Prospectus: Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta (1807)

This prospectus is for a paper I am writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. I know my arguments are a bit convoluted, especially for those who have not read the novel, but any comments or recommendations for secondary sources would be really helpful. Thanks!

In Margaretta; or the Intricacies of the Heart (1807) Martha Meredith Read manipulates conventions of the epistolary novel to convey the social unrest and chaotic politico-economic circumstances that frustrated early efforts to construct a coherent American national identity. Although Read relates a fairly predictable tale of seduction, in which the eponymous heroine defends her virtue from an onslaught of depraved rakes, the fragmented structure of the text, with its jarring mix of perspectives and extensive geographic span, reveals that the nation is not an isolated space with distinct boundaries. In fact, the letters that constitute the novel participate in transnational circuits of exchange that portray both the fluidity of national borders and the intense mobility of bodies in the early nineteenth century. By foregrounding the notion of literal as well as figurative movements in Margaretta, Read also draws our attention to the fears and anxieties that arise from greater mobility, emotions that came to dominate social and economic interactions in the young nation.

While a largely unexplored text, several critics have discussed how Read’s novel exposes internal societal tensions as well as external concerns about America’s precarious position in the circum-Atlantic world. For instance, in “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel” Anne Dalke describes how the text’s incestuous undertones coincide with preoccupations on the dissolution of class hierarchies, which threatened the social and moral order of the new nation. Raising the specter of incest therefore allows Read to illustrate the potentially dire consequences of increasing social mobility. On the other hand, in “Lovers and Citizens” Joseph Fichtelberg examines how Margaretta responds to the nation’s insecurities about its role in the unpredictable global market of the early nineteenth century. He presents a provocative argument that connects the novel’s theme of seduction with the circumstances of American merchants, who, he claims, resemble “sentimental victim[s] of seduction… caught up in an erratic and feminizing system of international trade” (79). But while Dalke and Fichtelberg reveal how Read’s novel addresses concerns that plagued America’s early nationhood, they pay little attention to how she resolves these tensions in the development of the narrative as well as the very structure and form of her tale.

I argue that Margaretta is engaged in a conscious re-construction of an American national identity, which Read makes possible through the eponymous heroine’s journey outside of the nation’s prescribed borders. When forced to abandon her life in America, Margaretta laments: “But who are my friends? And where is my home?” (72). These anxieties about displacement and rootlessnes ultimately frame the rest of the narrative as she struggles to discover her allies and secure an understanding of “home” that is essential for both self and national identification. In this paper, I hope to demonstrate how Margaretta’s experiences abroad not only culminate in the restoration of her true aristocratic parentage, but also teach her vital lessons that compel her to conceive of “American” rights and values as necessarily linked to a limited geographic locale. For instance, while trying to appeal to laws for protection against the advances of a would-be seducer in England, this same man reminds Margaretta that “you are not in. America,” thereby implying that the justice and security she demands is restricted to a particular national space (170).

However, in addition to presenting Margaretta as a victim of external aggression, Read also portrays her as an active agent, consciously involved in the re-imagination of an American national identity. The lessons she learns in the West Indies and England enable Margaretta to acquire the skills needed to capitalize on the qualities of innocence and virtue with which she was born. This transformation in her character becomes evident during the masquerade ball at the novel’s conclusion, where we witness how Margaretta’s original artlessness is replaced by deliberate manipulation as she performs the role of a simple “cottage girl” (178). Rather than a reversion to her prior social position, I assert that Margaretta’s performance here is essential to the re-formation of America as a closed national space. Assuming the appearance and actions of a country girl allows her to reconstruct a normative gender hierarchy that grants William the courage he needs to recover from the failure of his East-India trading venture, which in turn enables him to renew their courtship. As a result, Margaretta sets in motion the steps needed for a return to America and thereby the creation of a coherent national identity. Read implies through the conclusion of her text that this coherency can only be attained through the renunciation of properties and cultural ties abroad and withdrawal into a rural retreat. Margaretta therefore suggests that the only way to avoid pressing societal and economic concerns is to pretend they do not exist by performing normative gender roles and maintaining a façade of political order.

Finally, to illustrate how Read’s novel not only exposes fractures within early American society, but also struggles to mend them through its re-imagining of American ideological and geographic borders, I will concentrate on a formal and stylistic examination of the novel, paying particular attention to shifts in the narrative structure. For instance, the transition from the multiple perspectives that dominate the story’s beginning to the middle-section, which focuses primarily on Margaretta’s singular outlook, can be seen as part of Read’s efforts to cohere disparate voices and experiences to construct a uniform national identity. Consequently, my research will require a further analysis of epistolary novel conventions and perhaps a comparison of Margaretta with other “traditional” representatives of this genre.

Works Consulted:

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. (Annotation)

Barnes, Elizabeth. “Politics of Sympathy.” States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 1-18. Print. (Annotation)

Dalke, Anne. “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel.” Early American Literature 23.2 (1988): 188-202. Print. (Annotation)

Duyfhuizen, Bernard. “Epistolary Narratives of Transmission and Transgression.” Comparative Literature 37.1 (Winter 1985): 1-26. Print. (Annotation)

Fichtelberg, Joseph. “Heart-felt Verities: The Feminism of Martha Meredith Read.” Legacy 15.2 (1998): n. pag. Web. 4 April 2010. (Annotation)

______. “Lovers and Citizens.” Critical Fictions: Sentiment and the American Market 1780-1870. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003: 72-116. Print. (Annotation)

______. “Friendless in Philadelphia: The Feminist Critique of Martha Meredith Read.” Early American Literature 32.3 (1997): 205-221. Print.

Forcey, Blythe. “Charlotte Temple and the End of Epistolarity.” American Literature 63.2 (June 1991): 225-241. Print. (Annotation)

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

Read, Martha Meredith. Margaretta; or, The Intricacies of the Heart. Charleston: Edmund Morford, 1807. Print.

Weyler, Karen A. “‘A Speculating Spirit’: Trade, Speculation and Gambling in Early American Fiction.” Early American Literature 31.3 (1996): 207-242. Print. (Annotation)

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “introduction.” Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print. (Annotation)