The Greatest Writer of the 19th Century » Brownson's Writings » Miss Fuller and Reformers

Miss Fuller and Reformers

From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for April, 1845

Miss Fuller belongs to that class described in the preceding article under the name of transcendentalists, of which sect she is chieftainess. She has a broader and richer nature than Mr. Parker, greater logical ability, and deeper poetic feeling; more boldness, sincerity, and frankness, and perhaps equal literary attainments. But at bottom they are brother and sister, children of the same father, belong to the same school, and in general harmonize in their views, aims, and tendencies. Their differences are, that he is more of the theologian, she more of the poet; he more of the German in his taste, she more of the Grecian; he the more popular in his style of writing, she the more brilliant and fascinating in her conversation. In the Saint-Simonian classification of the race, he would belong to the class of savants, she to that of aristes.

But Miss Fuller is an artist only in her admiration of art, for she has little artistic skill. Nothing is or can be less artistic than the book before us, which, properly speaking, is no book, but a long talk on manners and things in general, and men and women in particular. It has neither beginning, middle, nor end, and may be read backwards as well as forwards, and from the center outwards each way, without affecting the continuity of the thought or the succession of ideas. We see no reason why it should stop where it does, or why the lady might not keep on talking in the same strain till doomsday, unless prevented by want of breath.

The title gives no clue to the character of the work; for it is no part of its design to sketch, as one would suppose, the condition of woman in the nineteenth century. Indeed, we do not know what is its design. We cannot make out what thesis or theses it does or does not maintain. All is profoundly obscure, and thrown together in “glorious confusion.” We can attempt no analysis of its contents. As talk, it is very well, and proves that the lady has very talkative powers, and that, in this respect at least, she is a genuine woman.

As we read along in the book, we keep constantly asking, What is the lady driving at? What does she want? But no answer comes. She does not know, herself, what she wants. She has an ugly feeling of uneasiness, that matters do not go right with her; and she firmly believes that if she had- I know not what- all would go better. She is feverish, and turns from one side of the bed to the other, but finds no relief. The evil she finds, and which all her class find, is in her, in them, and is removed by no turning or change of posture, and can be. She and they are, no doubt, to compassionated, to be tenderly nursed and borne with, as are all sick people. It is no use attempting to reason them out of their crotchets; but well people should take care not to heed what they say, and especially not to receive the ravings of their delirium as divine inspirations.

Seriously, Miss Fuller does not know what she wants, any more than does many a fine lady, whom silks, laces, shawls, dogs, parrots, balls, routs, jams, watering-places, and despair of lover or husband and friends have ceased to satisfy. She even confesses her inability to formulate her complaint. She has a strange gnawing within, an indefinable craving for what she has lost, does not know how to get, where to find,- a very unpleasant condition no doubt, but not an uncommon one. Poor girl! Hers is but the common lot of all Protestant and infidel sisters, and brothers too; for her brothers are hardly less subject to the vapors than her sisters. They are all seeking they know not what, craving what they have not, find not,- now seizing on this bawble, now on that,- a bonnet, ribbon, shawl, cravat, coat, minister, sect, association; but all to no purpose. The craving remains; nothing satisfies; the aching heart nothing fills. Cook the vegetable oyster as they will, serve it up with what condiments, flanked by what sauces, they please, it is never the genuine oyster.

“O, give us something to love!” exclaim a bevy of dear, sweet, enchanting creatures. “Give us something to love; we were made to love;” and round they look with fond eyes and loving hearts, but as ever there is the gnawing, the aching void within. Love is the be-all, the cure-all, the end-all; but, alas, there is nothing to love; no one knows how to love; no one knows how to respond to the true, fond, loving heart. Try again,- again,- another and still another;-’t is vain. The heart is not met; is not filled; is emptier than ever. Surely there is some mistake. The Creator committed a blunder when he made the world, especially when he made man and woman. Man and woman, it is true, says our authoress, are but “two halves of one thought;” but the right halves do not come together, or so not match. They get mis-matched. Mrs. Jones has got my other half, and I have got Mrs. Peter Smith’s,- or am cheated out of it altogether. All this is very provoking, no doubt. To be made capable of loving, to have this free, pure, rich heart, full to overflowing with love, containing a whole ocean of love, large as the Atlantic, nay, as the five oceans together, and warm enough to thaw out either pole, and no one I can love.- nobody but Jim Jones or Peter Smith,-’t is intolerable.

