Monday, October 10, 2005

Sarah Thorn and the cult of domesticity

I've been thinking about the cultural environment in which my great- great-grandmother, Sarah Thorn, grew up. She was born in 1816 in Albany and died 65 years later in New York City. She began her book of poems in 1834 when she was 18 and married Henry Lefman two years later.

During her youth the United States hadn't yet developed its own literary presence. Washington Irving, its literary star, did not have a distinctively American voice. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Emerson hadn't yet been published or, if published, noticed. Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott weren't even born until Sarah was in her late teens.

In the period beginning roughly with the year of her birth the US began a rapid infrastructure development to foster economic growth. By the 1830s steam power, the canals, and railroads were being developed and the nation's westward expansion and exploitation of vast natural resources by its rapidly-growing population was assumed to be a fact.

When she reached the threshold of adulthood in the early 1830's the US government was forcibly evicting American Indian tribes of the southeast from their homelands and the division of the country into distinct sections was becoming an obvious source of political conflict, particularly between North and South and particularly with respect to slavery.

The world of commerce, industry, and government was exclusively masculine. Partly because of the nation's growing wealth and urbanization, white, middleclass husbands and wives developed a divison of labor by which the exclusive domain of woman was homemaker, child raiser, and cultivator of religious values.

It wasn't until ten years later that this division into spheres of responsibility began to be called into question. In the Dial magazine for January 1841, Sophia Ripley raised for the first time, I think, the "woman question" in an article called Woman which contains the opening line: 'There have been no topics, for the last two years, more generally talked of than woman, and "the sphere of woman."'

Ripley's critique of the cult of domesticity shows both its cultural pervasiveness and the unreasonable burden it placed on women. She says women are popularly supposed to be feeble, good, quiet, and gentle: a "spritualized image" that no woman "could or would become." Far from weak and submissive, Riply says women must possess a strength and energy as great and untiring as the man's because, "if there is a being exposed to turmoil and indurating care, it is woman." It's plain from the essay that many women collapsed under the weight both of these responsibilities and the unwritten rule that they appear ethereal and pure, weak and mild, yet also morally superior to men, steadfastly defending religous truth, and counteracting the taint of the competitive, increasingly industrial masculine sphere.

Since resistence to the cult of the true womanhood did not begin until the 1840s and since its beginnings were even then tentative and with little impact, it's hardly surprising that Sarah Thorn's poems show little of a rebellious spirit. They praise religious feeling and condemn the evils of gambling and tobacco and their overall subject is blossoming love. Yet they also celebrate intelligence and intellectual brilliance. I suspect she didn't see herself as an archetype of the true woman.

Here's a poignant might-have-been which shows some of the constraints of her time which she could accept only with difficulty.

To A Friend

Think not, my love'd, my valued friend,
That I possess an airy heart,
I wish I did, it would defend,
My peace from present anxious smart.
From the first hour I met with thee,
(Though I of friends had ceas'd to dream,)
That soul which loves society,
An effort made for your esteem.
And when eclips'd in sorrow's shade
Surrounded by a slanderous throng,
My feelings all the world portray'd,
As full of friends who did me wrong.
'Twas then the glance of thy kind eye,
Dispell'd my cheerless revery;
It was thy look of sympathy,
Which makes thee still so dear to me.
And this I own without disguise,
Had we acquainted been before,
When I was free from others ties,
I might have dared to love you more.

But since we know 'tis thus decreed,
And we no more than friends can be;
We ne'er must think of word or deed,
That's not stamp'd with purity.


1 comment:

GobberGo said...

Wow. That's really a very good poem. My great-great-great grandmother wrote that? Someday I'm going to catch up with all the family history work you've done, especially if it contains little gems like this.