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Helen thoreaus antislavery_scrapbook copy


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Helen thoreaus antislavery_scrapbook copy

  1. 1. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y R O B E R T A . S C R A P B O O K G R O S S Had William Shakespeare had a sister as ‘‘wonderfully gifted’’ as he, we would never know it, Virginia Woolf famously speculated in A Room of One’s Own. The barriers to female achievement in the life of the mind were simply insuperable in Elizabethan England. Destined for early marriage and a lifetime of domestic drudgery, ‘‘Judith Shakespeare’’ would have enjoyed none of the advantages that made possible the bard’s rise to literary eminence: no grammar school in which to learn Latin and logic; no rambles in the woods to stir a spirit of adventure; no travel to distant places to make a living on her own; no chance of inscribing herself on the historical record with anything but an ‘‘X.’’ Two and a half centuries later, in the New England across the sea that was just dawning in the dreams of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Henry David Thoreau had a real sister – two actually, one older, one younger – who could claim nearly all the opportunities denied to the fictional Judith. Born in October 1812 in Concord, Massachusetts, a mere five months after her parents’ wedding, Helen Louisa Thoreau grew up in a time and place in which public schools were opening up to girls and ‘‘female academies’’ were ‘‘everywhere establishing,’’ prompting one female writer, R 1 0 3
  2. 2. 1 0 4 G R O S S Judith Sargent Murray, as early as 1798 to anticipate ‘‘a new era of female history.’’ Helen’s parents shared in the devotion to learning, and although the family struggled financially to stay afloat, Cynthia and John Thoreau readily sacrificed basic comforts, even co√ee, tea, and sugar, for their children’s education. Helen Thoreau attended the private Concord Academy, as did her younger siblings, and obtained lessons in English and Latin, painting and piano, genteel acquirements that she put to good use. Her art won recognition at the Middlesex County Agricultural Fair. Her education provided a means of economic independence. Helen left home and joined the ranks of New England’s growing army of schoolmistresses, her earnings contributing to brother Henry’s Harvard tuition. Her time away from home was short-lived, but it had a lasting impact. So ‘‘quiet and retiring’’ that she figures little in reminiscences of the Thoreau clan, Helen nonetheless had the self-confidence to stake out a public presence in the abolitionist movement. With her parents, brothers John and Henry, and sister Sophia, she enlisted in William Lloyd Garrison’s crusade to free America from the curse of slavery, and she never swerved from that commitment, no matter where it would take her. She signed one petition after another opposing the advance of the Slave Power; she pledged ‘‘no union with slaveholders’’ and vowed to resist the Mexican War as an illegal and immoral scheme to seize Texas and expand the empire of slavery; she held o≈ce in abolitionist groups and stood on the public stage alongside men. Search the name ‘‘Helen Thoreau’’ in the digitized database of the Liberator and in the antislavery petitions held at the Massachusetts State Archives, and you will encounter her time and again. Yet the individual voice of Helen Thoreau is only a little more audible than Judith Shakespeare’s. A few short letters survive, including one trumpeting an abolitionist success in Concord; another displays a self-deprecating wit, in which she likens her sister Sophia and herself, about to embark on a trip to an antislavery fair in Boston, as ‘‘forlorn damsels without a home in the city.’’ We gain a few glimpses of an earnest, intelligent woman from Henry’s correspondence; he wrote her letters in Latin, exchanged ideas about books, and shared an easy camaraderie with a ‘‘kindred temperament of mind and body.’’ Unlike her brother, Helen seldom caused a stir, even at home, where she would slip unobY
  3. 3. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K trusively into the parlor to hear the latest news. She evidently preferred to look and listen; her service to the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society in June 1844 was as ‘‘secretary pro tem,’’ recording others’ words. That attentiveness grew out of a personality ‘‘endowed by nature with tender sensibilities’’ and ‘‘quick to feel for the woe of others,’’ as one of her compatriots in the abolitionist cause recalled. It is also the exemplary quality that takes her out of her brother’s shadow and puts her into an unaccustomed light. Disposed to record and preserve what she saw and heard, Helen Thoreau spent numerous hours in 1842 and 1843 cutting columns of print out of the several periodicals her family received and pasting them onto the pages of an old business ledger given to her by Mary Merrick Brooks, secretary of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society (CFAS), of which Helen was vice president. The sturdy volume, thirteen inches tall, eight and a half inches wide, had once belonged to Brooks’s father, Tilly Merrick, a Concordborn merchant who carried on trade in Charleston, South Carolina, during the mid-1780s. On its pages he recorded sales of Jamaica rum, loaf sugar, co√ee, cotton