The terrible evil here set forth Miss Fuller thinks is confined exclusively to her own sex. Men have the advantage; with them it is not so bad. There she is wrong. There are those who have beards on their faces, as well as those who have none, who have these cravings, these hearts full of love, such as it is, and an aching void in these same full hearts, because there is no one for them to love. They cannot love Bridget or Sukey, and all but the Bridgets and Sukeys are- not for them. Men are not much more easily satisfied than women; and if women are forced to take to tea, scandal, philanthropy, evening-meetings, and smelling-bottles, men are forced to take to trade, infidelity, sometimes the pistol, and even to turn reformers, the most desperate resort of all. All this is sad enough, and really under all this is a grievous evil, of which no serious-minded man will make light. But what is the remedy?

Miss Fuller, so far as we collect her thought from her interminable prattle, seems to think this evil is to be remedied by having it understood that woman has an immortal soul, and by securing her free scope to develop herself. But what change this implies, or would introduce, Yankee as we are, we are unable to guess. Understand that woman has an immortal soul! Why, we are far beyond that already. Read our poets, listen to our philanthropists, abolitionists, Fourierists, Saint-Simonians, dietetic reformers, and other reformers of all sorts and sizes, of all manner of things in the universe, and some others, and you shall find that she is already a divinity, and adored as such. Who has not heard of the “divine Fanny,*) [Fanny Elsler, the great dancer] or not been eager to adore as she made his heart jump by her capers and pirouettes? Not her soul only, but woman’s body, is held to be divine, divine from head to foot, and we go into ecstasy of devotion at sight of a “divine ankle.” In our ordinary prosaic language, is not woman an “angel,” “an angel of purity,” of “loveliness,” and “too holy for earth?” and they who scorn to bend a knee before their Maker, are they not ready to prostrate themselves at her feet, and kiss the very ground on which she stands?

“The more fools they. But this is not what we want. This is sickening, disgusting.” And yet there are comparatively few women seriously offended at it, if they themselves are its object, even though offered by those they have good reasons for believing are double-distilled villains. But enough of this. There are evils, great evils, no doubt, to which both men and women are subject. Neither sex is what it should be, or finds always the fair weather and smooth sea the heart may crave; but we have yet to be convinced that woman’s lot, compared with that of man’s, is one of peculiar hardship. She is not always the victim, and examples of suffering virtue may be found amongst men as well as amongst women. No doubt, there are evils enough to redress, but we do not think the insane clamor for “woman’s rights,” for “woman’s equality,” “woman’s liberation,” and all this, will do much to redress them. Woman is no more deprived of her rights than man is of his, and no more enslaved. Woman as to her moral and spiritual nature has always been emancipated by Christianity, and placed as a human being on the same platform with man. She is treated, and always has been treated, by Christianity as having an immortal soul, and as personally accountable to her Maker. In this respect man has no claims and is allowed no preeminence over her; and what more can she ask?

In the distribution of the several spheres of social and domestic action, woman has assigned to her one sphere, and man another; both equally important, equally honorable. This therefore is no cause of complaint.- But who assigned her this sphere? Has she given her consent to be confined to it? Has she ever been consulted? Her assent asked?- And what if not? Who assigned man his sphere? Was his assent asked or obtained? Their appropriate spheres are allotted to man and woman by their Creator, and all they have to do is to submit, as quietly, and with as good a grace, as they can. Miss Fuller thinks it is man who has crowded woman one side, and refused her full scope for self-development; and although the sphere in which she moves may really be that most appropriate to her, yet man has no right to confine her to it, and forbid her to take another if she prefer it. She should be free to decide her own destiny as man is his. All very plausible. But God, and not man, has assigned her the appropriate sphere; and, moreover, we must be ungallant enough to question Miss Fuller’s leading doctrine of the social and political equality of the sexes. She says man is not the head of woman. We, on the authority of the Holy Ghost, say he is. The dominion was not given to woman, nor to man and woman conjointly, but to the man. Therefore the inspired apostle, while he commands husbands to love and cherish their wives, commands wives to love and obey their husbands; and even setting aside all considerations of divine inspiration St. Paul’s authority is, to say the least, equal to that of Miss Fuller.

