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Separate Spheres No More
Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830â"1930
By Monika M. Elbert
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
To Be a "Parlor Soldier": Susan Warner's Answer to Emerson's "Self-Reliance"
Lucinda L. Damon-Bach
We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state.... Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance" (161)
The thought of his words had given her courage, or strength, to go beyond her usual reserve in speaking ... and she thought her words had done good. —Fleda, in Susan Bogert Warner's Queechy (615)
In the winter of 1846–47, just a year prior to the period of extreme poverty that would force Susan Bogert Warner literally to take her fate in her hands and begin writing The Wide, Wide World, Susan and her sister Anna spent two months with the Bruen family in Boston, during which they talked and dined with many notable nineteenth-century figures. Warner's journal entries and letters home indicate that she especially enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of her extended visit; she was, in particular, "glad of the practice in arguing" which her time in Boston afforded (her emphasis). In particular, discussion concerned "mental equality or inequality between the sexes." "[The visit] has really been excellent in this point," she stressed in one of her many letters to her father and aunt back in Cold Springs, New York, "teaching me to hear absurdity, falsehood, and mischief propounded, in various forms, degrees, and modifications ... and [to] reply with some measure of patience and moderation; virtues which, you know, in old times I was by no means wont to exercise on similar occasions" (SW 251).
In the same letter in which she celebrates the pleasingly argumentative nature of her visit, Warner describes a dinner party for eighteen that included "Catharine Sedgwick, Mr. and Mrs. Minot [publisher of the North American Review] ... Mr. and Mrs. (Mayor) Quincy, Mr. Agassiz the great naturalist, and Mr. Emerson the great schoolmaster" (SW 251). Elaborating on this particular occasion, her initial meeting with Agassiz and Emerson, Warner added, "Mr. Agassiz is a perfectly charming man, really most agreeable in his whole appearance and manners. Mr. Emerson I didn't fancy" (SW 251–52).
An avid amateur botanist—Susan and Anna owned a microscope and skillfully drew studies of their local flora—Warner had several lengthy conversations with Agassiz over the next few months and grew to admire him greatly, but this dinner party seems to have concluded her face-to-face encounters with Emerson. Whether Warner was put off primarily by Emerson's appearance, his manners, or his ideas, she does not specify; that he may have been one of those with whom she "practiced arguing" seems evident in the book she began composing a year later, in which her apparent antipathy is played out through her punningly named character Miss Fortune Emerson. Throughout The Wide, Wide World (1850), the heroine, Ellen Montgomery, is tried both physically and spiritually by her aptly named aunt, who seems to be a caricature of Emersonian ideals, especially those expressed in "Self-Reliance" (1841). In his interpretation of Miss Fortune Emerson's name, David Leverenz reasonably concludes that Warner's aim is parody: "Any woman would find it a 'misfortune' to be an Emerson, self-reliant, taking responsibility for her own life" (181). Yet, as James Albrecht suggests in his recent look at Ralph Ellison's allusions to Emerson in Invisible Man, such satire may not be a rejection of Emerson's individualism but instead a "dual gesture of critique and affiliation" (47). Like Ellison, Warner seems, in Albrecht's words, to "reject canonical Emersonianism ... in order to appropriate the ethical possibilities of a more pragmatic [and, I would add, Christian] Emersonian individualism" (47). Leverenz's reading of Warner's parody overlooks the fact that Fortune Emerson is proud of her self-reliance: "She got tired of setting [Ellen] to work; she liked to dash around the house alone, without thinking what somebody else was doing or ought to be doing" (340).
Warner's objection is that Miss Fortune Emerson takes self-reliance to an extreme. She is not simply self-reliant, but alienates herself from the rest of her community; she is also, significantly, without faith—not a Bible-reading Christian like the women in the novel who become Ellen's role models. Yet Warner does not simply reject what Miss Emerson stands for: paradoxically, she too is a model for Ellen, the one who initiates Ellen into the world of women's work and instructs her on how to be useful. As the dual readings of her name suggest, life with her aunt is both a "misfortune" and a "fortune" for Ellen: the hardships of rural farm life with her distant and at times cruel aunt make Ellen's life miserable but at the same time push her to become more self-reliant and more reliant upon her newfound Christian faith; in addition, Fortune teaches Ellen skills that increase her competence and her confidence in herself. Mid-novel, Ellen is indeed "changed," having mastered her "misfortune" through a combination of skill and faith (352). To Warner it is only a "misfortune" to be an Emerson if one is without a "Christocentric" religion and if one loses track of the "importance of a relational identity as well as the need for self-expression" (Hovet and Hovet 12).
