The Radical Frances Wright and Antebellum Evangelical Reviewers: Self-Silencing in the Works of Sarah Josepha Hale, Lydia Maria Child, and Eliza Cabot Follen
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The early antebellum, a nation-building period of industrial progress, financial crisis, and social upheaval, associated the values of evangelical Protestantism with American middle-class respectability. Individuals who contested those values, like Scottish heiress Frances Wright, came under intense public scrutiny. Once the intimate of revolutionary heroes, liberal theorists, and elite society, a radicalized Wright established in rural Tennessee a utopian and protofeminist community that promoted interracial sexual unions and women’s reproductive rights and forbade religion (as irrational and hypocritical) and marriage (as entrapping and enfeebling to women). She charged the Protestant clergy with conspiring with bankers and lawyers to deny Americans true liberty and argued that “universal education” would develop a generation of libertarian leaders by boarding poor and wealthy children equally together from infancy; she hoped to stimulate through an amalgamation of the races the organic attenuation of American slavery over three generations. Wright circulated her theories through radical newspapers, but received little public notice until she discovered the lecture platform, speaking to mixed audiences of middle- and working-class men and women. Male evangelical magazine reviewers had staunchly maintained that middle-class women never read Wright’s radical words, but once women stood alongside men at her lectures, reviewers could no longer deny that they were being exposed to heretical ideas. Her message’s new medium resulted in a widespread print backlash: evangelical reviewers denounced her as the “Red Harlot of Infidelity” and previously sympathetic writers shunned her. I argue broadly that antebellum cultural acceptance of evangelical Protestant values coopted women’s attempts to enlarge their autonomy and agency, and specifically that throughout a decade of Wright’s character assassination, female editors and novelists Sarah Josepha Hale, Lydia Maria Child, and Eliza Cabot Follen, performed a strategic self-silencing. They rejected Wright by name and distanced themselves from feminist arguments they would later embrace. In this project I examine the resonance that the evangelical press’s rejection of Wright had with these three antebellum women novelists. There has been little recent scholarly notice taken of Wright, and no discussion of the impact that the ruin of her reputation had on antebellum women’s fiction – lacunae I intend to address.