and linen cloth, writing paper, and other imported goods – a flourishing business until the late 1790s, when Merrick retreated to Concord and spent the rest of his days unhappily doling out snu√ by the box and rum by the glass. At his death in 1836, the ledger passed into the hands of his daughter Mary, a passionate admirer of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and the driving force behind the Concord Female AntiSlavery Society. In her eyes, the transactions inscribed therein must have been distressing reminders of her family heritage: the indelible register of her father’s onetime complicity in the commercial life of a slave society. Why not cover up that evidence and put the volume to better use? To Helen Thoreau, Brooks’s next-door neighbor, fell that task on taking up the duties of vice president of the CFAS. The front leaf is inscribed in her hand: ‘‘Helen L. Thoreau/ Concord 1843/Index at the end.’’ The final leaves supply the promised index. The Concord Free Public Library, which holds the volume in its Special Collections, has long characterized the untitled manuscript as ‘‘Helen Thoreau’s Anti-Slavery Scrapbook.’’ It is that and more. Unlike the imaginary Judith Shakespeare, Helen Thoreau found a way to make her mark in the historical record. In R 1 0 5
  4. 4. 1 0 6 G R O S S her selection of pieces for preservation in a scrapbook, she took the evidence of her reading and thinking and constituted an intellectual world, once urgent in its claims on those engaged in the struggle to redeem the nation from slavery and sin, and now beckoning to a historian seeking to comprehend that campaign in both its local and its widest contexts. It is a literary artifact composed by a woman largely lost in the silence of the past. Seemingly self-e√acing, the scrapbook has much to reveal about its compiler’s frame of mind. For Helen Thoreau did not cut and paste for herself alone. In contrast to the prefabricated, ‘‘self-pasting’’ scrapbooks that soared in popularity during the later Gilded Age, her homespun collection of newspaper clippings was not intended as a ‘‘visual autobiography’’ of an unfolding self nor as a medium for the ‘‘construction of identity.’’ Her brothers and sister assembled such documents, but not she. In keeping with an educational practice dating back to the Renaissance, Henry filled up four blank books between 1836 and 1850 with extensive extracts from works of philosophy, natural and human history, and literature. These repositories of reading, known as commonplace books, served the aspiring writer as a storehouse of information and quotations and perhaps as a display of intellectual accomplishments, for his eyes only. In 1839 brother John started something similar, inscribing a few favorite poems – a couple from the mid-seventeenth century, another, Emerson’s ‘‘To the Humble Bee,’’ straight o√ the press – on the empty sheets of a bound volume; then he set the manuscript aside and apparently forgot all about it. After his sudden death from lockjaw at age twenty-six in 1842, Sophia discovered the blank book and eased her grief by converting it into a memorial to the owner, complete with his verses, a lock of his hair, letters of sympathy, and Henry’s poetic tribute, ‘‘Brother where dost thou dwell.’’ Twenty years later, the volume would take on a further burden and commemorate the life and works of the ‘‘poet-naturalist.’’ The last surviving sibling, Sophia Thoreau kept family memories alive in this scrapbook. Helen Thoreau had a wider audience in mind for her handiwork. The scrapbook, it seems likely, was intended for circulation among the members of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. The group was already taking several subscriptions to the LiberaY
  5. 5. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K tor. Now it stood to gain from Helen Thoreau’s voluntary labors with scissors and paste. Gathering together selections from contemporary publications, the scrapbook would furnish additional material to sustain the members’ zeal. Its compiler thus deserves to be remembered not only as a teacher and activist but also as an editor, meticulously creating an anthology of antislavery pieces for her sisters in the cause – a Concord counterpart to the Liberty Bell and similar literary annuals popular among abolitionists. The assemblage of clippings, in this view, developed as a collective project, perhaps even at meetings of the women in one another’s homes. It attests simultaneously to the interests of Helen Thoreau and her family and to the reading culture of Concord’s female abolitionists. It is now well known that women were the backbone of the movement to free the slaves, forming a ‘‘great army of silent workers, unknown to fame,’’ without whose support all the militant speeches and writings of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and their male colleagues would have been in vain. In Concord, as elsewhere, women carried on the struggle at the grassroots. Year after year they doggedly took antislavery petitions from door to door, asking their neighbors to sign memorials to Congress and the state legislature on the urgent questions of the day: slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia and the territories; the annexation of Texas and the admission of new slave states; the national fugitive slave laws; and racial discrimination