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

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

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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: Elizabeth Barnes’ “Politics of Sympathy” (1997)

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

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

In the “Preface” to States of Sympathy Barnes claims that her goal in this book is to explore “not Europe’s dreams about America but America’s dreams about itself” (ix). By examining the intersections between “sociopolitical discourses” and “popular literary themes” of the early republic, she asserts that what concerned writers of the period was the very process of “imagination” (ix). For her, “[s]ympathetic identification—the act of imagining oneself in another’s position” became the means for individuals to recognize the “interdependence between their own and others’ identities” necessary for establishing a coherent national identity (ix). She elaborates on this notion of sympathetic identification in her chapter on the “Politics of Sympathy.” In order for sympathetic discourse to be effective, Barnes argues that there must be a connection, a sense of “familiarity” evoked through texts and felt by the reader (2). As a result, many political and literary discourses of the time were built around the concept of “family,” converging private domestic issues with public concerns (2). Ultimately, it is this appeal to sympathy through familial bonds that, Barnes suggests, provides the foundation for democracy. One of the most provocative claims she presents in this chapter involves her explanation for the prevalence of themes of incest and seduction in early American novels. Unlike, scholars such as Anne Dalke, who treat these themes as evidence of social unrest and public anxieties about dissolving class boundaries, Barnes argues that “incest and seduction represent the logical outcome of American culture’s most cherished ideals” (3). In a nation where sympathetic bonds are stressed and boundaries between “familial and social ties” are collapsed, “incest and seduction become the unspoken champions of a sentimental politics designed to make familial feeling the precondition for inclusion in the public community” (3). This account for the overwhelming interest in incest and seduction in early American novels will compel me to reexamine my own analysis of how these themes function in Margaretta. Barnes’ conception of the central role of women in the formation of a “national sensibility” will also help me develop my argument on Read’s eponymous heroine and her effort to construct a coherent American national identity (13).

Annotation: Anne Dalke’s “Original Vice” (1988)

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

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

In this article Dalke argues that the prevalence of themes of incest in early American novels reflect public anxieties about the “absence of a well defined social system” (188). Rather than an actual fear of “widespread incest,” she claims that authors were concerned with what the potential for incest signifies, namely, the inherent dangers posed by increased socio-economic mobility (188). Dissolving class boundaries and the fluid structure of society in the young nation fueled people’s desires for a return to organized, hierarchal arrangements, symbolized in these tales through the characters’ search for their “fathers,” or more broadly, for the protection of a charitable “upper class” (189). While Dalke examines numerous incest narratives, her discussion of Read’s Margaretta is especially relevant to my research. She exposes the conservative strains within the novel, claiming that, “opportunity is open… only to those already well-to-do. No man rises here by his own efforts” (199). The specter of incest that appears in the story therefore serves only to emphasize the importance of parentage and inheritance. Margaretta remains at the whims of her father, relying on his political and material currency to improve her socio-economic status and ultimately marry outside of her class. But while Dalke’s argument enables us to understand how the novel copes with anxieties about the “ease of social movement” and re-imagines an ordered community where distinctions in rank remain clear, I contest her representation of Margaretta, which divests the heroine entirely of agency and ignores the critical role she plays in re-constructing a coherent American national identity (188). Dalke also disregards the complexity of Read’s text when she discusses the characters’ inability to acquire material wealth outside of inheritance. Although this may be true, Read intentionally presents a reversal at the end of her novel that contrasts Margaretta’s newfound riches with De Burling’s impoverished state. The fact that she empowers her heroine with the ability to restore William’s fortune and, essentially, his violated manhood, has greater political and economic implications that I want to explore in my paper.