Archive for the ‘ Early American Fiction ’ Category

Annotation: Cathy Davidson’s “Preface” and “Introduction” to Revolution and the Word (1986)

Peer-review: 0

Davidson, Cathy N. “Preface” and “Introduction: Toward a History of Texts.” Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. vii-xi, 3-14. Print.

In the “Preface” to Revolution and the Word Davidson outlines four revolutions she explores in her book. Aside from the obvious, America’s Revolutionary War, she also draws our attention to three “quiet revolutions,” namely; the “Industrial Revolution,” which led to the growth of cities and changed the social fabric of the new nation, a “reading revolution” facilitated by print technology and the genre of the novel, and a revolution occurring in universities today, one that challenges disciplinary boundaries and canonicity (vii). In discussing these various revolutions, Davidson makes a compelling case for the study of early American fiction and the novel in particular. While long neglected by scholars and academics, she claims that this field can shed light on our understanding of America’s early nationhood during a time when people were still struggling to define themselves as American. In her perspective, the novel was an “inchoate form appropriate for and correlative to a country first attempting to formulate itself” (14). Davidson discusses the various roles of the novel during the turbulent years of the early republic, for instance, as a tool for the education of women. But her most provocative argument asserts that the novel figured as a point of entry for marginalized peoples, allowing them to gain “access to social and political events from which many… would have been otherwise largely excluded” (10). In essence, the novel can be seen as a place where those barred from formal political participation, especially women, could be empowered, a fertile ground where authors and readers alike could imagine the enormous potential of the new nation. Yet, these works also represent the disjunction between reality and fiction, and thus expose “versions of emerging definitions of America—version that were, from the first, tinged with ambivalence and duplicity” (10). Consequently, Davidson’s analysis of the early American novel does not simply discuss the ways in which historical circumstance gave rise to these texts, but also provides a nuanced analysis of how these texts shaped and influenced their times.

Annotation: Rosemarie Zagarri’s “Introduction” to Revolutionary Backlash (2007)

Peer-Review: 0

This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “Introduction.” Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 1-10. Print.

In her “Introduction” to Revolutionary Backlash Zagarri discusses how the American Revolution transformed popular opinion about the role of women in politics and “initiated a widespread, ongoing debate over the meaning of women’s rights” (2). While females were unable to participate legally by “voting and holding public office,” she reveals that they nevertheless helped shaped the character of the young nation through informal channels, whether by organizing themselves or influencing their husbands and sons (2). Ultimately, the contributions females made during the Revolution appeared to herald a similar revolution for women in terms of political status and rights, a development often neglected by historians and scholars. Zagarri demonstrates how the formulation of “republican wife” or “republican mother” creates a space for women in the political life of the young republic, albeit one that remains consistent with the “gender status quo” (5). Those women who attempted to step beyond the confines of domesticity to actively pursue politics were denounced as “female politicians” and seen as a threat to the moral and social order of the new nation (5). Therefore, while the American Revolution did open up new possibilities for women and even brought debates about women’s rights into the public arena, the backlash was quick to come. New discourses emerged encouraging women to return to hearth and home, and serving the nation from within the domestic realm was once again seen as their most productive and practical use. Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash attempts to shed light on this period in history, to examine the “rapid shift in perceptions, and self perceptions, of women’s political role” (9). In my discussion of Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta I hope to examine how the epistolary novel, though published in 1807, continues to explore the themes of women’s rights and reinforces the prominent role women played in shaping American national identity.

Annotation: Elizabeth Hewitt’s “Introduction: Universal Letter-Writers” (2004)

Peer-Review: 0

This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Hewitt, Elizabeth. “Introduction: Universal Letter-Writers.” Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

In her introduction Hewitt argues that authors in America’s early nationhood “so often turn to the epistolary form” because it allowed them to “theorize the kinds of social intercourse necessary to the articulation of a national identity and a national literature” (2). She claims that the genre of epistolarity is unique in that it conveys the “utopian possibilities of American democracy” while also exposing the obstacles to attaining national union (6). For instance, Hewitt demonstrates how letter writing is an act that simultaneously emphasizes the individualism of the writer and the reciprocity of his or her relationship with the reader. Yet, this reciprocity in correspondence can also be a façade that obscures submission or discord (6). Hewitt’s fascinating analysis of the inherent contradictions in epistolarity and conception of letters as “a crucial site by which democratic theory passes into social practice,” ultimately provides an important framework for my examination of Read’s Margaretta as an epistolary novel (6-7). I will extend Hewitt’s argument on letters to a consideration of how the structure of correspondence in Margaretta, namely, the shift from a multiplicity of letters at the beginning of the story to the middle section dominated by the heroine’s perspective, lends itself to the re-imagining of a coherent American national identity.