within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They played a leading role in bringing abolitionist speakers to town. They raised essential funds through anti-slavery fairs. They attended ‘‘promiscuous’’ conventions that brought activists of both sexes together, where women freely debated the issues, voted on motions, and were elected to o≈ce. They assisted in the defense and rescue of fugitive slaves. And when these e√orts stirred a backlash from conservatives outraged at the unprecedented visibility of women in the public sphere, many soldiered on and eventually determined that the cause of the slave was their own: a universal fight for freedom and citizenship for all. Through abolitionism, women acquired the organizational experience, the political sophistication, and the moral self-confidence to become agents of a great national R 1 0 7
  6. 6. 1 0 8 G R O S S renewal that would, in the millennial hopes of Mary Brooks, ‘‘finally turn our world of sin and misery into a world of purity, holiness and happiness.’’ In fact, a vast gender gap separated women from men in the crusade against slavery, and nowhere more so than in Helen Thoreau’s Concord. At the height of the great national petition campaigns run by the American Anti-Slavery Society and the AntiSlavery Convention of American Women in 1837 and 1838, some 415,000 Americans from Maine to Michigan put their names on memorials to Congress, and by all estimates, seven out of ten of them were women. In Concord, a town with 2,000 inhabitants, Helen Thoreau joined her sister, mother, and aunts among the 340 female subscribers; her father and brothers counted among the 130 men on a distinct set of petitions circulated among the male inhabitants. The female-male ratio exceeds two and a half to one. This outpouring of support among women was astounding. Some 63 percent of adult women in Concord subscribed to the antislavery pleas, compared to a quarter of adult men. The modest involvement of men was unexceptional – similar levels can be found for towns in New York’s Burned-Over District – but Concord’s women broke all records for participation among communities that have been put under the historian’s microscope. Over the ensuing years it proved impossible to sustain such enthusiasm among either sex, but men deserted the campaigns in far greater numbers. In 1840, 116 townspeople protested against the Gag Rule in Congress, which prevented discussion of antislavery memorials, and against the prospective admission of Florida into the union as a slave state; three-quarters of them were women. Two years later only 17 men were prepared to endorse a call on the Massachusetts House to eliminate a state law barring interracial marriage. The 108 women who put their names on that same document constituted 86 percent of all subscribers. It took a radical commitment to equality for a white woman to join in that plea. But one out of five Concord women, including all the Thoreaus, was ready to do so. Not even 5 percent of their male neighbors followed suit. Antislavery activism wore a female look. Were there, then, two cultures of reform, shaped by distinct constructions of gender? That suggestion gains force when we notice that the antislavery petitions submitted by men in the late Y
  7. 7. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K 1830s typically make arguments about public policy based on calculation of northern and southern interests; the female petitions, by contrast, invoke the language of feelings and faith. Consider, too, the striking resemblance the signatures on the petitions bear to the membership lists of Massachusetts Congregational and Unitarian churches. In Concord, where the Rev. Ezra Ripley presided over the pulpit of the established Congregational Church for six decades, from 1778 to 1842, and eventually led his parishioners into the Unitarian fold, women made up close to three-quarters of members. But that record was hardly di√erent from that of the Trinitarian church launched in 1826 by a little band of evangelical dissenters weary of Ripley’s liberal preaching; 72 percent of the evangelicals were female, including Helen’s aunts Elizabeth, Jane, and Maria Thoreau. And just as women frequently joined the churches in concert with kin, so they subscribed to petitions. Clusters of mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, and sisters fill the rolls; the female branch of the Thoreau clan alone takes in seven relatives, Trinitarian and Unitarian alike. Perhaps, then, a distinctive brand of female piety, growing out of New England’s religious tradition, helps explain the course of the antislavery movement. If so, then Helen Thoreau’s scrapbook may provide crucial evidence in the kinds of reading material she chose for the ‘‘abolitionist sisterhood.’’ In Thoreau’s scrapbook we can go beyond the conventions, speeches, petitions, and fairs – the public face of abolitionism – and explore the sources from which Concord’s ‘‘friends of the slave’’ drew ideas and information, arguments and rhetoric. When Helen Thoreau took up the task of surveying the periodical press for scrapbook items, antislavery activists everywhere were struggling to come to terms with the permanent division in their ranks that had crystallized in 1839–40, owing to intractable conflicts over the public role of women in the cause, the duty of abolitionists to participate in electoral politics, and controversial statements by Garrison regarding religion, the Protestant ministry, and the necessity of Sabbath observance to Christian faith. Garrison insisted on preaching his heterodox opinions in the Liberator as the spirit moved him, and when critics complained that he was hurting the image of abolitionism, he refused to tone down his statements. As he saw it, reformers should be free to speak their minds R 1 0 9
