MyAmericanFuture

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Friday, August 19, 2011

August 19, 2011: Writing Wrongs

One of the charges that can, with a good deal of accuracy, be leveled against many of the late 19th century’s numerous and important social movements is that they tended to exclude and even to discriminate against each other—against, that is, the beneficiaries of their fellow social movements. So, for example, the National Women’s Suffrage Association (the suffrage movement’s most prominent late 19th century organization) not only did not include African American women, but made overtly racist appeals to white Southerners in order to bolster its ranks and cause. Similarly, many of the era’s most prominent labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, often relied upon anti-black (esp. the AFL) and anti-immigrant (esp. the Knights) appeals to make their case for the needs of the particular communities of European American workers they mostly served. The practical and political rationales for these exclusions and appeals are clear and understandable, but it’s also easy to see how these kinds of circular firing squads among similarly progressive movements could be as practically and politically counterproductive as they are philosophically troubling, not least because it might lead the organizations to expend their energies (and receive attention for) attacking equally disenfranchised fellow Americans.
Perhaps social and political movements have to make such frustrating decisions; at the very least they certainly have no choice but to engage with such complex and far from ideal realities. On the other hand, works of fiction—and particularly novels within another of the late 19th century’s most significant developments, social realism—enjoy a significantly less limiting relationship to social and political realities. The best works of social realism must indeed acknowledge and engage with those realities, among others (including psychological ones), and must perhaps even create fictional characters and communities that are as constrained by those realities as their real-life contemporaries were. But in their overarching visions and constructed worlds, such novels can at the same time imagine broader and more inclusive communities, can bring together not only the Americans most affected by their chosen thematic focal points but also other Americans—both as characters within the texts and as audiences meeting and responding to them through the works—for whom the stakes of these social questions are of course ultimately just as present and salient as well. Moreover, any individual author can deal with multiple such social issues and themes across his or her works, an opportunity exemplified by the diverse and impressive career of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844-1911).
Phelps (Ward was her married name but most scholars refer to her by her maiden name) was best known in her era for a best-selling, career-spanning trilogy of spiritual novels about Christianity, Heaven, and mourning: The Gates Ajar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and Within the Gates (1901). But she was a passionate advocate for numerous social movements, especially women’s rights (she famously advocated that women burn their corsets) but also temperance, anti-poverty efforts, and animal rights (among others). And because she published more than twenty novels and dozens of stories in the course of her long career, she was able to explore each of those issues, and particularly those interconnected with women’s rights and experiences in America, with an incredible degree of breadth and depth. To highlight just three brief examples of this diversity, complexity, and quality: Phelps contributed, in 1882’s Doctor Zay, one of the best of the “woman doctor” novels about which I blogged here; her The Story of Avis (1877) creates in its titular protagonist (a very talented painter) one of America’s most detailed and powerful portrayals of the challenges of marriage and family for professional women, while also featuring numerous other distinct and equally nuanced female characters; and in the same year that The Gates Ajar launched her national career she published the short story “The Tenth of January” (1868), a gripping and terrifying rendition of an 1859 Lawrence (MA) mill fire in which dozens of young female mill workers were killed.
The social and political issues to which these texts connect are, again, as real and complex as those with which the suffragists and labor leaders engaged. And if the texts are freed from the responsibility of resolving the practical questions that such issues entail, that does not, to my mind, make them any less powerful and important as engagements with those issues; what they are, instead, are a concurrent and crucial collection of voices and sources, combining literary and historical value to produce a body of work which no AmericanStudier should ignore. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      “The Tenth of January”: http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a1730.pdf
3)      OPEN: Any authors of works you’d recommend as great at portraying complex social issues?

 

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