Warner's second novel, Queechy (1852), readdresses—even celebrates—the self-reliant ideals that initially seem spoofed in The Wide, Wide World, making it clear that Warner's response to Emerson's ideas was far from simple dismissal. In her own time, Warner was known for both The Wide, Wide World, which became the first American best-seller, and Queechy, published two years later, which was nearly as popular as its precursor. In Queechy, Warner ambitiously continued to build on ideas and scenes introduced in The Wide, Wide World, producing a novel that is at times radically different from its predecessor, especially in terms of her heroine's increased self-reliance. Cynthia Schoolar Williams (1990) and Susan Harris (1990) began the important work of drawing Queechy out of the shadow of its predecessor. In both books Warner explores the relationship between Christianity and self-reliance in a woman's life, but in Queechy she repeats and revises several key scenes from her first novel, featuring the heroine as the agent of change rather than the object of change. While The Wide, Wide World expresses Warner's initial response to Emerson, Queechy functions as an extension of her thinking, continuing the exploration of what is liberating as well as limiting for women in the doctrine of self-reliance.
The ambiguity inherent in Warner's response to Emerson is symptomatic of her complex understanding of the possibilities and limitations of a woman's place in nineteenth-century America. In both of her first two novels, and in Queechy in particular, Warner can be read as quietly arguing with Emerson—with "some measure of patience and moderation," as she might put it—testing his ideas against the realities of nineteenth-century women's lives. So her novels highlight the clash between religious, reliable, working women's lives and the often unpredictable life of (male) intellect described by Emerson; but they also explore the possibility of a more balanced blending of lives when beliefs and actions are in alignment.
Significantly, Emerson's own essays display considerable ambivalence toward the ideas of self-reliance he seems to be championing. On the one hand, he challenges men to develop their higher selves by cultivating originality, self-reliance, and nonconformity, obeying the whim of genius and, when necessary, even shunning family responsibilities: "I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim" (150). Yet, paradoxically, Emerson also declares that "In manly hours we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home" (164). "Why are there frequently two voices in an Emerson essay?" asks Sharon Cameron. "Why two voices that seem deaf to each other's words? In an essay like 'Experience'  are claims voiced, repudiated, and differently iterated so that the self that can say words and the self that can hear them may be brought into relation and implicitly reconciled with each other?" (17). Likewise, to Stephen Whicher, Emerson seems less intent on capturing "the Pegasus of our inner power and more to ride our whole nature, as equestrians in a circus balance on two horses at once" (123). In Whicher's reading, Emerson is—perhaps unwittingly—seeking a balance, attempting to straddle both horses, just as Warner strives to create heroines who are self-reliant but still womanly—something which, as we shall see, is for her a complex ideal.
I Accepting One's Given "Plot of Ground": Warner's Christian Heroines
Why, then, did Warner not express a greater sense of kinship to Emerson? Most obviously, Emerson's intellectual universe was predominantly phallocentric. In "Self- Reliance," women are mentioned directly only three times—twice in passing remarks as the wife or mother who gets left behind and as the girl delighted with her studies of botany (150, 163), and most significantly in his call for "men and women who shall renovate life and our social state" (161). But in the same passage in which he includes women in his renovations, Emerson alludes to women in a derogatory way by referring to those who are not independent thinkers or actors as "parlor soldiers." Could a woman, then, whose domain was primarily the household, be self-reliant? Could she be a nonconformist in the parlor? That this was a struggle is evident from one woman's wry remark in a letter to her friend Elizabeth Stoddard. "I think of Emerson when I do my washing," she writes, obviously a woman in the process of ensuring that her housekeeping was indeed not "mendicant."
Yet Emerson's description in "Self-Reliance" of the "time in every man's education" when he must assess his life and work with what he has been given, could serve, with the gender of pronouns in the passage switched, as a précis of the main plots of Warner's first two novels. Both heroines in The Wide, Wide World and Queechy must pause to assess their lives, each literally accepting her given "plot of ground" and committing her individual power: "There is a time in every [wo]man's education when [she] arrives at the conviction that ... [she] must take [her]self for better or worse as [her] portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to [her] but through [her] toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to [her] to till. The power which resides in [her] is new in nature, and none but [she] knows what that is which [she] can do, nor does [she] know until [she] has tried" ("Self- Reliance" 148). Both books are types of Bildungsromane, tracing the lives of the heroines from childhood through—or close to—marriage. And in both novels the heroine's first step toward evolving fully is indeed accepting and working on her given "plot of ground," which for Ellen Montgomery means adjusting to life—and learning how to be useful—on her Aunt Fortune's remote farm, and for Fleda Ringgan means taking charge of her grandfather's failing farm and returning it to a flourishing business. Warner hypostatizes Emerson's metaphor, giving her heroines ground to till, both physically and spiritually. But in order to accept her "ground," and her self, Warner makes clear, each heroine needs to choose her religion—to become a Christian.