  8. 8. 1 1 0 G R O S S on any measure promising to advance the ‘‘universal emancipation’’ of humankind. If people disagreed with his ideas, let them assert their own with equal bluntness and force. Such iconoclasm appealed to religious free-thinkers like the Thoreaus but not to the many evangelical Protestants who had taken up the cause of the slave as an expression of their faith. In July 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society broke up into competing national entities, with the original body under the control of Garrison and his supporters, and a new entity, the American and Foreign AntiSlavery Society, launched by their adversaries. As the ‘‘old org’’ and ‘‘new org’’ traded insults and polemics, abolitionism lost its claim to be a single movement – a development that Helen Thoreau and her fellow activists came to know all too well. The Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society had gotten its start in the fall of 1837, following a visit to town by the antislavery lecturer Angelina Grimké, the Charleston native whose eloquent testimony against ‘‘the iniquities and enormities’’ of slavery, presented in ‘‘all its heart-rending details of su√ering and of wretchedness,’’ galvanized female sympathizers into action wherever she and her sister Sarah spoke. The creation of the new group, Mary Brooks later recalled, was initially ignored or greeted with ridicule – a response that was not surprising, considering that the local Whig elite had taken a firm stand in January 1835 against both abolitionist lecturers and the establishment of a Middlesex County AntiSlavery Society, overwhelmingly male and led by ministers, to agitate for immediate emancipation. ‘‘We have no right to meddle with slavery at all,’’ declared the local Yeoman’s Gazette, and ‘‘we cannot legislate on the subject, either through our legislatures or through Congress.’’ In succeeding years the male citizens of Concord put this conviction into practice by withholding their signatures in overwhelming numbers from antislavery petitions. Despite its later reputation as a ‘‘hotbed of abolitionist sentiment,’’ the town of Concord was, at best, lukewarm on the slavery issue until the annexation of Texas and the outbreak of the Mexican War. ‘‘Meddle’’ its antislavery women did, and with an ecumenism that overcame the religious di√erences that had sundered the townspeople into rival sects of Trinitarians, Unitarians, and Universalists, along with a handful of Methodists and an expanding body of ‘‘Nothingarians,’’ who declined to support any church at Y
  9. 9. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K all. But even as the Concord group was getting going with some sixty to seventy members, orthodox Congregational ministers in Massachusetts were condemning the public role of women in antislavery reform as an ‘‘unnatural’’ violation of the ‘‘female character.’’ By July 1839, after little more than four years in operation, the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, in whose proceedings Mary Brooks and Helen and Sophia Thoreau had been early participants despite conservative disapproval, became a battleground between partisans of the old and new orgs. ‘‘The Abolitionists in their scrambling for . . . rule and mastery have well nigh forgotten slavery and the slave,’’ the Concord Freeman, a Democratic organ occasionally friendly to reform, acidly commented. ‘‘Their e√orts seem now to be principally directed to abolishing each other.’’ The dissension soon spread into the ranks of the Concord Female AntiSlavery Society. Among those disgusted with the iconoclasm of Garrison was Maria Thoreau, a charter member of the Trinitarian church. ‘‘I can no longer follow such a leader,’’ the devout woman explained. ‘‘He has mixed up everything with it, even the doing away of the Sabbath.’’ Encouraged by their minister, Maria Thoreau split with her sister-in-law Cynthia and nieces Helen and Sophia and, along with other orthodox women, deserted the CFAS and withdrew into the Trinitarian church, where in 1842 they started a competing Ladies’ Emancipation Society, at whose gatherings the faithful devoted themselves to ‘‘prayer, discussion, and work,’’ sewing clothes to be sold for relief of fugitive slaves in Canada. ‘‘We can no longer conscientiously co-operate with those who have imbibed errors, not only prejudicial to the cause of the slave,’’ the ladies explained, ‘‘but . . . injurious to the Church of Christ, and subversive of . . . the stability of our government.’’ To Mary Brooks’s sorrow, the spirit of ‘‘sectarianism’’ – ‘‘that fell destroyer of all that is lovely and of good report’’ – had dispersed ‘‘the armies of freedom.’’ The constant feuding reduced most female antislavery societies to ine√ectiveness, if not outright dissolution. The original Concord group managed to hang on, a stalwart of the Garrisonian camp, whose ranks were steadily diminishing. Perseverance paid o√. By the middle of 1842, renewed energy was stirring in Concord and statewide. Political abolitionists, gathered into the new Liberty Party, launched an all-out e√ort to win equal rights for black R 1 1 1
