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

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 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 Through apt allusions to religious texts, historical documents, political theories and philosophical concepts, Fuller builds a powerful case for equality between men and women.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.

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