Liking People—& abolitionist Frances Wright (1795 – 1852)

What Does It Mean to Like People?

By Nancy Huntting

Portrait of Frances Wright
Frances Wright, by Henry Inman, 1824

With a consideration of aspects of the life of abolitionist Frances Wright

Growing up I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that, while I wanted people to like me very much, I didn’t like most people.  I had three best girl friends in high school, and a boy friend I went steady with (actually it was un-steady) and I was busy and rarely alone.  But I didn’t know why I was often so uncomfortable with people and unsure of myself and could suddenly feel so lonely.  And why couldn’t I find anything to say to people at parties, in elevators, in stores?

People are “reality in the richest form,” Eli Siegel says in his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and People, and he explains:

The important thing about liking people…is that through people we can like reality.  Through liking reality we can like people; which simply means that we accept the idea that knowing what people feel, what makes them feel as they do, what goes on within them, is good for us.

This lecture is one of the most important—for every woman, every person.  I came to have much greater ease as I learned in Aesthetic Realism consultations that I had a motive that I couldn’t like myself for–which was a desire to have contempt for people.  I came to see that knowing what goes in within people, granting them full reality, was how I could understand myself!

I will be speaking about myself, a woman studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and about aspects of the life of Frances Wright, who lived from 1795 to 1852.  Walt Whitman heard her speak when he was 9 years old, in 1828, and later wrote:

She was a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate…a woman of the noblest make-up whose orbit was…too large to be tolerated for long…a most maligned, lied-about character, one of the best in history though also one of the least understood.

Though practically unknown today, Frances Wright was among the earliest and most courageous persons in America against slavery and economic injustice.  “Humankind,” she wrote, “its condition, its nature, its capabilities, and its destinies, have formed the study of my life.”  Yet there was also that in her which was against liking people, and it caused pain in her life.

Are We More Like or Different from Other People?

“Liking is the feeling,” writes Eli Siegel in his great work, Definitions, and Comment, “that something outside of oneself has something in common with oneself; and that that something in common is for one.”  We ask women in Aesthetic Realism consultations, “Do you think you are more like or different from other people?” and most often they have said different; this is what I answered in my first consultation in 1973 and what June Margold, a 22 year old college graduate from Wisconsin, answered in hers. Feeling we have something in common with all people, she began to learn, is the first thing in liking them.

Frances Wright, it seems, did have a feeling early that she was related to people different from her.  Biographer Celia Morris Eckhardt describes her as a young girl, who, because of her parents’ early death, was raised in London by her aunt and her grandfather, Duncan Campbell:

As she walked about the city with [him], she saw thousands begging pennies to buy bread.  When she asked her grandfather why these tattered mothers and their children were so poor, he said it was because they were too lazy to work…. ‘God intended that there should be poor, and …rich.’  And when Fanny wondered if the rich robbed the poor, he replied indignantly that if she indulged such thoughts, she would not be admitted into good society.

A century and a half later in America, I had an attitude to people like that of Frances Wright’s grandfather.  As my family drove on vacations through Kentucky to see the blue grass and splendid horse farms, I thought the poor people I saw living in shacks, brutally exploited coal miners, their children playing in dirt yards, lived that way because they were inferior to people like us. This is ordinary, cruel contempt: which Mr. Siegel described as the “addition to self through the lessening of something else”–which made me cold and unkind.  I had little desire to know what other people felt, and so I was walled up in myself.  Though I later imagined I was desperately in love, it was all about getting praise and importance for myself.

In Aesthetic Realism classes, Eli Siegel spoke to me about where my attitude to people began.  He said: “We all preserve something of ourselves inviolate, not to be approached or to have anything to do with the outside world.” And he asked:

Could it be in your relation to your mother? A mother and daughter can go towards being the aloof gods, [feeling,] “Our relation is apart from the world.”

This was so true. I had used the adoring praise I got from my mother, Jean Huntting, to be a snob. In many conversations she and I had agreed in our snooty opinions of neighbors, including my girl friends: this one was too tall and thin, that one didn’t know quite how to dress, or, unfortunately, wasn’t so pretty.

Meanwhile, I thought my mother was foolish, and I was very different and far superior to her.  As a teen I was cruel to her, often yelling mean things, like “How can you be so stupid!” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re so out of it!” I felt I could be as scornful as I wanted and still get her adoration—and I thought I should be able to do this with other people. I didn’t understand how I could sometimes long to see her and 5 minutes later be furious with her.  She was suffering; my older brother had died of Muscular Dystrophy when he was 20, and my parents divorced a few years later.  While I could feel pity, her feelings weren’t real to me, and I saw being “nice” to her as a burden.  Learning to see her fairly was crucial to my seeing all people better.  Mr. Siegel said to me in a class:

Eli Siegel: A person looks at another person and sees that person as someone one has been fair to or not.  It is so much easier to say ‘That person has given me pain,” than “Have I been fair to this person?” If your mother asked you very deeply, ‘Have you been fair to me, Nancy dear?’ what would you say?
Nancy Huntting:  No, I haven’t.
ES:   Liking a person is a mingling of respect and being pleased.  And if you feel you don’t want to like a person–that can make you guilty.  Have you wanted to like your mother?
NH:   Only recently.
ES: I am trying to bring that about.