As Ann Douglas has shown in The Feminization of American Culture, the process of growing up for nineteenth-century women was synonymous with becoming a Christian. Citing Rev. Horace Bushnell in a letter to his daughter in 1845, Douglas identifies the antebellum womanly ideal: "A woman should be a Christian ... [her] character can be finished only by assimilation to God" (44). Although Warner, after her debates in Boston, believed Bushnell must have a "rather ... erratic mind," her books suggest that she would have been in full accord with this ideal (SW 248). She would also have agreed wholeheartedly with another minister of the time, writing in 1832 for Ladies Magazine, who advised women even more strongly: "Religion is far more necessary to you than self-sufficient men. In you it would be not only criminal, but impolitic to neglect it" (minister's emphasis, qtd. in Douglas 44).
Warner's heroines indeed need religion more than "self-sufficient men" because the men in her fiction (and in her own life, as well)—"self-sufficient" lawyers, investors, and businessmen—often are, even choose to be, unreliable sources of support to their wives and daughters. Convinced that they will survive or find financial solutions better elsewhere, bankrupt Captain Montgomery, Ellen's father in The Wide, Wide World, and Fleda's insolvent guardian Uncle Rolf Rossitur in Queechy both abandon their families. These men are perhaps types of the self-reliant man described by Emerson, who may leave unexpectedly to follow their genius on a whim, shunning not only "father and mother and wife and brother" but daughters and orphaned nieces when they go. Uncle Rossitur takes the family's remainingmoney with him to speculate on land in Michigan, and his departure is duly noted by one of Queechy's hardworking and reliable Christian women: "So much security any woman has in a man without religion!" (252). And, as Beverly Voloshin confirms, "male self-reliance, though valued, also led to the amorality, materialism, and aggressiveness of the public realm and required the counter-balance of 'woman's sphere,' of the institution of the home as the source of affectional bonds and ethical relations" (298).
Leaving home and family, whether to pursue one's genius or to run away from problems, was not a possibility for nineteenth-century women. Unlike Emerson's wanderer, Warner's heroines never entertain the option of leaving home—as Jane Tompkins points out, "one cannot run away in the world of nineteenth-century women's fiction" (593). When left alone to fend for themselves and for their families, nineteenth- century women, and the heroines in the fiction that describes them, needed a source of inner strength with which to carry on their lives (and through which to nurture others). Christianity both dictated that a woman's duty was to remain in the home and at the same time often gave her the strength to stay there. In Warner's novels, the heroine's moral courage surfaces not in leaving home to seek her fortune elsewhere, but in staying home to face it and to work with it.
"What do you want with Miss Fortune, little one?" asks a villager of eight-year-old Ellen, who has just asked directions to her aunt's farm. "I expected she would meet me here, sir," replies Ellen, and in a way, she does; Ellen's life at her severe aunt's is initially a far cry from fortunate (90). Yet Ellen's time at her aunt's serves a moral purpose—to develop her Christian faith—so during her stay she is repeatedly told, "All things mend with your own mending," the first step of which is to pray (154). With the support of several Christian mentors, Ellen learns how to rely on her newfound faith, and through it, how to increase her self-command. She has some self-control before she becomes a Christian, but, Warner argues, grounding herself through faith in God can help her to reinforce her sense of self and enable her to access her self-command more readily. "Try to compose yourself," Mrs. Montgomery tells her hysterical young daughter at the beginning of the novel, when Ellen first learns that they will be separated, and Ellen responds: "Exerting all her self-command, of which she had sometimes a good deal, she did calm herself ... and listened quietly" (13, emphasis Warner's). But although Ellen makes considerable headway throughout the novel in this battle with herself and her fate, at its close she is still learning the lesson that will liberate her from dependence on others to an inner self-reliance. In the novel's final scene, Ellen wonders aloud whether her minister "brother" John Humphreys—now her fiancé—will mentor her when they are finally reunited: "and then you will keep me right?" But he replies, "I won't promise you that, Ellie, ... you must learn to keep yourself right" (565).
Excerpted from Separate Spheres No More by Monika M. Elbert. Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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