Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall
In the mid-nineteenth century Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall was acclaimed as one of Rhode Island's three finest writers. She edited and contributed to numerous publications and her best-known work, Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, achieved unprecedented sales. From 1911 to 1938 her poem "Roger Williams" continued to be read as part of annual celebrations of Rhode Island Independence Day. Despite her accomplishments, her prolific output, and her literary success, this remarkable writer is virtually unknown today The following sketch of her life and works suggests that she deserves a place beside her peers such as Catharine Beecher or Sarah Helen Whitman in the history of literature by women.
According to her 1878 obituary in The Providence Daily Journal, Miss Frances H. Whipple was the daughter of George Whipple of Smithfield, Rhode Island, where she was born in September, 1805. After her father became impoverished, during a period of economic hardship in New England's agricultural villages, young Fanny Whipple was left to support and educate herself by her own energetic efforts.
Despite her limited opportunities, she was already gaining recognition for her poetic contributions to local papers when, in 1829, she began to publish the Original, contributing ten of its fifteen articles. The contents included "Sketches of Local Interest" such as the "Early Starting of Central Falls." This periodical ceased after two issues, but was only the first of several publications she edited.
Next she began a decade of reform writing, addressing one cause after another including temperance, labor, suffrage, abolition, and spiritualism. Notable among her writings combating injustice, Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge first appeared in 1838, went into three more editions (1840, 1842, 1843), and was followed by a companion volume of two editions, Elleanor's Second Book (1842, 1847). With the proceeds of this book and help of many prominent citizens, a Providence woman of African and Narragansett Indian ancestry, Elleanor Eldridge, was enabled to recover her property after it was unfairly taken from her while she was out of town recovering from illness.
In 1840 Whipple edited a collection of articles by various local writers, the Envoy from Free Hearts to the Free, for the Juvenile Emancipation Society of Pawtucket. In 1841 one of her best-known poems, "The Dwarf's Story," a dramatic monologue in blank verse, was included in the Rhode Island Book, edited by Anne C. Lynch (Botta). In 1842 she addressed the condition and status of the working classes in The Mechanic, A Story, writing to elevate the thoughts of laboring men and women and to urge her readers to regard their fellow men of all classes as equals.
In March, 1842, she edited the first number of The Wampanoag, and Operatives' Journal, whose announced aim was "to educate, assist and encourage female operatives in Fall River and such manufacturing districts." Apparently the mill workers themselves requested Frances Whipple as editor of their journal, and she encouraged their contributions as well as writing by notables such as Sarah Helen Whitman and Anne C. Lynch. This publication consisted of didactic articles (for example, exhorting the workers to use every minute when not at their machines for self-education), poems, humor, book reviews, and news items-mostly written by Whipple. In the June eleventh issue she called upon the mill workers to form a Mutual Improvement Society (offering them, as an inducement to join, free instruction in botany and composition), but the publication ceased four months later, after its fifteenth number. Whipple had resigned her unpaid editorship in September after a dispute with the publisher, who bitterly accused her in the journal of misleading him about the amount of financial support her friends would provide for the paper. She responded that the political troubles in Rhode Island at that time (the Dorr rebellion) prevented her from obtaining the expected support, alluding to her own need for income and the difficulty of traveling from Rhode Island to Fall River to edit the publication.
In 1844, under the name "A Rhode Islander," Whipple wrote Might and Right, a passionate defense of Dorr's role and the suffrage movement he led in the political struggles of 1842. She described the fight between the "aristocracy" (families of Rhode Island's first settlers) and "the people," asserting that when one person s human rights are injured, all are. (One can only speculate about the reaction of the Whipple family, some of whom were prominent opponents of Dorr, to this publication, but it was so successful that it went into a second edition the same year.)
During her difficulties with the editorship of The Wampanoag in 1842, Whipple's life changed dramatically. On July 1, at age thirty-seven, she married artist Charles C. Green (alternately spelled Greene) at Lowell, Massachusetts. Their marriage was not happy, however, and in September 1847 Frances Green obtained a divorce on the grounds that Charles had abandoned her nineteen months earlier, on a visit to Pomfret, Connecticut, "while she was in a very feeble state of health, leaving her no adequate means of support." Her divorce petition also accused Charles of unspecified "acts of extreme cruelty and gross misbehavior toward her" in violation of the marriage contract.
