The role of plays, essays, and fiction in literature during an antebellum America served to provide proof, trust, invoke emotion, and add value to the experiences and lives of those authoring the pieces. Writers such as Fanny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson wrote through antebellum America, the Civil War, and post bellum eras documenting, defining, highlighting, and changing view points to readers looking to understand and heal through a tumultuous time in American history. Can you relate? I know I can. As we look at the news and wonder how we got to where we are, we must remember everything started somewhere. Knowing who spoke up before us means having a rock to lean against when the seas get rough and push us against the rocks. Here are just a few of those people who shared their stories and spoke up when as a woman or a Native was considered taboo and unholy. Which sadly, is not so different today.
Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton)
Under the pseudonym “Franny Fern,” Sarah Willis Parton wrote about and addressed the issues that faced “women writers who were also wives and mothers.” (Baym, 2012) Parton applied “Franklinesque and Emersonian notions of industry and self-reliance to women’s lives,” when she wrote as a novelist and a newspaper columnist. (Baym, 2012) Issues such as marriage, divorce, politics, prison reform, inequality, poverty, gender, and “woman’s suffrage” were yet to be accepted as topics to be written about, much less by a woman. (Baym, 2012) Eventually mastering the “ironic vignette,” Parton addressed issues that were considered taboo, forcing them into the spotlight in order to change their social status.
Parton challenged her brother and all other patriarchal ideologies that boxed in the idea of what it meant to be a woman in antebellum America. Instead of waiting for permission or listening to the rhetoric, Parton used her pseudonym to gain access to the male-dominated field of journalism and publishing to showcase her talents. Parton provided proof, invoke emotion, and add value to her experiences gaining the trust of her readers in a way that had not been done before. Franny Fern was born.
Black Hawk “dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter living at Fort Armstrong. The Life of Black Hawk was published in 1833.” (Black Hawk, n.d.) In 1828 life around Black Hawk changed when “white settlers began to move into Saukenuk and its vicinity.” (Black Hawk, n.d.) Black Hawk saw himself aligning with the British time and time again during the battles that overtook the Native American’s.
Unhappy with the land and tribe losses, Black Hawk wanted to retake his lost lands and in 1832 ignored all laws put into place for assigned reservations for his people and sparked the war in his own name. Black Hawk was considered an outcast to his own people he was also considered an admirable character by the European Americans changing how they saw Native Americans. During one of the battles of the war in his name, Black Hawk was taken prisoner and moved east. The Civil War time in America brought unlikely strangers together, such as Black Hawk with “President Jackson,” which lead to his return to his people to be a productive citizen. (Baym, 2012) Black Hawk had a way of working with the Europeans throughout his life and a rapport was already established with how he would conduct himself with the founding fathers of the new America. Black Hawk established an ethos with the Europeans that was not precedent prior to this. When Black Hawk decided to write about his experiences and have his experiences documented and shared, his addition to American Literature was a game changer. Native American stories had previously been documented, but not of this caliber. Black Hawk took storytelling and autobiography techniques and told his story, which included many sides of the coin in his experiences. Black Hawk created a dialogue that had been missing from American Literature until he added himself into the literary cannon, quite possibly without even realizing it at the time.
Since Jacobs was tasked with trying to bring light to a dark areas of taboo subjects, such as rape, she had to tread carefully to construct her literary voice. When Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853, it was under a pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. Jacobs needed to bring her narrative to the attention of anti-slavery white women. Something the founding fathers nor the slave narratives previously did. Inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacobs wrote her narrative story to change the social acceptance of men that were forcing themselves upon women. Something beyond what Stowe had addressed with her novel.
Jacobs encountered several advantages throughout her journey that led up to her publication. “Born into slavery, Jacobs still was taught to read at an early age,” then worked in New York in an “antislavery reading room above Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star.” (Harriet, 2015) Once she refused upon becoming an orphan to become a concubine, Jacobs battle to become who we know her to be today was an all out war on her simply because of her heritage. Jacobs did not write her stories to change the patriarchal system by attacking the men who were attacking the women, but instead appealed to the white women who had elevated privilege above her own skin color and who possibly could relate from a maternal source within that ultimately would change the patriarchal system.
