This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.
In this essay Fichtelberg analyzes how the “language of sentiment” used to “imagine a virtuous [republican] polity” in America came under pressure when forced to account for the severe economic crises of the early nineteenth century (73). To clarify his conception of sentimental discourse, he builds on the distinction Adam Smith draws between humanity, “primitive” or “naked sentiment,” and sympathy, the capacity to “moderate feeling” in a way that would “secure social concord” (74). Relying on these definitions, Fichtelberg argues that while the language of sympathy dominated official attempts to establish unity in the new nation, “humanity” and its recourse to pure feeling continually resurface in conversations about America’s role in the chaotic and unpredictable global market. For instance, he shows how merchants faced with failed ventures abroad increasingly figured themselves as “sentimental victim[s] of seduction… caught up in an erratic and feminizing system of international trade” (79). But in contrast to these representations of victimized, effeminate men, Fichtelberg asserts that the popular fictions of the time propose an alternative vision for coping with economic anxieties. These narratives portray “resolute and circulating women who rose above seduction to conquer market problems” (76). In this context, his analysis of Margaretta is especially relevant to my paper. He claims that the eponymous heroine’s struggle to protect her virtue from predatory men can be paralleled to the threat of “international predation” on “republican virtue” (90). But in addition to presenting Margaretta as a victim and commodity within the market, Fichtelberg also stresses her power to react and rebel against her oppressors through speech. By demonstrating how she effectively defends her chastity and liberty, he argues that Margaretta’s narrative provides a model for reclaiming republican virtue against the vicissitudes of the colonial economy. Fichtelberg therefore presents a provocative argument, one that ties together the novel’s themes of seduction with the pressing material and economic concerns of the new nation. Yet, what I find problematic is the way he couches Margaretta’s ending in failure, suggesting that the heroine’s removal into a “restricted sphere, shielded from both passion and interest,” figures as an escape from international market tensions (92). Although this may be true, Fichtelberg underestimates Margaretta’s role in not only defending republican values, but also consciously re-constructing America as a closed national space.