Frances Green next became intensely involved in spiritualism. According to S.B. Brittan, a Universalist minister who began a new spiritualist paper, The Univerocoelum and Spiritual Philosopher, in New York in December 1847, his paper “was a phenomenon in journalistic literature, and its appearance occasioned a sensation.” Moreover, he wrote in his memorial to, Frances Green “was deeply interested in the enterprise, and at once sought a home in the editor’s family, where she remained for several years in the most intimate and friendly relations,” becoming one of the major literary contributors to the new paper. From then until the end of her life, she wrote voluminously for spiritualist publications and surrounded herself with spiritualist friends. Fanny Green contributed to The Univerocoelum “stirring papers especially addressed to her own sex, in which she exposes the superficial character of American female education, and uncovers the vain and false motives that influence the lives of many women.” She also contributed poetry and a serialized historical romance, “A Glance at the Early Settlers.” ˛
Despite the enthusiastic efforts of Brittan and Green for The Univerocoelum it was not a financial success, and in the early 1850s Brittan became the leading publisher of serials containing spiritual messages, including a quarterly journal called Shekinah (1852-1854) and the most important spiritualist newspaper of the period, Spiritual Telegraph (1852-1860). These joined a flood of new spiritualist publications (books, pamphlets, newspapers, and journals) following the success of the Fox sisters, young mediums endorsed by many prominent people such as Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune. From 1852 to 1854 Frances was a heavy contributor to Shekinah and from 1857 to 1859 wrote frequently for The Spiritual Age. Green and Brittan also collaborated in 1848-49 in editorial management of Young People’s Journal, described as “a monthly magazine issued in New York, designed to popularize Science, Literature and Art.” Frances Green was its most frequent contributor.
In his Banner of Light memorial, Brittan described Green as a near-saintly houseguest during the years when she lived at his home: “She was never weary to serve others; and during all that period she never, by so much as a word carelessly spoken, disturbed the social harmony, or otherwise diminished the respect and love with which she was regarded by every member of the household.” He wrote that “her life was singularly pure,” and there was “no stain to mar the crystal whiteness of her fame.”
Here Britttan also gave a rare picture of the writer in her literary activities. He had just returned from work and met her at the door. He said, “Well, Fanny, the Spirit of the North Wind is having a grand rehearsal tonight. The rhythmical movement is rapid and powerful, and the music full of startling crescendos.’ Starting suddenly, as if moved by an electric shock, she made no reply, but rushing upstairs, disappeared. In an hour and a half she returned with the poem complete and ready for press.” (This was “Song of the North Wind,” over one hundred lines.)
Surprisingly, during these years of editing and writing for Brittan's spiritualist and youth publications, Green found time for several major works other own. In 1848 her "longest and best poem," according to Rufus Griswold, was published in Philadelphia. This was "Nanuntehoo," a legend of the Narragansetts. In The Female Poets of America Griswold cited Green's descriptive powers in this work as "scarcely inferior to those of Bryant ..." and Bnttan asserted that its "strong imagination and powers of description ... determine her place in the front rank of American poets."
Green was a student of botany all her life and a botany teacher for several years. Seeing the need for an illustrated text, in 1856 she published The Primary Class-Book of Botany. Well received by authorities, this text was revised, enlarged, and republished in collaboration with Joseph W. Congdon of East Greenwich as The Analytical Class Book of Botany. It included descriptions of over one thousand different plant species of the northern states, a chapter on "Economical Uses of Plants," and an exhortation to study nature as a testimony to God.
Her largest publication, according to Brittan, was Shahmah in Pursuit of Freedom: or, The Branded Hand, published in 1858. This book, in which a young Egyptian or Ethiopian prince tours the United States, observing social and political conditions, is essentially an attack on slavery. Brittan judged that it was superior to Uncle Tom's Cabin in range of thought and dramatic power, although it was much less popular, partly due to Green's not being a member of the Church.
In 1860, at about the age of 55, Green went to live in California where she married William C. McDougall about a year later. The marriage was described as a happy one, lasting until her death in 1878 at age 73. Her last published book, Beyond the Veil, was written when she was 70 and published posthumously in New York in 1878.
In appraising the overall achievement of Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, one is struck by her productivity and variety. In addition to the works mentioned above, she published numerous long and short poems, sketches of Indian life, and The Housekeeper's Book (1838), an extensive compendium of practical hints. The range other knowledge is especially impressive in view of the limitations of her formal education. She wrote on popular themes: women's role in society, nature, religion, the plight of Indians, slavery, education, temperance, and above all, morality. Her work is serious in purpose and tone-she wrote almost wholly without humor or irony (which requires a detached stance toward its subject)-and conventional in form. The quality of her writing varies, from rousing rhetoric and effective descriptions of nature to doggerel and awkward dialogue. She was entirely a writer of the Victorian era, so it is not surprising that her contemporaries, who esteemed Longfellow, Bryant, and Whittier, also admired her work.
