Emerson’s Emancipation and Changing Status of US Women


In 1965 over five million young Americans were attending colleges or universities. Similarly, the period between 1890’s and 1900’s brought in great changes in the industrial field. Business and capital extended and consolidated both power and control and “Big Business” became order of the day. As President Roosevelt  urged the United States into a position of importance in Pacific affairs, he succeeded in beginning the building of the Panama Canal and he pointed the way toward continuing American concern for free commerce ad free political activity in the world.

The last decades of the nineteenth century witnessed vigorous activities are literary field. The prominent older writers, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, were joined by many promising younger men, many of whom died young before their promise came to fruition. But the vigour of literary life was indicated by an engaging critical battle over realism, romanticism, and naturalism, and their relative merits. Both Howells ad James engaged in the critical debate ; and they were joined by Hamlin Garland, then living in Chicago, Frank Norris, living in San Francisco, and various other spokesmen for divergent literary methods.

At the same time Naturalism as a literary movement became a part of the American scene with the work of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, bringing modifications of the gentler realism of the preceding age. Naturalism is related to the developing sciences of the end of the century. For thirty years it was focal point for literary battle, a term of abuse used by its detractors. As a literary method it attempted scientific objectivity in the treatment of the natural man, and emphasized the overpowering aspects of his environment or of his passions and instincts.

Emerson had also tremendous impact on the common life of lower and middle class American people. The concern for the conditions of labor led to the organization of the American Federation of Labor (1886) and the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (1905), widely known as the I.W.W., and the passage of laws controlling the hours and conditions under which industry could use labor.

Emerson influenced the American people to shed fear and appear brave, vigorous and raise voice of and protest against social injustice. Thus the magazines and in journalistic books which often reached a quality of impassioned literary standard, expressed the protest against corrupt practices in government and business which came to be known as the Muckraking Movement, receiving its name from a speech delivered in Chicago in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The cry for social justice in the literature of the two decades was insistent, pervasive, uneven, seldom of enduring literary quality, but effective in compelling the attention of the citizen and the government. Other channels of interest which were less insistent and less in the public eye were nevertheless important to the future of American literature.

It was during this time that the University of Chicago was founded in 1892 with funds supplied by John. D. Rockefeller, the founder and organizer of the Standard Oil Company. The gathering of a faculty there promoted an interest in the arts and in intellectual liberalism which made Chicago an increasingly important literary center for the next generation. William Vaughn Moody and Robert Herrick were writers joining the new faculty, leading the way for the whole Midwest literary development in succeeding decades. Simultaneously Harvard University was also stirring in a way to influence American literature. The great philosophers in the “greatest philosophy department in the world,” William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, George Herbert Palmer, were not only all writers of literature but they were all interested in the standards of literary criticism as well. The literature departments also furnished prospective writers both able instruction and inspiration.

Above all, under the influence of social reforms made by Emerson, the relationship of the individual to group life and to society speeded up in directions already indicated by earlier social changes. Parental authority weakened and the Victorian concept of the paternal family was no longer tenable. Young people could gain employment on their own and they did. Women entered industry and various employments outside the home in large numbers. The millions of young men in the armed services were seeking new places, learning new ways.

But the most significant impact of Emerson’s social reforms was on the America Women and their attitude to new life and new order. Hitherto the America women were living under the dark blanket of Puritanical principles following complete austerity in life. They were confined to home and hearth and were never expected to use the pen or raise their voice in the society.

Regarding the American women in nineteenth century, it was Margaret who voiced the innate feelings of women. Margaret Fuller saw woman’s liberation in terms of the individual battling against the institutions that enslaved her, including marriage. She wrote, “We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to Man…. What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home. Let her work as she will. Let us have one creative energy, one incessant revelations”. (Margaret Fuller: American Literature, Its Position in the Present time and Prospects to the future.) 

Emily Dickinson was, perhaps the first literary woman of the time who knew very well the liberating movement led by Emerson and his contemporaries. She read Emerson, perhaps, quietly and secretly and learnt the importance and necessity of self reliance in life.

But her Self-Reliance and security made it unnecessary for her to rage war against the sorry state of fellow sisters “ I am glad it is a boy (born to my wife)”, Samuel Bowles wrote in a letter to Henry Dawes in 1855. “Boys are institutions. They have a future, a positive future. Girls are swallowed up,- they are an appendage, – a necessary appendage, it may be-probably they are,-but still they are appendages.” (Merriam, – Life and Times of Samuel Bowls, P.68)

Emily escaped being an appendage by being self-reliant emotionally. She withdrew from all attachments and made the fortress of her privacy strong. Her ostensible withdrawals were a firm stand against the ostensibility women in such a view as Samuel Bowles. She offered, what no other reformists nor activists ever thought of offering- power, deviance, wildness and impertinence. Karl Keller says, “At the other extreme is the poetry Emily Dickinson wrote that was meant not to communicate accommodation to the world but to express what she insisted on as her second basic right as a woman : the beauty of power-through-flamboyance. That too was a form of liberation-one that has not been recognized as a reformers’ method, a means of feminists that was not well appreciated and was usually condemned outright in the liberationist literature of her time”.   (Kar Keller, The Kangaroo Among the Beauty.)

Hence, her poetry, and her attitude mocked at the conventions and mores of the society. She turned the disadvantages into advantages and made a farce of the society. She pretended to be what others wanted her to be; but in her room, she dropped her corsets and danced with glee and mocked at the world, “giggling and playing catch me if you can”, with her language, which was her power she wielded against the foolish world.

She read many books, listened to many and even admired many, but she did what she thought was her calling. She wrote lyric poetry. And to do this, she defied the very essence of nineteenth century womanhood- “the duty of cheerfulness, the practice of purity, the instinct for domestic life.” She rejected all these and set forth on path untraded by anyone, and thus was setting ablaze the torch of the concept of an independent intellectual womanhood for which Emerson had advocated and struggled throughout his life.

Apart from Emily Dickinson, the social reforms of Emerson helped many American Women writers to emerge in the society and assert their intellectual liberty and personal individuality which indicated the rise of a new liberal spirit among American Women. She was followed by other woman writers like Edith Wharton  and Willa Cather who displayed the same spirit of self-reliance and individual freedom inspired by Emerson.

Moreover, Emerson’s efforts for social reforms had far reaching consequences and forces particularly for women in American society. Those changing forces brought the vote to women, the popular election of senators, and the prohibition laws which came at the end of the decade. Novels like the Pulitzer Prize winning Alice Adams (1921) by Booth Tarkington pictured in popular fiction, the new American woman ready to leave the home for employment in business or industry.

In conclusion it may be said that Emerson’s attempts at social reforms had tremendous impact on the eightieth century American society in all the spheres of life as well as in the life and outlook and attitude of American women who got enough impetus and strength from the doctrines of Emerson to break the man dominated tradition in order to liberate themselves and assert their social freedom and liberty which ultimately paved the way for the birth of the most important theory, which came to be known as Feminism.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.