Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Wright, Frances (Fanny) (1795–1852)
Author:
Hynes, Jennifer A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman was aware of this radical reformer, writer, and lecturer from his childhood; his father subscribed to the Free Inquirer (1829–1832), which was edited by Wright and Robert Dale Owen, and agreed with some of the ideas of the working class activist.

Born of a well-to-do Scottish family, Frances (Fanny) Wright was orphaned at the age of two and reared by relatives in England. She was attracted by the liberal ideas of the French Revolution and saw the United States as a place where her notions of social justice and equality might be carried out. Wright's writings and lectures in America on labor reform, women's education, class, free thinking, and free love—along with the fact that, in 1828, she was the first woman to make a lengthy political speech in America—caused the press to label her an atheist, fanatic, lewd woman, the "whore of Babylon," and the "great Red Harlot of Infidelity." Wright's antislavery experiment, the founding of Nashoba, a colony in Tennessee that offered slaves the chance to work to buy their freedom, was an economic and ideological failure.

Gay Wilson Allen argues that Whitman read his father's copies of the Free Inquirer and Wright's book on Epicurean philosophy, A Few Days in Athens (1822), and that he may have accompanied his father to hear some of Wright's New York lectures in the 1820s. In any case, Whitman was fascinated by the attractive, outspoken intellectual who brought such censure on herself by her radical ideas of democracy. Whitman once told Horace Traubel: "I never felt so glowingly toward any other woman. . . . [S]he possessed herself of my body and soul" (Traubel 500).

Whitman was drawn by Wright's stance for the workingman, by her active work for rational thought and education among all classes, and by her deism. The Free Inquirer, which beginning in April 1829 was published in the basement of her New York Hall of Science, argued theology and the gradual end of capital punishment, political equality for women, civil rights for all, universal and nonsectarian education, and gradual abolition, and aimed to be a forum for the exchange of ideas. The journal also supported a variety of programs aimed at helping the workingman, or mechanic, intending to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and a state-supported health-care system.

Reynolds claims that reading A Few Days in Athens taught Whitman how progressive ideas could be circulated by way of imaginative literature. Largely a dialogue between the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and some of his followers, this never popular novel provided Whitman with a model of deistic materialism.

The novel's notions of the interchangeability of all matter prefigure Whitman's organic view of death and belief in literal cycles of life; thus Wright's conception that all things in the natural world represent only "the different disposition of these eternal and unchangeable atoms" (qtd. in Allen 139) is echoed by Whitman's "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" in "Song of Myself" (section 1).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Eckhardt, Celia Morris. Fanny Wright: Rebel in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

Lane, Margaret. Frances Wright and the "Great Experiment." Manchester, N.J.: Manchester UP, 1972.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. 1908. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Wright, Frances. A Few Days in Athens—Being the Translation of a Greek Manuscript Discovered in Herculaneum. 1822. New York: Bliss and White, 1825.

———. Life, Letters, and Lectures, 1834–1844. New York: Arno, 1972.


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