Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Misplaced Literary Ancestry

            Anna Letitia Barbauld was a powerhouse. I could write about her. She was an anti-war abolitionist, and an advocate for freedom of religion during a time when the Church of England bullied for its monopolization. She wrote a forceful essay in 1775[1] supporting her dissenting opinion of the political institutionalization of religion, while simultaneously, and elegantly, conceding the benefit of the Church of England:

We may see such good in an establishment, the doctrines of which we cannot give our assent to without violating our integrity; we may respect the tendencies of a sect, the tenets of which we utterly disapprove. We may think practices useful which we cannot adopt without 
hypocrisy. We may think all religious beneficial, and believe of one alone that is true.

The essay is nothing if not rational, lucid, and persuasive. She argues that mandated association with the church would only weaken members’ devotion, and that the Church would come out stronger when supported by a willing constituency. She appeals regularly to reason and consequence, repeatedly pointing out the lack of opinion or prejudice in her argument.
This, along with her other broadly read essays of dissent and civic engagement, contributed to the eventual repeal of Great Britain’s religiously restrictive acts. If that doesn’t convince my readers she’s worth looking into, I should mention how she published an open letter to one of the era’s most fervent abolitionists in support of his cause, excoriating Parliament for refusing to pass a bill that would end the slave trade.[2] And she wrote it in verse, no less!
But Barbauld’s religiosity is more intense than I’d prefer to spend much time with, which would be necessary in order to properly explore her work…and then there’s the story about her turning down a position to educate young women because she didn’t think they were as capable of rigorous instruction as their male counterparts.
Perhaps I should write about someone like Margaret Fuller, a journalist and women’s rights advocate. She was also the editor of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal The Dial, a position extended to her as a friend of Emerson. Surely her transcendentalist work will attract those readers whose interest might not otherwise be piqued by her feminist tone. I can discuss the philosophical essay she published in 1843, which encompasses both views. In it she suggests that the spectrum of masculinity and femininity can be experienced within the individual, rather than within a male/female dichotomy:

In so far as soul is in [woman] completely developed, all soul is the same; but as far as it is modified in her as woman, it flows, it breaths, it sings, rather than deposits soil, or finishes work … But it is no more the order of nature that it should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form.
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

The essay demonstrates her ability to blend personal perspective, metaphor, and literary and cultural references into a legitimate critique of society.
But if I’m to be honest with myself, and my readers, it’s most appealing to expose an author who wasn’t borne of Western traditions. The contemporary essay can benefit most from an exhibition of the successful perspectives, styles, and experiments of writers couched in a heritage wholly different from those juggernauts (Montaigne, for example) usually extolled and analyzed. Perhaps someone like Jelena Dimitrijević, a native of the politically and culturally piebald Serbia. From 1881 to 1898, shortly after the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic stronghold there was dissolved, she lived in the southern city of Niš. During a time when most of Serbia’s non-Muslim citizens felt little sympathy for their Muslim neighbors, Dimitrijević befriended a Muslim family, including a harem of women, and published a series of ethnographic letters addressed to a deceased friend that enumerated her experiences.[3] She wrote with respect and curiosity for their customs, out of a desire to humanize the stranded denizens. By employing an epistolary form, she was free from the restraints of stringent anthropology or sequential chronology, and had formal permission to digress.

If I ever heard someone say “Evil as a Turk”, I would smile and remember my present neighbors. I went to see them the day before yesterday: the father was shelling peas; his son hanging out nappies (who knows, he may even have washed them, so that his wife should not tire herself).

            Despite being identified by literary scholars[4] as one of the few Serbian women to have made an intellectual impression in Serbia during the 19th century (some listing as few as three), I was unable to find a translation of Dimitrijević’s epistles, resorting to my own translation. Unfortunately, this in and of itself may not be as surprising as I would like it to be.
Perhaps then what I need to talk about is the fact that I keep bumping into the same phenomenon with all three of these authors: their literary legacies have been altered, ignored, and nearly forgotten. As much as I want to focus solely on the literary accomplishments of these authors, I can’t in good faith leave out this distressing observation.
History contains an overwhelming wealth of authors and essays to be found, the nature of which prevents many of us from even attempting. It’s easier to assume the myriad scholars working before us have curated a well-rounded literary oeuvre deserving of our time and attention. In my quest for a worthy subject, I haven’t found this to be the case. Until the 1980s, Anna Letitia Barbauld was remembered as a writer of didactic children’s textbooks and hymns, her place in 18th century England’s political battles erased from contemporary consciousness. It wasn’t until feminists sniffed out some of the works of a lost literary ancestry that her essays resurfaced. Shortly after Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850, a memoir was published of her life and some of her work, though details were omitted, and her essays reworded as to be less offensive. According to scholars,[5] she was remembered not on her own merit but for her proximity to others of merit. This is despite the fact that many of her contemporaries held her in high regard, including Walt Whitman, Susan B. Anthony, Henry David Thoreau, and of course Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jelena Dimitrijević, too, was shortchanged. Despite being well known while alive, even being awarded the Matica srpska prize for literature, she was literally forgotten until literary scholars exhumed her work in the 1980s.
This is all to say that we as essayists can’t take the linguistic heritage handed to us as comprehensive, or even representative. It’s our responsibility to seek out the fruits of history that are just out of reach, to push aside branches we have been told are sturdy and to climb onto the limbs of writers offering something forbidden.

Molly Coon is an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa nonfiction writing program.

[1] “Thoughts on the Devotional Taste on Sects, and on Establishments”, 1775. http://www.orgs.miamioh.edu/womenpoets/barbauld/sects.html
[2]  “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade”, 1791. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/wilberforce/wilberforce.html
[3] Pisma iz Niša o haremima, 1986, Belgrade. https://archive.org/details/pismaizniaohare00pekogoog
[4] See Celia Hawkesworth, “A Serbian Woman in a Turkish Harem: The Work of Jelena Dimitrijević”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 77, No. 1 (1999), 56–73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4212795
[5] Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978.

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