Harried Jacobs was “the first African-American woman known to have authored a slave narrative in the United States. “ (Baym, 2012) Even though her writings were viewed as fiction until verified as autobiographical many decades after her death, Jacobs wasn’t discouraged or deterred from writing her narrative. Even the Civil War did not stall her books excitement, but it did push it off to the side temporarily as the country saw the war as a more pressing issue over woman’s rights. Jacobs relationship with Amy Post, who was Quaker was a lifelong friendship that began her journey as a writer and ultimately was there for her throughout the war and up until her death, where she “worked with the Quakers in an effort to help freed slaves,” by helping organize and establish access to schools, homes, health care, and assistance of all necessity. Jacobs was more than just her years as a slave and as an American Abolitionist, she was an icon of the antebellum, Civil War, and post bellum America that is referenced till today in academia and social activists circles.
Emily Dickinson’s parents were Calvinists, “a faith centered on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” (Emily Dickinson, 2015) Dickinson’s father help found Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts as an alternative to Harvard and Yale, which were liberal in comparison to Calvinist philosophies. The founding fathers wrote from a point of view of prosperity, liberty, and possibility. Dickinson wrote from a place of death and aftermath. So while the American Renaissance was in love with the world and all its beauty, Dickinson was peeling back the layers of society to show the ugly side of all that utopian idealism.
During a time when reading and writing was around the school of thought that it was enriching one’s life or documenting it, Dickinson took a different approach. Studying independently she read the “Bible and classic English authors, such as Shakespeare and Milton.” (Baym, 2012) These influences affected the style of poetry Dickinson was writing alone in her room. Sometimes autobiographical, but mostly taking on first person point of views but from different perspectives from her own, her poetry had an elevated skill that was not established or used by others of her time period.
Dickinson used death as a theme for most of her poetry, but not all of it. She wrote about what she saw day in and day out from her bedroom and within her own house, where she lived with her parents. Dickinson had a keen observation about the world around her. Playing with themes of immortality, death, life, love, everyday business, Dickinson wrote her poems with a lyrical style to them, as if she was musically trained to do so. Dickinson’s poetry was able to weave the ethos, pathos, and logos in and out of each poem leaving a mark on the reader. While Transcendentalists were writing about self-reliance, Dickinson was completely dependent on her parents to finance her recluse lifestyle.
Franny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson used their writing in the antebellum, Civil War, and post bellum America era’s to form arguments based upon reason, trust, credibility, emotions, and values. Placing themselves at the helm of change from what had previously been established by the founding fathers, Native narratives and slave narratives. Stemming from a place of establishing what would become America and then romanticizing its potential, these writers saw a different perspective and enabled their readers to see it too. Like any good speechwriter, these writers saw a vision and conveyed it through storytelling to sell their vision. Antebellum America did not see what these writers were and as visionaries they showed everyone the reality of possibilities, leaving the romantic ideals and utopian societies to other writers. For without the realists of literature readers could never be grounded.
Baym, Nina. Levine, Robert S. (2012) The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY.
Black Hawk State Historic Site. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.blackhawkpark.org/History/Black_Hawk.html
Dowling, D. (2008). Capital sentiment: Fanny fern’s transformation of the gentleman publisher’s code. American Transcendental Quarterly, 22(1), 347-364,381. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/222375293? accountid=458
Emily Dickinson. (2015). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://academic.eb.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/EBchecked/topic/162174/Emily -Dickinson
Harriet A. Jacobs. (2015). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://academic.eb.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/EBchecked/topic/299067/Harri et-A-Jacobs
Mielke, L. L. (2002). “native to the question”: William Apess, Black Hawk, and the Sentimental Context of Early Native American Autobiography. American Indian Quarterly, 26(2), 246.