Elevate Difference

Reforming the World: Social Activism and the Problem of Fiction in Nineteenth Century America

Reforming the World: Social Activism and the Problem of Fiction in Nineteenth-Century America explores the complex relationship between American social activism and literature in the nineteenth century. At times symbiotic, at times turbulent, this relationship was formed both by the power of literature and by the hopes and dreams of American social reformers for their country. In perhaps the most compelling argument of the book, Maria Carla Sanchez describes the many ways in which period writers both used fiction as a tool of reform, and used reform as an excuse to write fiction. Sanchez argues that the beliefs and views of these antebellum reformers indelibly shaped literature, literary criticism, and the literary canon.

Sanchez skillfully depicts the “reform culture” of the antebellum period, at the apex of the temperance and abolition movements. In addition to the popular moral initiatives, groups of nineteenth century reformers tackled many niche issues such as prison reform, vegetarianism, and Indian rights. Sanchez posits that though Christian preachers and other religious figures played an unmistakably important role in the movements, the antebellum period truly came to be the first time in American history when social reform was carried out by groups of people with diverse philosophical, class, race, creed, and educational backgrounds. Sanchez also makes special note of the fact that women used the social reform movements as a vehicle to “resist the confines of domesticity.” Their activism thrust them into the public sphere and allowed them to participate in a discourse to which they had been previously unwelcome. An important part of the way they participated, of course, was through the written word.

Reform culture in antebellum America was both fearful of and excited by the power of fiction, and Sanchez deftly demonstrates the complicated maneuverings that period authors went through to ensure the respectability of their work. This was especially true for women writers, who had to prove both that the writing they did was truthful and morally upstanding, but also that it had an “uplifting or edifying” purpose. Reading or writing for pure pleasure was not something that could be admitted to. Sanchez contend convincingly that the reform culture of the antebellum period gave women the chance both to enter the public sphere as readers and writers, and as champions of causes they believed in.

Written by: Jennifer Wedemeier, June 20th 2009