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Intricate Relations Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789-1814
By KAREN A. WEYLER
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Manner Unquestionably More Agreeable
The Politics, Aesthetics, and Praxis of Epistolary Fiction
Maria to Lucy: Dear, dear! I've no patience! Stay always at home? You may if you please, but so will not I. It would mope me to death, I should certainly die ... To stay prosing at home with mother and you; And then for amusement; perhaps we may drone Over Gregory's letters, or Madam Chapone.... No amusement in such stupid books can I see ... Were I to read much of such stuff it would craze me, I hate such nonsensical trash. -Susanna Rowson, "Dialogue for Two Ladies," from A Present for Young Ladies (1811)
One of the more curious phenomena of the literary culture of the early national period is the extraordinary and enduring popularity of the epistolary novel among American readers and writers. At the same time that the epistolary novel was waning in popularity in Britain, it was enjoying a resurgence of popularity among American readers. While British and continental novelists were experimenting with a variety of narrative devices to develop plots and convey mental states, American novelists continued to rely on the epistolary mode from the end of the Revolution until the early decades of the nineteenth century. Critics of British and European fiction have striven to place the epistolary novel in the context of the development and literary history of the novel itself, but critics of American fiction have not, by and large, known what to make of the persistence of epistolarity during the early national era. Although the epistolary status of various individual works has been the subject of recent essays and book chapters, none of these addresses these underlying questions: Why did epistolary fiction persist, even thrive, in the United States, comprising more than 30 percent of the novels written by Americans between 1789 and 1814, as well as a large percentage of the British novels most favored by American readers? Why did writers and readers find epistolary fiction so engaging? Finally, how did writers and readers use epistolary fictions? Here I propose to explore how and why the epistolary form was so ideally suited to the cultural politics and social practices of the early Republic and hence so widely appreciated by American writers and readers, for epistolarity was not only an aesthetic narrative choice, but also an ideological one: While virtually all early American novels emphasize the importance of self-examination and discipline, epistolary fiction most clearly and consistently articulates this concern, for it creates a world in which the individual's conduct is constantly mirrored, much as Adam Smith postulates in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. By melding the philosophical content of advice texts with the voyeuristic thrills of letter fiction, late eighteenth-century American epistolary fiction aptly expresses prevailing Lockean pedagogical theories about reading, writing, and the importance of habit formation-skills of crucial importance, especially for the bourgeois woman and the polity whose symbolic weight she was increasingly coming to bear.
As is commonly acknowledged, the eighteenth century was the great age of the letter in English-speaking America, as well as Britain and the Continent. David S. Shields has suggested that the personal letter in the United States assumed even greater importance in the 1780s and 1790s in response to a flourishing, yet increasingly impersonal, print culture. The nature of the letter underwent a change as well. As Shields explains, "With this expansion came a shift of emphasis away from the individual letter as an event of communication to the idea of correspondence in which an enduring relationship in feeling might be cultivated." Even within the arena of print, Shields asserts, the genre of the letter played a major role, for the letter "was put to service in overcoming the impersonality of print marketed to an unknown audience." Thus the letter appears in political, economic, travel, conduct, and religious works, as well as in epistolary fiction, as a form universally familiar to readers and as a means to counter the formality of print. The special appeal of epistolary fiction, which emphasizes, above all else, feelings, intimacy, and relationships, can be best understood when measured against the culture-wide appeal of the familiar letter itself. Abigail Adams emphasizes the circularity of this effect in a letter to her niece, Lucy Cranch, in which she praises Samuel Richardson: "I believe Richardson has done more towards embellishing the present age, and teaching them the talent of letter-writing, than any other modern I can name."
While influenced by its British antecedents, American epistolary fiction differs in important ways. Early American novels frequently emphasize the intersection of the mind and body through sentiment and sensibility, with sentiment suggesting the capacity for fine feelings and sensibility suggesting a corresponding expressiveness of the body, but never to quite the same degree as do their British counterparts. As John Mullan explains in Sentiment and Sociability about the British novels of the mid-eighteenth century, "It is the body which acts out the powers of sentiment. These powers, in a prevailing model of sensibility, are represented as greater than those of words. Tears, blushes, and sighs-and a range of postures and gestures-reveal conditions of feeling which can connote exceptional virtue or allow for intensified forms of communication. Feeling is above all observable, and the body through which it throbs is peculiarly excitable and responsive." The expression of such exquisite sensibility pervades the British epistolary novel, most obviously in works such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, yet sensibility never played so large a role in any of the more popular American titles other than Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, a novel which one would expect to dramatize the state of the physical body, given Rowson's own experiences as an actress and dramatist.
While Rowson's novel and imported epistolary fictions such as Pamela and Clarissa continued to be popular with American readers throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (especially in abridged formats), American writers modeled the sentimental epistolary novel to both reflect and shape civic imperatives and cultural values. Consequently, American epistolary fiction de-emphasizes the physical body and elevates instead the sentimental, yet disciplined, mind. Concomitantly, rather than accenting the process of seduction and its effect on the physical body, most American epistolary fiction emphasizes the consequences of seduction, as well as ways to prevent seduction and promote virtue through self-knowledge, self-discipline, and self-control, ideals which pervade public discourse, both fictional and pedagogical, during the latter half of the eighteenth century. This kind of fiction was the perfect antidote to the criticism of fiction that prevailed during this time, much of which was inspired by followers of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers, who were suspicious of the imagination and anxious for literature to serve an elevating purpose.
