Jersey Reflections: Vineland Poet in Europe

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Bristol’s sojourn included serving as U.S. delegate of the New York Positivist Society.

Vineland poet and lecturer Augusta Cooper Bristol departed for France in summer 1880 to pursue her interest in the social co-operative system of French industrialist Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin. Funded by a campaign initiated by the Woman’s State Social Science Association of New York City, Bristol’s sojourn would consist of two months of intense study. 

The first stop of the visit was in Paris, where Bristol would spend three weeks learning the French language. From there, she traveled to Guise and the Familistere, or Social Palace, established by Godin in the 1850s. The Social Palace consisted of a factory and three four-story buildings that provided housing as well as recreational and aesthetic facilities for the workers. It was a self-contained community and an attempt to create a utopia that had proven successful for several decades prior to Bristol’s visit.  

The Vineland poet would spend five weeks in Guise and, according to her daughter Bessie Bristol Mason’s biographical sketch of her mother, took advantage of “every opportunity given her to investigate its departments, manufacturing, commercial, educational and social, and became profoundly convinced of the equity of the principles which developed its success.”

Read: Jersey Reflections: Poet Thrives in Vineland

Bristol’s time in Europe also included serving as U.S. delegate of the New York Positivist Society at the Liberal Congress in Brussels in August. While there, she delivered a lecture, “The Scientific Basis of Morality,” which received attention in the Journal de Bruxelles. Comparing her to notable stage actresses and declaring her “the Sarah Bernhardt of eloquent lecturers,” the newspaper praised Bristol’s style and demeanor by noting, “The calm gesture, the picturesque inflection of the voice, the majesty of attitude, the complete possession of herself, mingle in this artist with a sweetness and a feminine propriety which is astonishing. Madame Bristol spoke in English, but she held equally well that large majority of the audience who could not comprehend her.” 

Bristol returned triumphant to New York City that autumn and commenced sharing her new-found knowledge in her writings and lectures, offering, as Mason put it, “brief descriptions of the Equitable Association at Guise, which led to the reception of many letters of inquiry, indicating a strong desire on the part of some manufacturers and employers to understand the methods by which labor and capital may co-operate.” 

Bristol’s interest in Godin’s philosophy and her involvement with the New York Positivist Society was an extension of her preoccupation with August Comte, the 19th-century French thinker whose pursuit of a social utopia included scientific principles. As the founder of the positivist philosophy, Comte felt that true knowledge of the world as perceived through the senses could only be achieved through the application of science. While Comte’s ideas derived from his attempt to pry the French from a post-Revolution malaise, Bristol saw his philosophy as a means to improving the circumstances of women and workers in the U.S.  

So, it’s not surprising that, in 1881, she was appointed to the National Lecture Bureau of the Grange, the organization of farmers that had its own chapter in Vineland. The Grange was not an agricultural brotherhood, preferring instead to include women in official capacities and recognizing families as the core of its membership. It was representative of Bristol’s beliefs, and she contributed her part by delivering lectures on “The Relation of the Agricultural Occupation to Social Institutions,” and “Organization and Fraternity and their Results” throughout the Midwest.

At the 1882 National Grange Convention in New Hampshire, a local newspaper credited her as the highlight of the event and praised her speech as “an address of great eloquence, wonderful pathos, and rare power… upon the dangers of the republic and the duty of the farmer. The vast audience was hushed in perfect silence save when the pent-up feeling burst forth in storms of rapturous applause which at its close made the hills and valleys ring again and again.” 

Bristol would continue to reflect the founding principles of Vineland as she worked with the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Association for the Advancement of Women, but her next venture would take her into the heart of politics and a new audience. We’ll examine that when this series continues.

Recommended: Jersey Reflections: The Underground Railroad

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