Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fanny Wright: Rebel in America / Celia Morris Eckhardt -- Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

I first read about Fanny Wright (1795-1852) in Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Schlesinger's description of her was intriguing, but sketchy. His occasional references to her as a champion of the working class led me look for a more thorough biography which I found in Eckhardt's Fanny Wright.

Indeed, a champion of the working class, Wright also held many views that placed her easily a century ahead of her time. In a time when "respectable" women could not allow their names to be published with their own work, Fanny Wright became a well-known author, and well-received by prominent progressive figures of her time. She maintained a long and close relationship to Jeremy Bentham, Lafayette, and Robert Dale Owen. She was respected by Jefferson and other prominent American politicians. However, her radical views on marriage and education eventually left her personally and politically isolated.

Wright was born in Scotland, raised in England, and lived for some years in France. She later travelled three times to the United States and became an American citizen. Her first significant social enterprise was to form a community in Tennessee on a plantation she called Nashoba. The community was to be modeled roughly on Robert Owen's community at New Harmony, Indiana, but Nashoba was intended foremost to emancipate slaves and prepare them for colonization in Haiti or Africa. Wright believed slavery could be gradually and peacefully abolished by establishing plantations that would out-perform those based on slave labor. Nashoba and other plantations would be based on the indentured servitude of slaves purchased by or donated to these new plantations.

Nashoba turned out to be a financial failure, due in part to Wright and her partners' inexperience in running a plantation. Furthermore, scandals related to the treatment of the Nashoba slaves and the sexual relations on the plantation compounded the obstacles to success. Eventually, Wright took her slaves to Haiti where they were freed.

The vilification of Wright by the newspapers and journals of her time was stunning. It is hard to imagine anyone standing up to such criticism, and eventually it took its toll on Wright. While publicly rejecting marriage as oppressive to women, Fanny moved to France and was secretly married after she became pregnant. Eckhardt's portrait of this period in her life suggests that she was in a deep depression which lasted several years and resulted in the end of all of her previous friendships.

Wright did eventually return to public life, touring and speaking in the United States during the late 1840s and advocating the re-election of Martin Van Buren. Her reputation, however, had spoiled any real opportunity for her to be effective. As crowds dwindled and those attending were more curious than committed, Fanny eventually retired into a private life, struggling to retain her financial solvency in her conflicts with her husband. Suffering a nervous breakdown in her last years, she died estranged from her daughter and attended only by maids.

Eckhardt's portrait of Wright goes well beyond a factually reliable account and details Wright's inner life and motivations. While this make the book extremely interesting, it sometimes slips into speculative psychologizing. It isn't clear from the end notes how well founded this speculation is. Over all, the work is a sympathetic -- but not uncritical -- examination of an extremely interesting historical figure. Clearly, Wright's talents and determination to advance the cause of liberty everywhere allowed her to achieve more than women could ever hope during her lifetime. Her actions, while damaging to herself, broke seemingly impenetrable ground for women in Europe and the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment