Thursday, August 31, 2006

Beer and Cookies

Rating: GT

Related posts: Milk and Cookies, Fully Human

"Hey! What Happened To My Beer?": Women's Enlightenment, Men's Romanticism, and the Ramifications of Giving A Mouse A Cookie in Nineteenth-Century America
The conversation was miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms; and the only thing 'evolved from her inner consciousness,' was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that ... religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. .... [B]ut she was fascinated, just then, by the freedom of Speculative Philosophy...trying to find out what the wise gentlemen intended to rely upon after they had annihilated all the old beliefs....
[Mr. Bhaer] bore it as long as he could; but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation, and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth.... Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo; the old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new; God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again; and when Mr. Bhaer paused, out-talked, but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.

What in the world are Kant and Hegel doing in a nineteenth-century "girls' book"?2 American women writers of fiction like Augusta Jane Evans, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Louisa May Alcott captured an enormous shift in the role of women in private and public life in the nineteenth century. Within the emerging American ethos of independence, hard work and self-sacrifice, in which burgeoning industrialization placed a high priority on efficiency and economy of effort, women, recently released from the label of "potentially disorderly and dangerous,"3 and fueled by the rise of individualism and the fall of dogma as expressed by philosophers and theologians such as Kant, Hegel, and Emerson, by the last decades of the nineteenth century were rolling up their sleeves, eliminating the middleman, and getting much, much more directly involved in bringing their moral vision to the forefront of American life.

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Little Women was first published in 1868, Good Wives in 1869. Nearly a century before, Immanuel Kant was urging people to think for themselves, to throw off the mental and therefore spiritual tyranny of "the guardians," to question everything and embrace true intellectual and religious freedom.4 Ralph Waldo Emerson was a minister who, like Kant, called upon people to think for themselves; in an address to the Harvard Divinity School graduating class of 1838, he urged the "newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost" to "cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity," to throw off the tyranny of the ossified institution of Christian dogma, and to experience themselves as incarnations of God,5 an end which one could imagine might have caused Herr Kant to experience an aneurysm. Wiser folk than I have observed that the trouble with encouraging people to think for themselves is that some few individuals will actually take it into their heads to do it, and of course one century's rebel is the next century's authority. Kant's insistence that individuals think for themselves opened the door for Emerson's insistence that individuals experience God for themselves, which in turn pried open the floodgate for women who believed it was high time to take what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese describes as their "special responsibility to uphold and spread Christian belief and to live a model Christian life,"6 into the larger world.

Alcott's father Bronson was a Transcendentalist who was deeply admired by Emerson. As a small child, Louisa May along with her parents and older sister participated in an experiment in collective living called "Fruitlands," at which Emerson was a frequent visitor.7 Emerson's ideas are reflected in Alcott's novels in a number of remarkable ways: There is a great deal of personal piety and discussion of God's providence, and some few brief mentions of specific saints (St. Martin of Tours, for example), but no reference to Jesus as the Son of God, or to the Holy Ghost; the four girls receive books for Christmas in the opening chapter described as "that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived," but the words "Jesus" and "Christ" never appear; and although the character of Mr. March is a minister, there is no mention anywhere of anyone in the family ever going to church.8 Emerson's Romanticism seems clearly apparent in the episode related above, with Mr. Bhaer riding valiantly into battle in which "[h]e had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well; but he didn't know when he was beaten, and stood to his colours like a man."9 Oh my. Be still my heart.

The marriage of Jo, the quintessential all-American girl,10 to Mr. Bhaer, the German absent-minded professor with a heart of gold, may reflect a desire to marry off American independence and pragmatism to European tradition and scholarship: if America is the red balloon, Europe is the string. Without Europe, America drifts away into the ozone; without America, Europe just lies there in an incomprehensible tangle on the floor. One of the many interesting possibilities this presents is that, in Alcott's model, pragmatism and scholarship are opposites which, for the good of the species, must be brought together in mutual cooperation. Also interesting is that in this model, pragmatism is the feminine half of the partnership.11 Yet the character of Mr. Bhaer as initially introduced and developed is the champion of those things which in the latter half of the nineteenth century, according to Fox-Genovese, had come to be seen as the eminent domain of women, namely religion, morality, and children.12 Alcott's "perfect man" for Jo, it seems, is essentially a nineteenth-century woman.

It could be suggested that Alcott assigns these qualities to a man in order to give them legitimacy and retain the image of dominant male/submissive female; it may be more likely, on the other hand, that she was indulging in some fantasy fulfillment in which a man takes responsibility for his own religious and moral life instead of always relying on a woman to provide it. Little Women and Good Wives are rife with examples of women's obligation to do exactly that. Alcott reflects this dichotomy in an exchange between Jo and her much more "society"-savvy sister Amy, in which Jo declares,
"But I think girls ought to show when they disapprove of young men; and how can they do it except by their manners? Preaching does not do any good, as I know to my sorrow, as I've had Teddy [Laurie] to manage; but there are many little ways in which I can influence him without a word, and I say we ought to do it to others if we can."
Amy responds that
"...If we were belles, or women of wealth and position, we might do something, perhaps..."
but concludes that such a scheme
"wouldn't have a particle of effect, and we should only be considered odd and puritanical."
"So we are to countenance things and people which we detest, merely because we are not belles and millionaires, are we? That's a nice sort of morality."
"I can't argue about it, I only know that it's the way of the world; and people who set themselves against it only get laughed at for their pains. I don't like reformers, and I hope you will never try to be one."
"I do like them, and I shall be one if I can; for in spite of the laughing, the world would never get on without them. We can't agree about that, for you belong to the old set, and I to the new: you will get on the best, but I shall have the liveliest time of it. I should rather enjoy the brickbats and hooting, I think."

Notwithstanding, Alcott's subsequent refusal to marry Jo to Laurie14 in preference for a man who can carry his own water, thank you very much, speaks of what may have been a growing impatience with the "special responsibility" that allowed boys and men to do as they liked and saddled girls and women with the task of policing not only themselves but everyone else. Certain "reformers" who endured a great deal of "brickbats and hooting" had already expressed their own dissatisfaction with the double standard: in the "Declaration of Sentiments" from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848--the year Alcott turned sixteen, twenty years before the publication of Little Women--the authors wrote of man, "He has created a false public sentiment by giving the world a different code of morals for men and women..."15

The subversive quality of these episodes in Alcott's fiction is striking. Jo's endorsement of "reformers" is as clear a call to action as Samuel Clemens's depiction of Huck's moral struggle which ends in his declaration of willingness to suffer hell rather than treat Jim as less than fully human; yet Alcott's is tucked safely away in a "girls' book," amidst object lessons about duty and family and womanly virtues, where it may whisper in the ears of the world's "little women" until they are grown enough to take up the challenge.

At the time Alcott was writing, women's sphere of influence was still generally understood to be restricted to the home, and possibly to the "many little ways [women] can influence [men] without a word," but how long can one expect to make one group of people responsible for everyone's private behavior and still expect that group to remain submissive in terms of the public transmission of religion? Women were responsible for leading their husbands and children to church, where the women were then obliged to keep their mouths shut because they were morally culpable for the Fall. Into this logic gap leapt women like Frances Willard, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Did someone say "dangerous and disorderly"? Disordering patriarchal society and endangering the status quo were these women's bread and butter. It is ironic that their ideological lineage can be traced straight back to Immanuel Kant, who eight years after the American Declaration of Independence claimed that "the freedom of mind of the people" could not possibly occur in a republic, because the "greater degree of civil freedom...places inescapable limitations upon it; a lower degree of civil freedom, on the contrary, provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity."16 Kant advocated "man's release from self-incurred tutelage" and saw as its chief obstacle "That the step to competence is held [to] be very dangerous by the far greater portion of mankind (and by the entire fair sex)" but that this obstacle could be overcome by means of leadership by example (the mode of leadership, a century later, deemed suitable for women): "For there will always be some independent thinkers...who...will disseminate the spirit of the rational appreciation of both their own worth and every man's vocation of thinking for himself."17

Emerson made the same claims to the right and even obligation of self-determination in the realm of the spiritual that Kant made in the realm of the intellectual, and Henry David Thoreau's ongoing paean to civil disobedience, although interminably irritating to Emerson,18 forged a mighty link between the practical (i.e., that which is practiced) and the romantic. Enter the women, who were expected to lead by example, to "disseminate the spirit" of morality and Christianity; but once released, the genie of women's direct influence was not going back in the bottle. Willard, Stanton and Mott rejected the notion that women needed men to oversee the overt expression of their religious lives in church, an attitude succinctly summarized in Sojourner Truth's declaration that Christ came "[f]rom God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him."19

It is significant that Alcott references but never quite articulates the "old beliefs, that had lasted so long..." A woman could get away with writing fiction--especially fiction for children, and most especially for girl children--but articulation of doctrine was not "women's work." By barring women from the exercise of their moral and religious vision in terms of what Catherine Albanese calls "extraordinary" religion--"beyond the boundaries of the everyday world"--church authorities left women with only one field in which to work: that of "ordinary" religion,20 wherein lies the realm of politics and social reform. Lucretia Mott, speaking to a gathering of women in 1854 (the year before Alcott's first book, Flower Fables, was published), had taken up Emerson's call and made it something personal to herself and to her audience: "We have been so long pinning our faith on other people's sleeves that we ought to begin examining these things daily for ourselves.... How many women are there now immolated upon the shrine of superstition and the assumption that man only has a right to the pulpit.... We too often bind ourselves by authorities rather than by the truth."21 Thirty-five years later, Frances Willard, writing in 1889, gave to this personalized call arms and legs and teeth:
It is men who have taken the simple, loving, tender Gospel of the New Testament, so suited to be the proclamation of a woman's lips, and translated it in terms of sacerdotalism, dogma, and martyrdom. It is men who have given us the dead letter rather than the living Gospel.... Men preach a creed; women will declare a life.... The Greek bishop who said, "My creed is faultless, with my life you have nothing to do," condensed into a sentence two thousand years of priestly dogma. Men reason in the abstract, women in the concrete.22
And Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895, "Others say it is not politic to rouse religious opposition. This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice.... For so far-reaching and momentous a reform as [woman's] complete independence, an entire revolution in all existing institutions is inevitable."23 Whoa there! Them's fightin' words, missy!