Annotation: Joseph Fichtelberg’s “Heart-felt Verities” (2010)

Peer-Review: 0

This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Fichtelberg, Joseph. “Heart-felt Verities: The Feminism of Martha Meredith Read.” Legacy 15:2 (1998): n. pag. Web. 4 April 2010.

In this article Fichtelberg analyzes the “feminist implications” of Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. His argument relies heavily on a comparison between Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Read’s response to this text, “A Second Vindication,” as works that propose two distinct forms of feminism. While Fichtelberg identifies a number of disparities between each writer’s philosophy, he claims that “the largest difference… involves Read’s approach to reason.” Whereas Wollstonecraft views reason as a “clarion call to equality,” one that “renders all forms of slavery scandalous,” Read remains skeptical of the power of intellect to overcome “the fluctuations of fancy… the flights of imagination.” Instead, she views the “parental bond” as “irreducible truth,” a concept that Fichtelberg identifies as entirely adverse to Wollstonecraft’s brand of feminism. But rather than making a value judgment on either author’s viewpoints, he conducts a more nuanced reading of the political and cultural implications of these differences. His analysis of Read’s “Second Vindication” highlights the contradiction between “nature” and “custom” that lies at the center of her critique. Whereas custom refers to “unreflective [everyday] behavior” that “distorts the family,” nature represents the “‘qualities of the heart,’ those intrinsic values unaffected by ‘corroding’ social practices.” This examination of the fundamental oppositions that shape Read’s feminism will ultimately help me unpack her concluding passages to Margaretta.

Annotation: Gretchen Woertendyke’s “Romance to Novel” (2009)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Woertendyke, Gretchen. “Romance to Novel: A Secret History.” Narrative 17:3 (2009): 255-73. Print.

In her article, Woertendyke asserts that Sansay’s Secret History stems from the 18th century British genre of the secret history with notable divergences. She explains that secret histories are Old World forms that connected tales of “political subterfuge, corruption and sexual scandal” to the private affairs and actions of political figures (260). Woertendyke provides Delariviere Manley’s The Secret History of Queen Zarah, and the Zaracines as one example of a secret history that introduces readers to “the uncomfortable intimacy between Queen Anne’s bedchamber and her governance of the nation,” where private and public history converge, mutually affecting and shaping each other (260). Woertendyke links Sansay’s Secret History with this tradition because of the author’s employment of real historical figures in the plot of her narrative and particularly, her bold confession that these letters are addressed to the former vice president Aaron Burr, a man who she had an actual affair with during her lifetime. Woertendyke critiques Dillon for analyzing Secret History as only a novel, insisting that Sansay deliberately compels readers to view her text as a “mixed genre” (257). Secret History calls attention to Sansay’s real sexual scandal with Burr as well as the real secret history of female oppression and exploitation often repressed beneath conventional conceptions of the Haitian revolution as a colonial race war. Woertendyke reveals that similar to Manley’s narrative, Secret History accentuates the intimate interrelations between the private and public sphere. She discusses how Clara’s body bears her private history of domestic abuse as well as the public history of colonization as General Rochambeau attempts to conquer her as well as the island, even imposing a trade embargo to prevent her escape. Woertendyke also notes that Sansay’s narrative diverges from the Old World form of secret history because of its “physical distance from a metropolitan center, and its temporal distance from the genre’s nearly comprehensive decline over half a century earlier”  (255). She emphasizes that Sansay’s broad geopolitical considerations offer readers a helpful transatlantic framework from which to consider the Haitian revolution. Woertendyke further suggests that temporally, Sansay’s Secret History introduces a new genre that conflates history and fiction in revealing ways. She, for example, narrates through the voice of two characters, Clara and Mary, to offer multiple perspectives on the various forms of oppression women face.