Miss Fuller would have all offices, professions, callings, pursuits thrown open to woman as to man; and seems to think that the lost Eden will not be recovered till the petticoat carries it over the breeches. She is quite sure the ancient heathens understood this matter better than we do. They had a juster appreciation of the dignity of woman. Their principal dignities were goddesses, and women ministered in the fane, and gave the responses of the oracles. She is greatly taken with Isis, Sita, Egyptian Sphinx, Ceres, Prosperine. Would she recall these ancient heathen deities, their ancient worship, filled with obscene rites and frightful orgies? Would she restore the Isiac worship? Revive that of Syrian Astarte? Reestablish the old custom which prevailed at Babylon, according to which every woman, on a certain festival, must prostitute herself to the first comer in honor of the goddess? Readopt the old Phoenician method of obtaining marriage portions for dowerless daughters? Have carried again in public procession certain pleasant images which Roman dames were eager to crown with wreaths of flowers? Or produce the wild Bacchantes with loosened tresses and loosened robes, and lascivious satyrs? These and far worse obtained in the worship of these female divinities, and were woman served the fane, and gave the responses of the gods. Has it never occurred to our learned and philosophic lady to ask, if there was not some relation of cause and effect between the part woman took in these ancient religions, and these filthy rites and shameful practices?

We ask not this last question because we would imply that women are less pure, or more easily corrupted, than men. We are not likely to fall into the common herd of libellers of women and sneerers of female virtue. We have lived too long, or been too fortunate in our acquaintances, to think lightly of woman’s worth, or woman’s virtues. We remember too vividly the many kind offices we have received from her hand, the firmness with which she clung to us in adversity, when all the world had deserted us, and also the aid which her rapid intuitions and far-glancing sense has afforded us in our mental and moral progress, if we have had any, to be in danger of this. It has been our good fortune to have experienced all woman’s tenderness, all her sympathy when we were in sorrow and destitution, her joy when the world brightened to us, her generous self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifices for the beloved of her heart, and the sweet and gentle companionship in intellectual pursuits and in the moral duties which seems to double man’s power and to make virtue thrice more amiable; and we do not feel, that, so long as we retain our memory, we can be in danger of speaking lightly of woman, or of doing her injustice. But though we say all this, and could say much more, we still say the two sexes cannot mingle in certain spheres, and on the terms Miss Fuller proposes, without the mutual corruption of both. The fault is not woman’s more than man’s, perhaps not so much; but the fact is no less certain. While we live in the flesh, restraint and mortification are our law,- whether for men or for women. The things which look to us so enchanting, which even are not bad within certain limits, the glowing pictures of our innocent imaginations, the bright ideals of youth,- alas! Human nature is rotten, trust it not. They who imposed the restraints against which Miss Fuller protests, who separated the sphere of the sexes, and assigned to each as far as possible a separate line of duty, if they were men, must have known all too well what they were about. They may have been men who have lost their innocence; but if so, they had gained- experience.

The first mistake which Miss Fuller commits is the mistake committed by all reformers,- from him who undertook in the Garden to reform God’s commandment to our first parent, down to the author of the “Orphic Sayings,” - that the true moral and social state is to be introduced and secured by the free, full, and harmonious development of human nature. This mistake is committed everywhere. Go where we will, out of the Catholic world, we meet it. We find it with deists and atheists, with German rationalists and American transcendentalists, in the fanciful theories of Gall and Spurzheim, in the dreams of Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon. It is the settled doctrine, and only settled doctrine, of modern philosophy, and apparently the fixed creed of the whole Protestant and infidel worlds,- exception to be made, perhaps, in favor of the Puseyites, and the few remnants of the old Calvinistic sects. It is embraced and hotly defended by hundreds and thousands who have no suspicion of its direct and glaring hostility to experience and revelation. Nothing can be falser or more dangerous than this delusion. Nature does not suffice. Nature cannot be trusted. Away with your wretched cant about “faith in man, in man’s nature,” his “lofty capacities,” “glorious affinities,” and “Godlike tendencies.” Nature, we repeat, is rotten; trust it not. The fairest, sweetest, purest, dearest affections nature ever knows lead us most woefully astray, and will do so, if not restrained, whatever your moral codes or social arrangements. There is no such thing as harmonious development of nature. Cultivate nature as you will, observe the nicest balance between all its tendencies, and, before you know it, before you can dream of it, one rascally passion has suddenly gained the mastery, and all is confusion and anarchy within. Nature is cursed. For six thousand years you have cultivated it, and it has yielded you only briers and thorns; cultivate it as you will for six thousand years to come, and it will yield you nothing else. “He that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.”

