Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Another Dilemma of an Intellectual in the Old South: Caroline Gilman, the Peculiar Institution, and Greater Rights for Women in the Rose Magazines

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Another Dilemma of an Intellectual in the Old South: Caroline Gilman, the Peculiar Institution, and Greater Rights for Women in the Rose Magazines

Article excerpt

Although she was a Yankee by birth and education, Mrs. Caroline Howard Gilman became the best known southern female author in the antebellum United States. Largely responsible for her literary fame was the nation-wide dissemination of her popular young people's magazines printed in Charleston from 1832 to 1839. These were the first such weeklies ever published in the country: The Rose Bud (August 11, 1832-August 24, 1833), The Southern Rose Bud (August 31, 1833-August 22, 1835), and The Southern Rose (September 5, 1835-August 17, 1839). As the changes in their name suggests, the Rose magazines became increasingly adult in form and content, growing up as it were with their maturing readers. In the Roses, Mrs. Gilman's three novels received national attention through their serialization. Along with her original fiction, she contributed the bulk of the periodicals' verse, essays, and reviews. (1) Thus in her measure she overcame that "curse of southernism," as she herself so aptly phrased it in 1835. This was the "usual fate, neglect" that plagued writers and thinkers of her area (SRB 3.12/2.7.35/90), eliciting similarly bitter complaints over the next two decades from other South Carolinians such as the romancer William Gilmore Simms and the poet Henry Timrod. (2)

An arresting dichotomy emerges in Mrs. Gilman's Rose magazine writing between her pro-slave stand on the one hand and her advocacy of greater rights and independence for women on the other. She supported the hierarchical system of values of her adopted South that were based upon the institution of a white and a male dominated slave community. Yet her progressivism where the lesser status of her sex was concerned removed her somewhat from these values. Her defense of the South's peculiar institution, of course, reflects how the issue of slavery was beginning to dominate southern thought in the 1830s. It also reflects the effort she made to identify herself with the region by endeavoring to protect it from outside criticism. She spoke out as well in the Roses for such more or less routine civic improvements in Charleston as better street lighting and the building of an opera house. But in quite a few of her periodical contributions, Mrs. Gilman was unorthodox in her outspoken opposition to the prevailing notion of the physical and intellectual inferiority of women.

In their gentle feminism, the Rose magazines play a part in revealing that a degree of critical or divergent thinking did exist in an antebellum South so often erroneously thought to have been without self-criticism and monolithic. From the beginning in her weekly, she defied the concepts of feminine submissiveness and domesticity that were two of the four cardinal attributes in the mid-nineteenth century ideal of true womanhood. (3) The only allusion in the Roses to labor trouble in the United States, for example, centers on the assertive role women can assume in industry.

In the June 25, 1836, issue of the Southern Rose in the regular "Leaf & Stem Basket" column of short information items, Mrs. Gilman reports how the courageous, determined "factory girls at Amesbury" organized a brief strike. They demonstrated against increased working hours, and "succeeded in carrying their point" (SR 4.22/6.25.36/175). In a later Southern Rose, she offers an unusual defense of northern industrialization as it might apply to the South. Her fellow South Carolinians James Henry Hammond and Simms saw increased industrialization as a means of freeing their region economically and culturally from the North. Hammond in particular saw in industry a means of binding non-slaveholders to a plantation system whose major product, cotton, would provide gainful employment for them in the mills. (4) As Mrs. Gilman perceives it, the factory is a place where a woman can be "more independent." In the words of Fanny, a New England worker, in the mill she not only earns her own income, but she also can come and go on the job as she pleases. …

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