- Fortune, Fame & Desire: Promoting the Self in the Long Nineteenth Century by Sharon Hartman Strom
In Chapter 5 of Fortune, Fame & Desire: Promoting the Self in the Long Nineteenth Century, Sharon Hartman Strom asks her readers to reflect on the "sturdy lad" of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay "Self-Reliance" and to consider Harriet Wilson, an African American writer, entrepreneur, and Spiritualist lecturer, as "both a congruent and disruptive example … of what a self-reliant in the mid-nineteenth century could be" (149). This tension is the central focus of Fortune, Fame & Desire, an examination of self-making and self-reliance in the long nineteenth century.
Fortune, Fame & Desire weaves together over a dozen biographies to capture the different spheres of opportunity for nineteenth-century individuals to fashion themselves and the questions through which these figures engaged the public. Many of these individuals "lived on the precarious edge of middle-class prosperity"—and also respectability—for all or much of their lives (167). This is, in effect, a study of outliers. Outcasts from white middle-class Protestantism, they cultivated ties with social and religious radicals and crafted compelling works of literature and oratory that allowed them to hail wider publics, fight for social change, make a living, and for some, achieve lasting renown.
The storytelling is crisp, engaging, and richly contextualized. The lives examined here span the century, with major emphasis on the decades surrounding the Civil War. The individuals who occupy the first two chapters, travel writer Ephraim George Squier and his future wife, actress and editor Miriam Follin (the future Mrs. Frank Leslie), joined by Lola Montez and DeWitt Clinton Hitchcock, illustrate the improvisation, invention, and risk that characterized the twin pursuits of economic independence and public renown. From his hardscrabble rural upbringing, Squier fashioned himself into an ethnologist and travel writer, but like many from the ambitious "middle classes," he failed to achieve "perpetual prosperity" with his many schemes (xiv). Follin, on the other hand, cultivated her beauty, stage talents, and editorial skills. Strom challenges interpretations of Follin as a "cold and calculating adulterer," showing [End Page 195] how she maneuvered within narrow gendered frameworks to achieve wealth, independence, and professional success (58).
From this "sensationalistic" ménage, Strom moves in Chapters 3 and 4 to compare the lives and work of canonical figures involved with abolitionism and civil rights—Frances Watkins Harper, Harriet Wilson, Anna Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass. Wilson is the bridge to the cohort of free-thinking Spiritualist radicals who are the focus of Chapters 5 and 6—Warren Chase, Joseph Osgood Barrett, Juliet Stillman Severence, Paschal Beverly Randolph, and Laura Briggs James. Especially across Chapters 3–5 we see how different figures maneuvered within the politics of Reconstruction around questions of race, gender, and civil rights. Strom builds on a growing body of literature demonstrating how print and platform were crucial sites for explorations of racial emancipation and equality, woman's rights, moral reform, spirituality, and healing. The platform was especially important for women, enabling reformers to eke out a living while advancing political work. As Strom notes, these self-reliant women were "closed out of politics, the professions, and most male occupations," yet managed to be vitally and visibly engaged in key political questions of the day (149). They pushed against but rarely cracked the race and gender boundaries of the male professional world. The men whom Strom examines, for reasons of race, political, and spiritual conviction, or lack of education, challenged and in some cases rejected white male professional hierarchies, though their radical visions rarely extended into their own families.
Strom shows how the intersection of race, gender, and class shaped the different approaches of individuals to the question of suffrage, for example, as well as their own roles as public figures. She contrasts the reform uplift politics that underpinned Watkins Harper's work with Harriet Wilson's extreme poverty and exploitation in rural New England, which led her to craft a semi-autobiographical novel too critical of northern race...