Another mistake, not less fatal, is also committed by our reformers. They see that there are evils, that men and women suffer, and suffer horribly. Their sympathies are awakened, and they seek if relief cannot be found. All this is well, commendable even. But they assume that relief is to come here, and the good craved, but found not, is to be realized in this world, in this probationary life. “The highest ideal man can form of his own powers,” says Miss Fuller, “that he is destined to attain.” And this ideal is to be attained here. But Eden, the terrestrial paradise, is lost, never to be regained. Man forfeited it, and has been driven forth from it, never to repose again in its fragrant bowers, or beneath its refreshing shades. The earth is cursed; do what you will, rebel as you please, the curse is irrevocable. This world is a prison-house, and escape you cannot till death sets you free. The sooner you come to this conclusion, the better for you, the better for all. This life is and must be a discipline, a probation, a warfare. You must stand on your guard, always in arms, sleepless, and fight, fight for your life, with enemies from all quarters, and of all sorts and sizes, till you are called home to enjoy the victory and the triumph.

We know this is an unpalatable truth to our zealous philanthropists, and we know the scorn and derision with which they will treat it. But the realization of heaven on earth is not the end for which the Gospel was given us. Our Maker has not abandoned us; far from it. He has -prepaired something far better for us than a terrestrial paradise. He has prepared heaven and its eternal beatitude for us. But we can enjoy that here only through faith and hope. It is ours here only by promise. It is set before us as a glorious prize, as an exceeding rich reward; but it is not to be gained without the dust and heat of the race; nor will it be bestowed till the race is run, till the battle is fought, till the victory is won. Consolations we may have, consolations which the world knows not, cannot give, cannot take away. Angels will minister unto us and revive our fainting strength; but happiness, the full freedom and joy of the soul, are tasted not till the songs and harps of the angels welcome us home to our Father’s house.

True wisdom consists in fixing our eyes on this heavenly reward, and throwing off all that we may win it. We must count the sufferings of this present life not worthy to be compared with the glory hereafter to be revealed; we must despise the joys of this life, and trample the world under our feet. Beati pauperes spiritu. We must despise riches and honors, we must joy in poverty and destitution, and count all things as mere dross for the sake of Christ. This is the law imposed upon us, and no reforms which come not from obedience to this law will avail us aught. Here the struggle, the warfare; there the triumph, the joy.

But we have no room to proceed. As much as we dislike Miss Fuller’s book, as pernicious as we regard the doctrines or notions it contains, as utterly as we are forced to condemn the whole race of modern reformers,- all who are seeking to recover the lost Eden on earth, from the harmonious development of nature alone,- we can still believe, without difficulty, that she may be a pure-minded woman, honestly and earnestly struggling to obtain a greater good for suffering humanity. Taking her starting-point, we should arrive at her conclusion. Believing a terrestrial paradise possible, we should strive for it; believing the free, full, and harmonious development of human nature the means and conditions of obtaining it, we should protest against whatever restrains nature in woman and as well as in man. We believe Miss Fuller wholly in the wrong, but we see no occasion for the kind of animadversions on her or her book, which we have noticed in some newspaper criticisms. She has done or said nothing which should be regarded as a sin by her Protestant Brethren. In our remarks we have designed nothing personal against her. We are able, we trust, to distinguish between persons and doctrines. For persons, however far gone they may be in error, or even in sin, we trust we have the charity our holy religion commands, and which the recollection of our own errors and sins, equal to any we may have to deplore in others, requires us to exercise. But for erroneous doctrines we have no charity, no tolerance. Error is never harmless, and in no instance to be countenanced.