John Woolman (1720-1772)
Contributing Editor: James A. Levernier
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students often have a difficult time reading eighteenth-century nonfiction prose. The issues it reveals seem dated and unexciting to them. A writer like Woolman comes across as a moral "antique" to students who would much prefer to skip over the entire period and move on to Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe in the next century.
I try to point out to students that Woolman is, in many ways, very contemporary. He almost single-handedly defied many of the conventional views of his day and was willing to stand up and take the heat for the things that he believed in. I also point out that the principles that Woolman uses to deal with the evils he perceives in society are by no means dated. Many of the issues he brings up still exist today but in different, more subtle, forms, and it is our responsibility to deal with those issues. Social injustices, bigotry, and poverty are, unfortunately, still very much with us today. Woolman offers us an example and guidance in such matters.
Students are often quite interested in Quakers and their culture. Most of them have heard something about Quakers, but they don't really understand them. They are usually quite moved by the conviction behind Woolman's writings and can identify with it. They want to know if he was typical of Quaker thinking and why they haven't been taught more about the effect of Quaker ideas on American culture.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Woolman writes about many themes that should be emphasized:
1. Slavery as a historical issue.
2. Racism and prejudice as issues that are still very much alive today.
3. The responsibility of the individual for social injustices.
4. The need for conviction and passion in our moral and social lives.
5. The potential of any one person for bringing about true reform.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In discussing Woolman, one needs to discuss the practice of keeping journals among Quakers and early Americans generally. Why did Quakers keep journals? Why did they publish them? An analysis of Woolman's simple and direct style is very useful to seeing the "art" in the Journal, since his style of writing very effectively underscores and enhances the power of his convictions. I also draw connections between journals written by Quakers and journals written by Puritans to the north. Quaker journals have an inner peace that Puritan journals often lack.
Woolman wrote the Journal and his Plea for the Poor for future generations. He certainly knew that the Journal at least would not be published in his lifetime. There is a rhetorical strategy behind the Journal that revisions within the work reveal. Clearly, Woolman wanted us to see the effects of the workings of the "Inner Light" in his own life so that we could perhaps begin to cultivate with equal effect the "Inner Light" he felt was within each of us. Considerations (I and II) were more immediate in their audience concerns; they are persuasive tracts, meant to bring about immediate action through a direct appeal to the consciences of those who read them.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Woolman can be tied to nineteenth-century American autobiographers, especially Henry David Thoreau and Henry Adams. The Quaker influence can also be connected to John Greenleaf Whittier, Emerson, and Whitman. The connections between the Quaker "Inner Light" and the type of transcendentalism expressed in Emerson's works, particularly in Nature, should be emphasized. Woolman also should be compared and contrasted to the journal writers and autobiographers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England. John Winthrop, for instance, kept a journal for far different reasons and with far different results than did Woolman.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Would Woolman feel that his life and ministry made a difference to the world of today?
(b) How would he feel about today's world? About social injustice in third world countries? About our response as individuals and as Americans to poverty and social injustice in other lands?
2. Comparison/contrast papers are very useful ways to develop insights into Woolman. He can be compared, for example, to Bradford, to Emerson, to Adams, and to Whitman. Sometimes I ask students to envision three or more writers together in a room today discussing an issue. What would each writer say about the issue? Feminism, for example, or the atomic bomb. This device often helps students to enter the writer's world and better understand the imaginative process.