  10. 10. 1 1 2 G R O S S citizens and to secure a ‘‘personal liberty law,’’ which would e√ectively prevent the return of fugitive slaves from Massachusetts to the southern states from which they had fled. The Garrisonians spurned the third-party e√ort in the conviction that abolitionists should seek to transform public opinion about slavery through ‘‘moral suasion’’ rather than compete for votes in elections. But they were as fervent as the ‘‘Libertyites’’ in fighting for freedom in Massachusetts. With their interests aligned, though not their organizations, antislavery activists generated thousands of signatures for their petitions, up to 62,000 in favor of the personal liberty law, with an extraordinary 352 subscribers from Concord alone, and, thanks to the balance of power the Liberty Party gained in the 1843 legislature, they achieved most of their agenda. In Concord the Liberty men were few in number – the party’s candidate for governor won a mere six votes in 1842 and nine the next year – but they took the lead in a petition drive that, as we have seen, gained signatures chiefly among local women. The memorials brought together members of every denomination, as well as the nona≈liated and the ‘‘come-outers.’’ To the members of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, public opinion appeared ready for renewed discussion of abolitionism. As Mary Brooks reviewed the progress of the abolitionist cause in the annual report she composed as secretary of the CFAS in June 1843, she was in an expectant mood, with all signs pointing to the fulfillment of long-sought dreams. For one thing, the members had su√ered repeated attacks by their adversaries, ‘‘stirred up by a corrupt and ungodly church,’’ and despite many ‘‘desertions,’’ had ‘‘breasted the storm.’’ Now the enemy was in retreat. Conservative critics, many of them evangelicals, were starting to doubt their own antislavery strategy and to question why, ‘‘after all our prayers, and labors, and revivals, every thing we do seems a failure.’’ The politicians were recognizing that neither major party – not ‘‘democracy’’ nor ‘‘whiggism’’ – had any solution for ‘‘the evils under which we are perishing.’’ As for the political abolitionists, they o√ered no hope, having ‘‘degenerated’’ into the amoral Liberty Party. Under these circumstances, the field lay open for the clear-sighted, courageous women who had trusted in ‘‘the living God’’ and ‘‘planted’’ their feet ‘‘on the rock of truth.’’ We are ‘‘comparatively few in numbers, but invincible is our present posiY
  11. 11. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K tion.’’ Brooks, whom a fellow radical from Boston praised as ‘‘perfectly fearless’’ and ‘‘what the transcendentalists might hail as ‘the truest of women,’ ’’ had caught the perfectionist spirit of the times. In the spring of 1843, New England reformers were hard at work on utopian schemes to advance God’s kingdom on earth, from Brook Farm in West Roxbury to Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, which was just starting up in the nearby town of Harvard as Brooks wrote and which temporarily deprived the CFAS of its indefatigable member Abigail May Alcott. For Brooks, the key to social transformation lay in abolitionism: ‘‘We need an antislavery preacher to show that slavery is the grand cause of our poverty and degradation, and that it must cause our speedy ruin, unless soon removed.’’ Identifying with the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, revered by nineteenth-century Protestants for foreseeing the birth of a Messiah and by abolitionists for enjoining the people of Israel to ‘‘let the oppressed go free,’’ the CFAS secretary summoned her sisters to take up a divine charge. ‘‘God in his providence has placed this cause, in a great and unusual manner, in the hands of women. On us very much rests the responsibility of righting these mighty wrongs.’’ While Brooks tracked the advancing millennium in lectures delivered and dollars raised, Helen Thoreau followed the signs of the times on the pages of her scrapbook. She drew her texts from a narrow universe: the National Anti-Slavery Standard, o≈cial organ of the American Anti-Slavery Society, based in Manhattan and safely in Garrisonian hands; the Herald of Freedom, the bracing voice of radical abolitionism in Concord, New Hampshire, under the helm of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers; the Liberator itself; and the Transcendentalist journal The Dial during the two years of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s editorship. A few issues of Maine’s Bangor Gazette and Concord’s Yeoman’s Gazette supplemented these sources. The Thoreau family received all but the Bangor newspaper, copies of which were probably obtained from relatives Down East, eager to share the productions of its antislavery editor. (The Dial, to which Henry contributed, undoubtedly came free.) The abolitionist periodicals represented the extreme left of the antislavery spectrum (to use the anachronistic terms of our own day), but they were not an unvarying chorus, and in their pages Helen Thoreau and the members of the CFAS gained access to a R 1 1 3
