's rights activists who organized the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and produced the landmark Declaration of Sentiments, which was authored primarily by the renowned Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815902).
The increasing public awareness of women's oppression and the demand for change shaped ante-bellum American writing in direct and indirect ways. Writers like Stanton, Fuller, and the Grimkés were reformers engaged in the transformation of American society; they used their nonfiction to persuade hearts and convince minds. Conversely, Frances Sargent Osgood (1811850) was not politically progressive, but her poetry subverts conventional notions of femininity in ironic, amusing, and sensual ways. Like Osgood, Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton, 1811872) was not an organizer. Yet her writingsrom her novels Ruth Hall (1855) and Rose Clark (1856) to her newspaper columns collected in a series of books from Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio (1853) to Caper-Sauce (1872)se humor and sentiment to document the mistreatment of women and to satirize the social and legal conditions that reinforced this oppression. Despite the mainstream expectation that women devote themselves to domestic, not public, affairs, American women writers like Fern, Stowe, Susan Warner, Maria Susanna Cummins, and others experienced extraordinary success in the 1850s, selling huge numbers of books and opening the literary marketplace for women.
The women's rights movement saw its most significant success in 1920 when women were finally given the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Temperance too carried on throughout the nineteenth century and experienced its greatest triumph in the next century with the 1919 passage of Prohibition. Yet the reform impulse that inspired so many movements was clearly in decline in the years leading up to the Civil War. As utopian communities failed, slavery persisted, and moral perfectionism seemed increasingly remote, reformers gradually abandoned the hope of a glorious moral reformation of the American people. During the war itself, humanitarians turned to large, bureaucratic institutions, like the United States Sanitary Commission, to relieve suffering. As new ideals such as centralization and efficiency replaced faith in moral suasion, postbellum reformers looked increasingly to electoral politics, legislation, and institutions to accomplish their social aims.
See also Abolitionist Writing; The Blithedale Romance; Declaration of Sentiments; Education; Evangelicals; Feminism; Health and Medicine; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes; Seneca Falls Convention; Sensational Fiction; Slave Narratives; Suffrage; Temperance; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin; Utopian Communities
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