Like Dillon, Woertendyke concludes her essay asserting that the novel projects the possibility of realizing a feminist utopia in America but I would argue that Sansay’s ultimately resists such conceptions of a closed nation-state. I agree with Woertendyke that the historical allusions and references within the narrative compel an analysis of Secret History as something more than just fiction. She also touches on how Sansay depicts women committing extreme acts of violence against one other but I intend to elaborate on this point further in my own paper.

Annotation: Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse’s “The Problem of Population and the Form of the American Novel” (2008)

Peer-Review: 0

This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. “The Problem of Population and the Form of the American Novel.” American Literary History 20:4 (Winter 2008): 667-685. Print.

In this article Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that “novels written during the period of the early republic” resemble Barbary captivity narratives in that they “imagine a community in cosmopolitan terms” (668). The authors suggest that by examining these captivity narratives, it becomes possible to recognize how early American texts resist definition or interpretation from within a strict national framework. For instance, works such as Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive challenge “fixed national identities” and boundaries by ushering characters into a space of captivity in which “people… are defined, not so much by their nation of origin, or home, as by their encounters in a world produced by the circulation of goods and peoples” (672). In Armstrong and Tennenhouse’s perspective, this interaction within a cosmopolitan community, where individuals establish “kinship by trading women, goods, and information across the Atlantic world” becomes the quintessential feature of early American novels (674). The two also extend their argument further by considering the “problem of population… namely, the problem of containing the larger category of universal humanity within the smaller category of the nation” (676). In doing so, they discuss the evolution of the Barbary captivity narrative and its role in transforming the American novel into its “domestic” or “‘national’ form” (679). Ultimately, Armstrong and Tennenhouse’s analysis of the Barbary captivity narratives presents an intriguing framework for analyzing Margaretta’s period of confinement with Roulant’s mansion and, more broadly, Read’s attempt to address the “problem of population” through the structure and form of her novel.

Annotation: Jeremy D. Popkin’s “Facing Racial Revolution” (2003)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:4 (2003): 511-33. Print.

In his article Popkin discusses how the success of the Haitian Revolution deeply challenged Euro-American conceptions of race and the racial hierarchy itself. Whereas blacks were previously considered inferior, irrational beings, the insurrection showed that they could successfully organize to overthrow a white colonizing power and in effect seize one of Europe’s most lucrative colonial possessions at the time. Popkin specifically analyzes how first-person testimonies about the revolution reveal a crisis in identity as these authors struggle to reconcile their understanding of the Western “self” against the new black “other.” Because it was before inconceivable that blacks could even stage a revolution there was no formula for how to discuss or even think about it when it actually happened so writers needed to create conditions where it “became thinkable” (515). In his first-hand captivity narrative, Historick Recital, M. Gros suggested that “the real instigators of the insurrection were either the educated mulattoes or counter-revolutionary whites” (521). He asserted that the officials sent to St. Domingue deliberately acted passive because they wanted to spark chaos in the colony to demonstrate the inefficiency of the revolutionary party in France and precipitate the restoration of the monarchy. Popkin emphasizes, however, that Gros’ account also revealed that blacks could be just as skillful political and military leaders as whites, particularly with respect to Toussaint L’Overture. Popkin further notes that in Gros’ attempt to reach the highest ranks of administration and influence policy, he achieved “a position that required him to identify, at least to some extent, with the goals of a black-led movement,” as well as the black leaders themselves, who he recognized as generous, intelligent, and rational (518). Popkin also discusses how Michel Etienee Descourtilz’ first-person captivity narrative demonstrates a similar crisis in identity, where he encountered blacks who deeply challenged his preconceived racial stereotypes. While Descourtilz took comfort in his medical knowledge as evidence of the superiority of European science, like Gros, he was also deeply implicated in the black revolutionary movement as he helped the army resist French forces. Popkin ultimately contends that the most unsettling aspect of Gros’ and Descourtilz’s accounts is that they not only revealed how people of color could successfully repel a white colonizing power but also how they could manipulate whites into employing their knowledge about law and medicine to further their own revolutionary movement.

While Popkin focuses on how first person narratives “represent not only the construction but also the deconstruction of the autonomous white male personality” with particular regards to race, I am interested in examining how Sansay’s Secret History differs as a female account of the revolution, one written from the perspective of an American woman who writes about captivity from a detached position (527). I believe her novel offers a means of analyzing the fraught gender relations between men and women in St. Domingue as well as white women and women of color, which Popkin largely overlooks in his own article.