  12. 12. 1 1 4 G R O S S mix of contemporary opinions, owing to the common practice of mid-nineteenth-century editors of freely reprinting from one another. That variety is displayed in the scrapbook. Leading literary magazines – Graham’s, New World, United States Magazine and Democratic Review – supplied poetry and short stories by William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Catherine Sedgwick, and John Greenleaf Whittier; the Dial furnished essays by James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and Lydia Maria Child. Such fare was exactly what Mary Brooks required to widen her horizons, according to one admirer: ‘‘ She is no further literary than a thorough knowledge of every thing connected with Anti Slavery and Non Resistance makes her so and as she is so companionable in every thing else, I miss this knowledge of books.’’ Other selections promised to broaden the religious outlook of the Concord women. The Presbyterian New-York Evangelist, the Congregationalist Boston Recorder, and the Episcopalian Spirit of Missions shared space with such anticlerical periodicals as the Liberator and the Non-Resistant. Just as people of di√erent faiths came together on antislavery petitions, so orthodox, liberal, and ‘‘infidel’’ items mingled together in the scrapbook. One hundred twenty or so items claim squatter’s rights in Tilly Merrick’s old account book, of which I have identified about eighty. The pieces are concentrated in the years 1842 and 1843, and they unfold on the page in rough chronological order, but with frequent interruptions. The clippings begin in November 1841, move steadily forward through the spring and fall of 1842, only to backtrack to the previous June, then hurry to catch up with November and December and the start of another New Year. But the forward momentum is quickly reversed, and we are back in 1842, revisiting familiar months in a historian’s version of the film Groundhog Day. The interruptions are understandable. The sudden death of brother John in January 1842 left Henry so paralyzed with grief that the doctor feared for his life; the family struggled to cope. Clipping newspapers must have been a low priority. But the looping back and forth in time also tips us o√ to Helen Thoreau’s method, if we can call it that. Stacks of newspapers evidently piled up in her parents’ house, and from time to time, perhaps when she (or other relatives) couldn’t stand the clutter any longer, she finally sat down to cut and paste. Y
  13. 13. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K Whatever the process, the scrapbook provides a snapshot of the episodes, controversies, and people that seized radical abolitionists’ attention in the early 1840s: the first public appearances of Frederick Douglass before antislavery audiences; the trial and release of the Amistad captives; the popular campaign to block the return of fugitive George Latimer, who had found sanctuary in Boston, to his slave-master in Norfolk; the gathering opposition to capital punishment in Massachusetts; Dorothea Dix’s e√ort to reform the treatment of the insane; extracts from notable speeches; and assorted reports of conventions everywhere from Massachusetts to Ohio and across the sea to London and Dublin. The miscellany is even more striking for what does not appear: no polemics against the ‘‘new org’’; no vitriol against the Liberty Party; no passionate defenses of women’s rights. In these years of transition for radical abolitionism, Garrison was leading the way to outright disunionism, publicly denouncing the U.S. Constitution, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, as ‘‘a covenant with death’’ and an agreement ‘‘with hell.’’ Mary Brooks and the Thoreau women, both mother and daughters, took this journey with him; in May 1844 they endorsed ‘‘no union with slaveholders’’ at the annual meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. But no hint of this extremism slips into the collection. The scrapbook is as mild-mannered as its keeper. There was good reason for this moderation. The great majority of pieces, close to fifty by present count, first appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, whose editor, Lydia Maria Child, was determined to produce a ‘‘good family newspaper.’’ As Child saw it, abolitionists already had enough editors in the pulpit preaching to the choir. For the cause to succeed, it was imperative to attract people who would not ordinarily subscribe to an ‘‘exclusively antislavery paper.’’ To that end, Child filled the Standard with lots of ‘‘literary and miscellaneous material,’’ designed to ‘‘elevate and enlarge the soul.’’ She took pains to avoid anything partisan, sectarian, or nationalistic; ‘‘I have not sought to glorify America, but humanity at large.’’ It was a winning formula; over the two years of her editorship, from May 1841 to May 1843, the Standard steadily gained in circulation, with some five thousand weekly subscribers by the time she stepped down. Meanwhile, as the Liberator grew ever more strident, its readership dwindled. Child’s R 1 1 5