Fighting words, indeed. After the Civil War, many women seeking to enact a moral vision founded in their own faith experience tackled what they perceived as the chief threat to social stability: alcoholic beverages. The consumption of alcohol was perceived as a great threat to the morality of their brothers, sons, and husbands; and drunken men were a great threat to the safety of women and children. Fox-Genovese notes that the Women's Christian Temperance Union grew to around 200,000 members in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and that "over time [many members] came to believe that their cause required them to defend women's right to participate in politics in order to accomplish their goals."24 One might imagine that the enactment of Prohibition in 1919 made more than one man wish that his father had just let the women preach in church; as Kant noted, "so harmful is it to implant prejudices, for they later take vengeance on their cultivators or on their descendants."

Those implanted prejudices continued to bear their nasty poisonous fruit throughout the following century, and the descendants of their cultivators continued to wrestle with the effects. Following in the footsteps of F.D. Maurice in England, as well as the American reformers of the nineteenth century, Walter Rauschenbusch articulated a theology of Christian social justice, picking up where the previous generation had left off, "summon[ing] Christian men singly and collectively to put their hands to the plough and not to look back till public morality shall be at least as much Christianized as private morality now is."25 It sounds terrific; it is terrific--until some maniac gets his psychotic hands on it and produces the horrors of Laramie...not to mention Auschwitz. The work goes on.

The work goes on, because the one constant in organized "extraordinary" religion, expressed in the institutional church, is that it is relentlessly human. It would appear that the human tendency to huddle and exclude is not going away anytime soon. One denomination says, yes, by all means women can teach Sunday School, but only to children under sixteen. Another, at another time, says, yes, black and brown folk can be ordained, but only for black and brown congregations. Still another says, yes, we can ordain women, but they should all be associate rectors and deal mostly with youth ministry and Christian Education; yes, gays and lesbians can be full (i.e., pledging) members of the church, and yes, our catechism says the ministers of the church are "lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons," so technically yes, they can be ministers, but only as lay people; so all right, if you want a heterosexual woman bishop in your diocese, we can't stop you, but she's not coming into our diocese. Within the same denomination, another group says, well, okay, gays and lesbians can be ordained as deacons and priests, but not as bishops ... The work goes on.

Give a mouse a cookie... well, you know. (And if you're joining us for the first time and have no earthly idea what the hell I'm talking about, check out Milk and Cookies.)
The work goes on.

yours in the struggle,

1 Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women and Good Wives. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 313-314.
2 Thwaite, Ann (citing Alcott's personal journal). Introduction to Little Women and Good Wives, xv.
3 Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "Religion and Women in America" in World Religions in America: An Introduction, ed. Jacob Neusner (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 226.
4 Kant, Immanuel. "What Is Enlightenment?" in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (MacMillan, 1990).
5 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Divinity School Address. Harvard Divinity School, July 15, 1838.
6 Fox-Genovese, 224.
7 Sears, Clara Endicott. Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, Inc., 1975, 5-8.
8 Meg's wedding takes place outdoors, performed by Mr. March; Amy and Laurie are married at the American consulate in Paris; and after the emotionally torturous episode of Beth's last days has left the reader sobbing through an entire case of Kleenex, the author relents and spares us the agony of a funeral.
9 Alcott, 314.
10 Jo longs to visit Europe but never manages to get there; Amy gets to go instead because she's a much nicer girl. Amy winds up marrying the boy next door; Jo never leaves the northeastern United States, but she marries the European genius. Hmmmm...
11 See Sears for a description of Alcott's childhood experience of Fruitlands, in which Mrs. Alcott is clearly the pragmatic partner. The parallel to the fictional "Plumfield" of Good Wives (the boarding school-cum-farming collective started and run by Jo and Mr. Bhaer after their marriage) is pretty apparent.
12 Fox-Genovese, 223-226.
13 Alcott, 264.
14 Thwaite, xviii. Quoting Alcott, "I won't marry Jo and Laurie to please anyone."
15 From History of Woman Suffrage vol. 1, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Cage, in Wogaman and Strong (eds.), Readings in Christian Ethics, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 219.
16 Kant, 88-89.
17 Kant, 83-84.
18 Madden, Edward H. Civil Disobedience and Moral Law in Nineteenth Century American Philosophy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968, 90-98.
19 Truth, Sojourner. Ain't I A Woman? From Wogaman and Strong, 224.
20 Albanese, Catherine. America: Religions and Religion. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992, 98.
21 Mott, Lucretia, in History of Woman Suffrage vol. 1, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Cage, in Wogaman and Strong, 221-222.
22 Willard, Frances E. Woman in the Pulpit in Wogaman and Strong, 227.
23 Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman's Bible: Comments on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, in Wogaman and Strong, 229.
24 Fox-Genovese, 230-231.
25 Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis, in Wogaman and Strong, 235.


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