Her reform writing can be stirring as she excoriates the vices other society with missionary zeal. In this representative prose passage from The Univercoelum, she scornfully chides Fashionable Women:
Ask for the definition of the word Lady, and you are answered, it is a female who being placed wholly above the necessity of labor herself, may command the labor and services of others. What a dignity is here coveted! No less than that of complete uselessness....Surely very little moral consistency or dignity of character could be expected of one to whom the highest motive for excellence is to get a husband and a fine establishment!... To this end our young ladies are taught all that can fascinate-all that can charm the senses....Strength and self-reliance are supposed to be incompatible with the power of fascination. Whether physical or mental power is implied it is not presumed to be the attribute of a lady Thus woman is made the mere parasite of man She loses her own identity. In a vast majority of cases-m fact almost universally-she becomes hardly conscious of a self-dependent existence. She is made the mere appendage other father, her husband, or her brothers. We have heard the story of Woman, the tender, graceful vine, clinging for support around Man, the lordly majestic oak, until Woman absolutely forgets that she is invested with the power to stand alone, if need be, endowed by Nature with all the physical, mental and moral energies of a self-dependent and self-accountable being.
Although the didactic and spiritualist elements in McDougall's writing and her conventional, sentimental style seem dated, her unswerving devotion to justice and sympathy for the oppressed are timeless themes. For example, "The Dwarf's Story" dramatically portrays the pathos of a deformed man's rejection by society. Her strong interest m helping the laboring class motivated such works as The Mechanic and The Wampanoag, and Operatives' Journal, which she edited without pay. She devoted the proceeds of Elleanor Eldridge to reversing an injustice toward a black woman, writing thus: 'NO MAN would have been treated so, and if a WHITE WOMAN had ever been the subject of such wrongs...the whole country would have been indignant." Shahmah in Pursuit of Freedom attacked the hypocrisy of society, exposing the unjust treatment of both Indians and black Americans. In Might and Right she defended Dorr, who was imprisoned for leading the movement to extend voting rights beyond wealthy landowners to ordinary citizens of Rhode Island. Brittan wrote in his memorial that "during her whole literary career, of nearly half a century, she was the consistent friend of the poor, the oppressed and the fallen, ready for any work that might inspire their hopes, strengthen their hands, and smooth before them the rugged ways of life," but from another viewpoint, "unfortunately for her personal comfort, she was ever on the unpopular side of every question in Rhode Island." Perhaps her experiences as a child, forced by her father's financial disasters to earn her own living, and later as a deserted wife led to her intense feelings for victims of injustice. Spiritualism also may have taught her that men and women, rich and poor, are spiritual equals.
Since McDougall had such empathy for the oppressed, it is paradoxical that she never overtly supported the women's movement, traditionally dated from the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. Living in a society which idealized "true womanhood" in terms of domesticity, submission, purity, and piety rather than intellect and individual achievement, she conventionally affirmed that motherhood is women's highest calling and exhorted women to exercise their influence by raising and educating children. Nevertheless, she rebelled in some ways against her society's restrictive view of women, offending the publisher of The Wampanoag, and Operatives' Journal, for example, by her claim that she could edit "as well as a man." Divorce was a rarity and a disgrace in the nineteenth century, but she won a divorce from her first husband, challenging the notion that women's role in marriage was passive acceptance. The "ideal woman" of the nineteenth century could be a writer but stayed out of men's political affairs; Frances Green McDougall, by contrast, wrote vigorously and courageously on matters of political controversy. Although she never spoke out publicly in favor of such early feminist issues as women's suffrage or property rights, she urged women to develop their capacities as far as possible and demonstrated by her own life that a woman could earn her place in society and even play a part in moving that society towards justice.
1 Karen M. Lamoree, Research Guide to the Christine Dunlap Farnham Collection ( Providence: Pembroke Center for Research on Women and the University Library, Brown University, 1989).
2 S.B. Brittan, letter, "Mrs. Frances H. Green M'Dougall," Banner of Light (Boston: 24 Aug. 1878) n. pag.
3 Rufus W. Griswold, The Female Poets of America, 1849.