  14. 14. 1 1 6 G R O S S editorial approach appealed not just to antislavery novices but also to hard-core abolitionists, such as Helen Thoreau and Mary Brooks. ‘‘I like such a paper as hers among others of a di√erent character,’’ Brooks opined. Indeed, Child was the presiding genius of the scrapbook, which contains two dozen of her pieces; no other writer comes close. Nineteen of the items derived from Child’s popular series ‘‘Letters from New York,’’ which ran in the Standard in fifty-eight installments from August 1841 to May 1843. It is in these selections that we can see the worldview of the Concord women played out on a wider stage, with Child as their representative in encounters with a diverse and changing America. Why so many ‘‘Letters from New York’’ in what is ostensibly an ‘‘anti-slavery scrapbook’’? None of these columns in Thoreau’s collection centers on the peculiar institution or fugitive slaves. One piece does deal with Africans who successfully resisted bondage: the mutineers of the Amistad, who, having won their freedom in American courts, were taken on a public tour of the Northeast by abolitionists before setting sail for home. Child went to see ‘‘the Mendians’’ in late November 1841 at Zion church in lower Manhattan, and she came away impressed by the intelligence, natural piety, and ‘‘truthful simplicity’’ of these ‘‘poor children of the sun’’ and by the ‘‘perfectly electrifying’’ eloquence of their leader Cinquez. That experience is but one of the many excursions on which she takes her readers. Child traveled a good deal on her island in the East River, both literally and spiritually, and her reports from the field express the sensibility of a Transcendentalist in the city, encountering the grandeur and misery, the vitality and alienation of the teeming metropolis. A new form of urban journalism, these eyewitness accounts of life on the city streets conveyed an intimate voice that broke through the anonymity of print and forged a personal bond with readers, even as far away as small-town Concord. The a≈nity between Child and Helen Thoreau’s circle was, in fact, quite close; the editor, born and reared in the Boston area, was a veteran of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and she had attended Emerson’s lectures and Margaret Fuller’s conversations. It is likely that Brooks and others were acquainted with her and identified with Child’s bold attempt to come to terms with modern urban life. Like Helen Thoreau’s brother in Walden a decade and a half Y
  15. 15. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K later, Lydia Maria Child immerses herself in the world around her and assays that experience in light of Romantic ideals. In Gotham she finds an unstable society built on empty values and artificial wants, where men and women make themselves miserable chasing after ‘‘the Jack-o-Lantern of wealth,’’ in the mistaken notion that there is no other choice. Hostage to the ‘‘false necessity’’ of giving in to ‘‘the despotic influence’’ of public opinion and ‘‘the intolerable restraint of conventional forms,’’ they ‘‘check their best influences, suppress their noblest feelings, conceal their highest thoughts,’’ and in the end lose contact with their inner nature, in which the divine spirit dwells. In this city of Mammon, driven by calculation and fear, it becomes di≈cult to discern the boundaries between legal and moral and right and wrong, and a great many go astray. ‘‘One man swindles, as banker or merchant, and lives rich and respected; another, who swindles as forger or thief, is imprisoned for years, and branded as an outcast.’’ No wonder, with the stakes so high and defeat an ever-present threat, that ‘‘the streets of New York are full of anxious, care-worn faces, in which I see written discouragement, desperation, crime, and suicide.’’ In Manhattan, as in Concord, the mass of men led lives of quiet desperation. The author of Walden sought refuge from an oppressive society in the solitude of the woods, and from that outpost on the edge of the village, he emerged periodically to castigate the neighbors. Child took a di√erent tack. She set forth onto the city streets eager for contact with the diverse and unfamiliar inhabitants. She was especially drawn to the various houses of worship – to the ‘‘cold, mechanical style’’ of Jewish services at the synagogue, the humble devotion of an Irish Catholic servant girl kneeling at the foot of the cross, and the ecstatic experience of community at a black church – all displaying the universality of ‘‘religious sentiment.’’ Nothing human in the city was alien to Child: not the beggars constantly accosting passersby, not the prostitutes in jail on Blackwell’s Island, not even the convicted murderer John C. Colt, who cheated the hangman by committing suicide. Even he is ‘‘a human being,’’ Child insists, ‘‘with a heart to be melted, and a conscience to be roused, like the rest of us.’’ Child craves heart-to-heart communion with such blighted souls, whom she strives time and again to inspire with faith in their own free spirits. If Thoreau o√ers a R 1 1 7