I thank Mr. Siegel with all my heart for encouraging me to have good will for my mother, which made for a crucial change in my life and hers.  When I called her in Cincinnati and asked her questions about her past, I saw that we had things in common and could really benefit each other.  The way we were inward and outward, reposeful and energetic was different but troubled both of us.  I began to appreciate her spontaneous enthusiasm, which, God Knows, I needed; she encouraged me to like different kinds of books and to get pleasure in many things I’d missed.

I learned that, long before I was born, the mother I had seen as wanting to stay in the house, had, as a girl, jumped hurdles in summer camp in Connecticut, was popular with the football team, and secretary to the literary club in high school.

As I wanted to have a good effect on Jean Huntting, and learn from her, we became close as never before.  In 1976 she moved from Cincinnati to New York, had Aesthetic Realism consultations, and wrote a letter to Eli Siegel expressing her large gratitude for his good effect on our family.

What Is Our Motive with People?

In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Mr. Siegel wrote:

Aesthetic Realism definitely says that if you don’t want the world to be and look as good as possible, you will not be sincere in your friendliness to a neighbor or relative.

Frances Wright very much wanted the world and people to be good. She could have used her parents’ early deaths to feel angry and separate, but she wanted to feel a kinship with other people’s suffering.  “If grief becomes a means of kinship,” Mr. Siegel explained, “it can be borne.”  In an account of her life she wrote in the third person, Frances has this description of herself seeing older people who were poor:

She was perhaps 15…witnessing the painful labor of the aged among the English peasantry; and again, when she saw that peasantry ejected…from the estates of the wealthy. ..”Has man then no home upon the earth; and are age and infirmity entitled to no care or consideration?”

She began to realize, she wrote, that “some extraordinary vice lay at the foundation of the whole human practice,” and that she wanted to “devote her whole energies to its discovery.”

When she was 17, she read about the young United States of America and was thrilled, writing later:

From that moment she awoke, as it were, to a new existence. Life was full of promise…There existed a country consecrated to freedom, and in which man might awake to the full knowledge and full exercise of his powers.

At 23, she and her sister Camilla made the boat voyage to America unchaperoned—an unheard of thing for two young women to do.  From her travels in the Northern states she wrote her first book, about the people she met, Views of Society and Manners in America, Letters of an Englishwoman.  It was enthusiastic and highly praising, in bold defiance of the contempt England wanted to feel towards their former colonies.  The book caused a stir and she received a letter of congratulations from Thomas Jefferson, whom she would later meet.

But when she returned, in 1824, she saw that there was also tremendous injustice here.  Slavery, she wrote, is “the most atrocious of all sins that deface the annals of modern history,” and her biographer says she was the first woman in America to act publicly against it.  She founded Nashoba, a community to educate and free slaves near Memphis, Tennessee.

Sketch of Nashoba, Tennessee, 1832

The school she planned, Eckhardt writes, would be one in which:

…no distinctions would be made between white children and black and no privileges given to either the one or the other….Consequently, when those children grew up, they would together enjoy “that complete equality of habits and knowledge, alone consistent with the political institutions of the country.”

She hoped that the slave owners would, if given an economic alternative, give up what was so evil, and that other communities like Nashoba would spread through the South.  But it was attacked and ridiculed as “Frances Wright’s Free Love Colony,” because it was known that she was against laws that made women literally the property of their husbands.  People were angry that she was calling for greater justice and felt their positions were threatened.

Contempt Causes Pain in Women’s Lives

Frances Wright wrote to a friend when she was 32:

I am dissatisfied with my own nature and am driven to fear that all the evil I have seen in my short but varied life has done evil unto me, by chilling my affections and rendering me indifferent…

She didn’t know that there was that in herself that wanted to chill her affections–the desire to have contempt for the world and people.

The young girl who was so moved by the words of our Declaration of Independence, who would later work till she nearly collapsed in the woods of Tennessee so that an enslaved person be free and have happiness and dignity, had in her too, a desire to hate and be disdainful.  The way Frances saw the aunt who raised her was crucial; Eckhardt writes that she “despised” her.  It is likely her aunt, only 18 when put in the position of being a mother to her, didn’t have enough desire to understand her.

