Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Miss Martineau and the Martyr Age

Anna Jameson (1794-1860)

Last week’s essay about an icon (a real, painted one) set me to thinking briefly about Anna Jameson, an early Victorian “independent scholar” (to use the current term) who introduced me to the fascinating topic of Christian iconography long before I had developed any serious leanings toward Medieval Studies.  Two of her books in particular—Sacred and Legendary Art and Legends of the Monastic Orders—opened up for me a world of early European painting years before I would ever lay eyes on an actual painting.

So persistent was the male domination of her cultural world that her title pages generally identified the author as “Mrs. Jameson”.   That put her in the same class with several other Victorian writers I stumbled upon in my early years, including the poet “Mrs. Hemans,” the novelist “Mrs. Humphry Ward,” and the novelist and popular historian “Mrs. Oliphant”.  Anna’s most famous work, a study of Shakespeare’s heroines, is enjoying a revival in the feminist turn taken by literary study.

One thing (Anna Jameson) leads to another (Harriet Martineau).  During the week I was surprised to come upon a review from the pen Henry James of a biography of Anna Jameson (1878).*  The biographer was Anna’s niece Geraldine Macpherson, one of whose principal motives, according to James, was to do “justice to a memory cruelly disparaged by that very heavy-handed genius, Miss Martineau…”  A “very heavy-handed genius” being even more intriguing than a “very stable genius”, this naturally sent me off to search for some cruel disparagement in the pages of Harriet Martineau’s memoirs.

         (Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876)

But I never got there, having been providentially sidetracked by an extraordinary essay by Martineau entitled “The Martyr Age of the United States”.  There are not too many obscure nineteenth-century journal articles that every thoughtful American ought to have read, but I dare suggest this is one of them.  Martineau published it in the December, 1838, number of the London and Westminster Review.  She had made a long visit to the United States in the 1830s, her fame preceding her.  Her fabulously successful Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) was a great international best-seller, which in its sales left the novels of Dickens in the dust.  

Ostensibly “The Martyr Age” is a review of three anonymous pamphlets she attributes to the Boston abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, each entitled “Right and Wrong in Boston in ---,” the blank being filled by the dates 1835, 1836, and 1837.  It is actually a spirited account of the principal abolitionists in New England, their character, their modus operandi, and their tribulations.  Martineau hardly suppresses her own attitudes toward chattel slavery, but she writes as a sociologist, not as a polemicist.  “There is a remarkable set of people now living and vigorously acting in the world, with a consonance of will and understanding which has perhaps never been witnessed among so large a number of individuals of such diversified powers, habits, opinions, tastes and circumstances,” she writes.  “A well-grounded faith, directed towards a noble object, is the only principle which can account for such a spectacle as the world is now waking up to contemplate in the abolitionists of the United States.”

Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885)

While is it historically inspiring that a woman of Martineau’s moral character could so praise a large group of our American forebears, there is a cascade of less welcome news around the edges.  Some of the sobering facts that a reader picks up incidentally in reading the essay include the following.  She entitles her piece “Martyr Age” because of the great physical danger that faced public opponents of slavery not in Charleston or New Orleans but in Boston and New York.  Abolitionist meetings in the North were frequently barracked and mobbed, sometimes with lethal violence.

The abolitionist movement, though broadly based, is extraordinary for its female leaders.  Such famous male abolitions as William Lloyd Garrison and the Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing were generally shunned by elected politicians (all of whom were of course male).  The abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly and explicitly Christian in its inspiration, but it was vehemently deplored by many church leaders.  As at so many other moments of social crisis, the conflict tended to be “generational”, and in a way that sheds little honor on the elders.  At a Presbyterian seminary in Cincinnati (Lane) virtually the entire student body was expelled by a scandalized faculty—the offense being the public endorsement of the words of Jesus and Paul.  Large swaths of the white population of the northern states opposed slavery but were more or less enthusiastic proponents of various “resettlement” schemes, often thinly disguised efforts to transport as much of the black population as possible to Africa!  Even among highly educated Americans belief in the social equality of black and white, even of its eventual possibility, was exceedingly rare.  That is another way of saying that white supremacy was the national default.

  Martineau reports that in 1834 a group of “Young Men” in New York City “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, (in the language and spirit of the Declaration of Independence), to overthrow slavery by moral assault, or to die in the attempt.”  Whether Henry James would hold that Harriet Martineau is “heavy-handed” in her essay on “The Martyr Age of the United States” I cannot say for certain.  But given its power to startle and shame an American reader a hundred and eighty years later, and to remind us that the “words and spirit” of the Declaration still await plenary fulfillment, I’d say that heavy-handedness is perhaps a virtue.  I’ll have to wait for another day to find out what Miss Martineau said about Mrs. Jameson.

*Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature /American Writers/English Writers (Library of America, 22),  pp. 1067-68.