  16. 16. 1 1 8 G R O S S counsel of ‘‘simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,’’ Child preaches a gospel of sympathy. ‘‘We should think gently of all, and include all, without exception, in the circle of our human sympathies.’’ In her mission of love, she longs to redeem America soul by soul. Helen Thoreau’s scrapbook makes plain that the message was heard, at least in a few households in Concord, Massachusetts, and it thereby attests to the larger vision of social equality and democratic community inspiring the female abolitionists. A reforming spirit was needed in that town as much as in the big city, as Walden would reveal. Between the 1820s and the 1840s, Concord struggled with the same unsettling forces of social and economic inequality, relentless mobility, and class divisions transforming life throughout the Northeast. Though the population never even reached twenty-five hundred in the antebellum era – the census bureau’s definition of an urban place – nearly two-thirds of the inhabitants had been born elsewhere, and one out of two would be gone within a decade. After 1844 the massive immigration of the Irish, in flight from the famine, challenged New England towns still more. There was thus much for radicals to do, at home as well as in the South. Child spoke to women chafing against the constraints of domesticity and eager to enter into the world’s work. While they sought to separate themselves from the sin of slavery, even at the price of national union, Thoreau, Brooks, and company aspired to storm the barriers of class, religion, race, and ethnicity, and enter into a wider humanity. Child’s is not the only voice in the scrapbook. But in their various styles and tones, the clippings enact a common theme: every individual soul yearns to be free. No one said this more distinctively than Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, the lawyer-editor of the Herald of Freedom and a favorite of the Thoreau family and others in Concord. Rogers was as combative as Child was conciliatory. The first editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, he was still smarting over having been forced out to make way for Child and was ever on the alert for opportunities to undermine her. The Standard, he complained, had lost its ‘‘fire’’ in the useless bid to placate ‘‘half-and-half, milk-and-water sort of abolitionists.’’ Rogers was never accused of lacking fire. He took pride in being an ‘‘ultra’’ among the abolitionists, always following an independent course. Garrison’s disunionism, he advised in a column Y
  17. 17. H E L E N T H O R E A U ’ S A N T I S L A V E R Y S C R A P B O O K Helen Thoreau preserved, would do nothing to abolish slavery. Like Child, Rogers had extravagant hopes for the advance of humanitarianism around the globe, anticipating the day when ‘‘there is no such thing as foreigner on the earth’’ and nobody is treated as ‘‘an enemy or stranger.’’ His literary style and personality appealed to readers as much as his ideas. His vigorous nature writing, in particular, earned a place in the scrapbook. In a May 1843 piece on spring, the editor drew a portrait of his happy situation atop a hill on the outskirts of the New Hampshire state capital – the other Concord – as it boomed with new construction. It ‘‘will be soon all buildings,’’ Rogers lamented. He preferred to get away from the crowd and to live where ‘‘the air is free . . . and our water is a caution to tee-totallers.’’ There he could listen to the evening serenade of peepers, each carrying its tune in harmony with hundreds of others, in an example that the nation’s politicians might heed. The ‘‘hour rule’’ governing speeches in Congress was ‘‘far less needed among [these] frogs, than among the profane croakers of the fens at Washington.’’ Such fresh writing, with its clever uses of nature to satirize society, won the admiration of Henry Thoreau, who penned a tribute to Rogers in the April 1844 issue of the Dial, his first statement in print about reform. Rogers’s principles, the twenty-six-year-old writer enthused, were as solid as granite, and his prose flowed ‘‘like his own mountain torrents.’’ Here was a spirit truly ‘‘free and uncalculating.’’ ‘‘No other paper that we know keeps pace as well with one forward wave of the restless public thought and sentiment of New England and asserts so faithfully and ingenuously the largest liberty in all things.’’ Helen Thoreau’s scrapbook was, then, a compendium of that forward thought, a meeting place of abolitionism and Transcendentalism, both male and female, individualist and communal, each variety designed to achieve a wider liberty not only for the southern slaves but for all Americans. In this pursuit the writers, the activists, and the Concord women who preserved their words manifested a common desire to lead intense, authentic lives of principle and faith. That is how Mary Brooks paid tribute to Helen Thoreau at her untimely death in 1849 at age thirty-six. In an obituary notice that ran in the Liberator under the headline ‘‘Another Friend of the Slave Gone,’’ Brooks celebrated a woman whose model of R 1 1 9
  18. 18. 1 2 0 G R O S S character was her own. Helen Thoreau joined together an independent mind and a sympathetic heart. And she possessed ‘‘the moral courage’’ to act on principle, no matter what others might say. She could not abide a national union that required northern citizens to keep southern slaves in bondage. Nor would she stay in any church that extended the right hand of fellowship to slaveholders. Antislavery, for her, was simply another way of serving God. In the ferment of reform, Emerson observed in May 1844, the spirit of religion had departed ‘‘the church nominal’’ and had taken up residence ‘‘in temperance and non-resistance societies, in movements of abolitionists and of socialists’’ and among the ‘‘ultraists,’’ ‘‘seekers,’’ and ‘‘all the soldiery of dissent.’’ So it was for Helen Thoreau. On her deathbed she regretted only having to leave the field. ‘‘O how much has anti-slavery done for me, and how little I have done for it.’’ Y