Harriet Martineau: The Conservative Progressive

Does Martineau contradict herself? If so, is she able to see these contradictions – or is she so much a product of Victorian culture that she has become desensitized to what some would see as ideological hypocrisy?

In Harriet Martineau’s observation of the customs, behaviors, and ideologies that pervade each distinct culture of the New World, she exhibits an interesting mixture of both ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ viewpoints. In other words, in her treatise on the social condition of America, Martineau will at times offer a view that is democratic and ‘progressive’. Yet, she is also very much a product of the culture in which she was born – a respected member of English society when the British Empire was at the height of its power. On one hand, Martineau scandalizes Americans from the upper crust and the clergy, even in Philadelphia, by her unabashed stance as an ‘amalgamationist’. Yet, in certain sections of How to Observe Manners and Morals, she makes statements that to contemporary humanists or observers of culture may seem short-sighted, if not downright xenophobic. In speaking of the religious sentiment found in various nations, Martineau says the following:

Not all the stories of the abuses of monastic institutions can destroy the respect of every ingenious mind for the spiritual preference out of which they arose. The Crusades are still holy, notwithstanding all their … barbarism of various kinds. The retreat of the Pilgrim Fathers to the forests of the New World silences the ridicule of the of the thoughtless about the extravagances of Puritanism in England (67)
In speaking of the religious wars of the Middle Ages, Martineau clearly favors Christianity, and defends The Crusades as holy, though most contemporary sociologists would condemn violent actions of any kind, regardless of their culture or faith of origin.

In Society in America, when speaking of the language that is used by many in the Southern states to describe the condition of the slaves there, Martineau admits that “in a society where things like these are said and done by its choicest members, there is a prevalent unconsciousness of the existing wrong … such unconsciousness of the milder degrees of impurity and injustice [have enabled] ladies and clergymen of the highest moral character to speak and act as I have related” (Society in America). Essentially, slave culture has become such a part of the identity of the southern states, that even the most moral members of it do not see their own hypocrisy. Yet, isn’t Martineau guilty of the same ‘cultural blindness’?

The question of bias may perhaps be explained by looking at the genre into which each of Martineau’s separate pieces of writing falls. In her autobiography, when speaking of writing about her travels to America, Martineau is very careful to view the people of the New World with an objectivity divorced from “any selfish ‘particularity’ that might [have grown on her] with years” (330). The tone of the piece is much more informal, and may also be the reason for what seems to be a more open-minded attitude. Her sociological treatise, on the other hand, in addition to being part of a formal series, was also meant for the English public at large – Martineau understands her audience, and is perhaps just being careful not to place herself in a position that would open her up to the kind of ridicule with which she is all too familiar.

One thought on “Harriet Martineau: The Conservative Progressive

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *