FANS of Frances Wright are gathering today in Germantown...

Salmagundi

September 06, 1995

FANS of Frances Wright are gathering today in Germantown, Tenn., just east of Memphis, to celebrate her 200th birthday -- and, they hope, to stir up interest in this pioneering commentator so that future generations won't be asking "Frances Who?" next time a big anniversary rolls around.

According to David Bowman of the Huntsville (Ala.) News, Frances Wright is the great-grandmother of editorial writers and social commentators, although so far she seems to have eluded serious attention from historians. If Mr. Bowman and other admirers have their way, that will change. He regards Ms. Wright as "one of perhaps a dozen of the most interesting women in American history."

She was the first woman to have a play produced on an American stage. In February 1819, "Altorf," a dramatic statement opposing tyranny, was staged at the Park Theatre in New York City, then the "finest theater of that day," Mr. Bowman notes.

She was the first woman to edit a journal of national opinion, The Free Enquirer, beginning in January 1829 in New York. That publication was a successor to the New Harmony Gazette, which Frances Wright had co-edited with Robert Dale Owen in the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana.

She was the first woman to give a popular lecture series before an audience of both men and women, again in the Park Theatre, in February 1829. The mixed crowds were referred to as "promiscuous audiences."

Born in Scotland and orphaned at an early age, Ms. Wright made her name through a book entitled "Views of Society and Manners in America," a collection of opinions and reportage published in London in 1821, after she and her sister traveled unchaperoned through the cities and backwoods of the young United States.

The book brought her instant fame, as well as access to the most influential people of her day. She returned to America in 1824, and stayed to confront the evil of slavery, which she saw as the blot on an otherwise near-perfect experiment in self-government. She founded the Nashoba community near Memphis, in a spot now covered with suburban housing, where she hoped to prepare slaves for emancipation and participation in a bi-racial society.

On her 200th birthday, the full story of that adventure -- and of Frances Wright's successes and failures -- remains unwritten.

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