American writers as critics of war, women’s status & slavery: Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller

Length: 857 words

All the authors in the title have made key contributions to American literature, culture and politics. They used their literary talent as a means to not only create art but also to transform society. The 19th century was a period of great upheavals in American history. The nation was still young and uncertain of its own identity. It is quite natural that this milieu gave rise to several undercurrents of unrest. On the political front was class struggle between the propertied and un-propertied whites. In terms of social equations, the blacks were hoping for the abolishment of slavery. Women were still thought of as ‘property’ of their fathers or husbands or sons, let alone having the right to vote. In terms of general culture, the population was highly illiterate. It is these pressing issues that writers such as Melville, Douglass and Fuller sought to address through their work. It can be claimed that their efforts were not in vain, given how much the country has progressed in all the areas of their concern. This essay will offer arguments and evidences in support of this claim.

Margaret Fuller’s adopts a novel method of advocating equality between the sexes. She makes reference to Christian

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theological texts in claiming equality between man and woman in the eyes of God. She had strong faith in transcendentalism, whose philosophy purports to help the individual toward enlightenment. To fully understand the merit and influence of Fuller’s work, one will have to place it in its socio-cultural context. Writing at a time when women were not allowed access to education, let alone write and publish under their own names, Fuller makes a bold pitch for equality of the sexes. Through apt allusions to religious texts, historical documents, political theories and philosophical concepts, Fuller builds a powerful case for equality between men and women. She addresses the text to men in an effort to make them see the virtues and benefits of treating women as their peers. She persuades them to see the numerous benefits to society that women empowered with intellectual and social freedom would bring. On top of being beneficiaries of the bounties that would result through women’s emancipation, men also stand to gain divine grace. For equality, between sexes as it is between races, is a divine mandate.

It is no coincidence that Great Lawsuit was conceived and written at a time when similar currents of thought were emerging with respect to the issue of slavery. Popularly called Abolitionism, the social movement to overthrow the institution of slavery is similar in spirit to the fight for equality of women. This brings us to the work of Frederick Douglass, whose speech titled ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’, is a passionate oration on the plight of black slaves in pre Civil War America. Delivered in 1852 the speech is elaborate and rationale but also emotionally touching.

Douglass begins his speech by highlighting the virtues of the Founding Fathers and their thrust for independence from the British Crown. He notes that the idea of attempting to establish sovereignty by breaking away from the British command was indeed very brave and revolutionary. Having identified and praised what is meritorious about the short history of the American nation, Douglass declares how these achievements are offset by a perennial negative feature of American society – namely black slavery. Douglass’ tone is one of deliberate and measured rationality and inquiry. He punctuates his speech with numerous historical references that justify his plea of equality for blacks.

Frederick Douglass delivered his speech a decade before the onset of the Civil War – a time when blacks did not even have the nominal status of freedom. An overwhelming majority of the community is slaves and led a harsh and laborious life. For this reason, Douglass declares, the Fourth of July is a day of celebration for ‘you’ (White Americans) and not ‘us’ (Black Americans). The condition of the black community in America has not seen any improvement in the eight decades of independence that has preceded the date of his speech. Douglass is quite right in feeling about his community this way. There is no reason for rejoicing for his community till they win civil rights on par with that of white Americans.

Herman Melville’s poetry anthology Battle Pieces and the Aspects of War comprise his philosophical meditations. Although not popular during Melville’s lifetime, the work has since acquired a reputation as a classic. Comparable to the more famous Moby Dick in terms of philosophical rigor, the work contains plenty of comment on the human and social condition. The theme of war is the focus of the work, as Melville probes the meaning, utility and the consequences of war. Writing as he did in the aftermath of the Civil War, the authorial view is one of cynicism toward the enterprise of war. Through the various questions posed in the verse, Melville hints at the futility of war. This view is not out of place when one takes into account the benefits brought by the end of the war to the nation’s politics and society.

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