After Frances went to live in America, she had nothing further to do with her Aunt Campbell, and when her aunt tried to renew contact, we see how scornful and hard Frances could be: “It is beyond your power to irritate me,” she wrote to her, “You, Madame…you force me to remind you of all that you have done and all that I have suffered?…. I have now expressed, leisurely and calmly,” she closed the letter, “the contempt which your conduct has inspired in me.”  “The haughty rage Fanny unleashed against [her aunt],” Celia Morris Eckhardt writes, “she would intermittently direct at others all her life.”

“Before you start hating anybody,” Mr. Siegel said in his lecture on people:

try to understand what makes him confused, and you will find, perhaps, that there is more confusion than just animosity…It is important that what we’re against in a person not  be seen as the person himself. Otherwise, we’re not fair.

Knowing People

June Margold, who studied science and philosophy at college, was a pretty, soft-spoken young woman, who worked as an assistant to president of an importing firm.  Her manner was gracious and seemingly assured, but she told us that she wanted to overcome her fear of expressing herself.

We asked her the question that Mr. Siegel asked people in the Aesthetic Realism lessons he gave, “What is the thing you have most against yourself?”

June Margold: Not being understanding of people, or actually I should say, forgiving.
Consultants:   Do you think that if you were more understanding, you might be, as you say, more forgiving?
JM: Yes.
C: Do you think there may be a relation between your fear of expressing yourself, and how you see people?
JM: Yes….I haven’t always understood people’s reaction to what I would say.
C: Do you see people as essentially like you, or different from you?
JM: That’s a difficult question, because I’ve tried to see people as more like myself, but whether I do or not, I don’t know.
C: If you feel people are more different from you, do you also feel they are less good than you?
JM:  Yes, I have felt that.
C: Do you see that, if you’re going to express yourself, its going to be to people–but if you see people as not good enough, you’re stuck?  What do you think the answer might be?

“To see people as,” Miss Margold hesitated, “good enough.”

C: To begin with, try to see who people really are. Because you can’t just give yourself an order, “I’m now going to see people as good enough.”  But are you sure that you’re judgment of people is exact?

Ms. Margold said her judgment likely wasn’t exact, but she also said she felt she had the real low-down on people, and this included how she saw men.  “I don’t like them,” she said, “I don’t like the way they look at me sometimes.”

C:   Do you think that you, like other women, can feel that you haven’t ever been seen right by any man, and at the same time you don’t feel you’re kind to men in the depths of your mind?
JM: Yes, it’s true.
C: Do you think that you hope to be able to respect yourself for how you see gentlemen?
JM: Yes.
C: Well, that can be.  We know it’s possible.

Sometime later, in an assignment about how she saw people at age 10, she wrote: “I felt I had more control over myself than other people did, especially my parents. [They] fought often, and I didn’t want to be like them.”  We asked her to write soliloquies of both when they were her age, and try to see what they felt within, their hopes, their fears, what they cared for.  As she did these, she became less bitter and suspicious towards men, and people in general.

To have her see that women and men have the same inward fight, the same depth of ethics, we asked her to read and comment on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which gave her “immense pleasure,” she told us.  For instance, she wrote:

Jane Austen believes in the deeper beauty of people and that this can be brought out….The author shows that sharp, sensible Elizabeth needs criticism herself in order to see her own follies in her judgment of people, be more accurate, and more kind.

When People Learn What It Means to Like People, There Will Be Real Democracy in America

Frances Wright lectured in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati with “an earnestness and wholesomeness,” said one woman who attended, “that made their way to the mind and heart.” Thousands came to hear her speak about the need for universal equal education for all children, and what made for poverty and slavery.  A fundamental injustice in economics, she said, caused both slavery in the South and “wage slavery” in the North.  For her honesty, she was slandered in print again and again–including being called a “female monster.”

Frances Wright criticized straight the inequality between rich and poor, saying that it made democracy impossible, and in the 1830s made a proposal truly consonant with our Constitution:

…that the whole real property of the State—lands, mines, quarries, buildings and capital of every description be declared forever public property (as in the nature of things it is), and administered by the Body Politic for the equal encouragement of all its members.

This is beautiful and just.  Mr. Siegel explained that the central fight in history has been about how the world should be owned–by a few people who have contempt for the rest of humanity, or by all people?  In 1970 he said history had reached the point where economics based on contempt had failed irrevocably, because people the world over are insisting they be seen with respect.

Recently June Margold wrote to us: “I’m so glad [to be thinking] about what it means to know myself, to know other people [and] have them know me.  I feel this is my biggest hope.”

I agree, and I am sure that when Aesthetic Realism is studied everywhere, the America Frances Wright fought for, where people truly like other people, want to be just to them, will come to be!