Does Martineau follow her own advice?

As I glance over the posts from this week, I’m not surprised to see that others have been drawn to Martineau’s discussion of slavery in light of our remembrance this weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. and the significant role he played and continues to play in race relations. A few days ago I watched the recently released film examining Dr. King’s influential actions, Selma, and I was moved by its tasteful representation of that important time in our nation’s history. Part documentary, part drama, Selma artfully presented the facts with a helpful but not heavy-handed lens of interpretation that brought America’s ongoing struggle with inequality into sharp relief. This was particularly highlighted in John Legend’s and Common’s song “Glory” ( during the closing credits, which brings the relevance of Dr. King’s work up to the present with reference to the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was with Selma in mind that I read Martineau’s section on “Morals of Slavery” ( in Society in America. The question that kept coming to mind was her intention for writing this chapter, and with that I considered the rhetorical situation characterizing both this text and How to Observe Morals and Manners.

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau seems to be out to redeem travel writing for the good of humankind. As she mentions in the introduction, even if one travelogue with its hasty assumptions and uninformed conclusions is harmful, an amalgamation of travel writings might eventually bring out “what is fixed and essential in a people” (12). Thus, she is careful to to lay out a precise method for travelers, lest they jump to conclusions about a people’s characteristics. In particular, she advocates not deriving one’s opinion from observations of an individual, or even several individuals (else one might make the faulty assumption that all one-legged-prosthetic-wearing Englishmen work the waterways). Ultimately, Martineau argues that “[t]he grand secret of wise inquiry into Morals and Manners is to begin with the study of things, using the discourse of persons as a commentary upon them.” That is, “[t]he eloquence of Institutions and Records, in which the action of the nation is embodied and perpetuated, is more comprehensive and more faithful than that of any variety of individual voices” (44). Thus, according to Martineau, “general indications must be looked for, instead of generalizations being framed around the manners of individuals” (45).

Martineau drives this point home throughout her treatise, and yet she doesn’t always seem to follow this advice, particularly in this section on slavery in Society in America. Rather, she focuses in on very specific examples of horrific slavery in America. Outright, she states, “It may be said that it is doing an injustice to cite extreme cases of vice as indications of the state of society. I do not think so, as long as such cases are so common as to strike the observation of a mere passing stranger.” Here, she seems willing to sacrifice the model she’s espoused in favor of making an impact with striking examples. Seemingly, her purposes have shifted from presenting a travelogue–writing as objectively and nonprejudiciously as possible, considering institutions and records, etc–to taking a moral stand in what she sees as the most impactful manner possible.

So the question that we come to, then, is how are we to understand this shift in rhetorical situation? Primed with the clear rhetorical intentions of Selma, I’m onboard with this choice of Martineau the sociologist taking a stand against slavery, but when she’s written a full treatise as to how one ought to write travelogues, one does wonder how much she believed it herself (or rather how practical she found it to be) and how that affects our own reading.

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