Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Self-Reliant Women in Frances Harper's Writings

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Self-Reliant Women in Frances Harper's Writings

Article excerpt

"I do not think," said Mrs. Stillman, "that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant." (Iola Leroy 253)

In "Self-Reliance" Emerson undoubtedly envisions a self-reliant man, not a self-reliant woman. "Man is his own star," the essay opens, and it never wavers in its assumption that the self-reliant person Emerson invokes is male. While at one moment Emerson writes that "we want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state" (32), his essay does little to imagine or name such women. His models for self-reliance--such as Moses, Plato, Milton, Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Copernicus, Newton, Hermit Anthony, Luther, Wesley, Clarkson, Scipio and others--are all men. Throughout the essay, Emerson uses the terms "every man" and "a man," and the "I" of the essay announces that he "will shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me" (22). Indeed, Emerson underscores the maleness of his self-reliant man when he labels the "decorous and prudent rage" of the "cultivated classes" who might oppose the self-reliant man with "their feminine rage" (24). As Carolyn Sorisio argues, "the radical implications of [Emerson's] philosophy are undercut when considered in relation to women by his consistent use of gendered language that highlights difference" (116). To Sorisio, "'Self-Reliance' ... exhibits Emerson's suspicion of the feminine/domestic realm's potential tyranny" and its ability to "[entrap] the young male in stifling societal roles" (122). Emerson imagines that the self-reliant man, while staying "the chaste husband to one wife" (31), may need to assert himself against his family in order to be on the side of truth rather than appearances. "Self-Reliance" is without a doubt written from man to man, underscoring that self-reliance is an ideal of manhood.

This manly ideal is, to a large degree, seen in opposition to family as well as sympathy and charity. Emerson emphasizes the individualism of the self-reliant man and questions his social ties and obligations. When the speaker of the essay declares that he will "shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me," he begins a longer, somewhat vexed and ironic inquiry into his relation to others:

   Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.
   Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my
   obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my
   poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the
   dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to
   me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom
   by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go
   to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;
   the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses
   to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the
   thousandfold Relief Societies;--though I confess with shame I
   sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which
   by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold. (22)

Emerson does not imagine his self-reliant man to be entirely on his own--indeed even when the "I" of the essay declares to his family that he will live according to his truth and not their rules, he always envisions taking care of them (31). But, responding to the foolish philanthropist, he does define self-reliance and manhood in opposition to charity and sympathy. The essay wonders: to whom does the self-reliant man belong and whom should he support? There is no easy answer since spiritual affinity is hard to define and to find--as Emerson also makes abundantly clear in his beautiful and meandering essay on "Friendship." While he will go to prison for those with whom he shares such spiritual affinity, Emerson's self-reliant man confesses that he needs to resist the temptation of the central nineteenth-century (feminine) concepts of sympathy and charity; indeed, it is part of his manhood to be able to do so. …

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