While virtually all of the earliest American novels take up, to some degree or another, the importance of such self-regulation, epistolary fiction most clearly and consistently articulates this concern, for it creates a world in which the individual's conduct is constantly mirrored and scrutinized, much as Adam Smith postulates in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Through this focus, late eighteenth-century American epistolary fiction aptly expresses prevailing Lockean pedagogical theories about reading, writing, and the importance of habit formation. In this chapter, I intend to examine epistolarity as a deliberate aesthetic choice, representative of a secularized ideology and complex cultural methodology with regard to education, habit, discipline, and character formation-all dependent upon advanced literacy and writing skills. While pedagogical materials represent self-discipline as its own reward, essential if it is to be properly internalized, fiction also suggests the civic and social value of such discipline. The civic dimension of this equation was crucial; the virtue of white, bourgeois American women was increasingly linked to the moral health of Columbia itself in the national imaginary.
Epistolary fiction illustrates ways to achieve a virtuous transparency of character-an important trope in American social thought-through a process of examination and self-discipline. In such novels as William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, Judith Sargent Murray's Story of Margaretta, Hannah Foster's The Coquette and The Boarding School, and Sukey Vickery's Emily Hamilton, letters are used to exhibit moral development (or failure) ostensibly unmediated by a narrator. Reading and writing skills embody both disciplinary tools and a means of demonstrating evidence of this requisite self-discipline, with letters providing stable representations of the female self that can be measured against cultural ideals of female behavior. While the educative focus of these novels suggests literacy and writing skills are means of empowerment for women, as Cathy N. Davidson has demonstrated in Revolution and the Word, these novels simultaneously send readers strangely mixed messages by advocating a conservative, repressive process of self-discipline to be implemented via these same skills. For this reason, I read many of these novels as being both more complicated (and more conservative) than some other critics have recently read them. In the world of the novel, this self-control ideally empowered bourgeois women to direct social relations at a time when women were denied the opportunity to practice the liberal self-determination promised by revolutionary rhetoric, for the same writing and reading skills used to examine one's own character could also be used by the perspicuous to "read" or decipher the characters of those around her.
The deliberate aesthetic choice of epistolarity and the self-reflective conduct it typically promotes provided American writers of fiction-especially female writers-with a defensible position from which to venture into the sphere of public discourse. By marrying the philosophical content and pedagogical style of advice literature with the sentimental novel, American epistolary fiction attempted to render fiction more palatable to figures of cultural authority, while simultaneously rendering precepts of self-discipline more palatable to youthful readers. In the best, most positive cases, these epistolary fictions epitomize the optimism of the Enlightenment, with its belief in the potential of the individual to shape and represent his or her own character; but in other cases these fictions suggest an almost fetishistic obsession with discipline and appearance, with form and formality, as they become less a way of representing an authentic self than of manufacturing an idealized, self-denying, bourgeois man or woman.
The Importance of Writing in Character Formation
Throughout the eighteenth century, the western European-influenced pedagogical and medical theory prevalent in American public discourse almost uniformly emphasized the importance of self-knowledge, self-discipline, and self-control. This organic view of character formation evolved from a several-centuries-long genealogy of British and continental pedagogical and advice literature. In the United States, Enos Hitchcock, a prominent Rhode Island minister, brigade chaplain in the Continental Army, and author of Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family (1790) and The Farmer's Friend, or the History of Mr. Charles Worthy (1793), didactic novels which themselves provide examples of self-discipline, propagated the central tenets of this discourse of discipline throughout his nonfiction works. Since Hitchcock was both a product and popularizer of this school of thought, his works serve as an excellent introduction to American interpretations of this discourse.
In his 1785 sermon A Discourse on Education, Hitchcock uses a popular eighteenth-century organic metaphor, comparing young people to plants, to discuss the issue of character formation. He explains, "The mind, like the infant plant, is, in its first stages, feeble and tender; like that, it is capable of growth and enlargement, and may receive almost any direction, or impression you please to give it. If left untutored, it becomes the sport of every passion; but if informed, and guided by a suitable education, it will produce noble and worthy fruits." Hitchcock expresses tremendous optimism about the potential for human growth and development, about the power of humans to harness the mind and the passions. "Harnessing," rather than "repressing," is indeed the optimal word to describe this view of human nature; as he elaborates, "The faculties of the human soul are in themselves noble and excellent, and capable of continual enlargement-the more the soul thinks and reasons, the more capable it becomes of that noble exercise-And it may be externally increasing in knowledge and wisdom, making perpetual advances toward perfection-Bending forward to the excellence of superior natures, unbroken by exercise and unimpaired by time-Receiving new accessions of bliss and glory from its perpetual approaches toward the fountain of all perfection" (7). Hitchcock's buoyant optimism undoubtedly springs from his hopes for the future of the United States; there is a definite political edge to his rhetoric, for he explains that without the education he believes is so necessary, "the rising generation would grow up uninformed and without principle; their ideas of freedom would degenerate into licentious independence; and they would fall a prey to their own animosities and contentions" (10). Thus his advocacy of education and self-control stems in part from his desire to see Americans educated so they may responsibly safeguard their liberties-something they can do only once their own desires are suitably directed. He later continues his organic metaphor, adding "-If the principles of virtue are early implanted in the mind they will take deep root, and produce the most happy fruits-If a foundation is seasonably laid in the mind by regular instruction, men will learn to think rationally and soberly upon subjects of moral duty, and Christian faith-they will be able to enquire candidly after truth, and determine, impartially, what is their duty" (12). While Hitchcock's Discourse on Education exemplifies the popular notion of harnessing the passions through relentless self-regulation, he did not originate this model of behavior. To produce a cultural ideology that stressed the importance of self-examination and regulation via writing, Anglo-Americans writing in the latter half of the eighteenth century in a variety of discourses-among them education, medicine, religion, moral philosophy, and epistolary fiction-melded together decades of British and continental pedagogical and advice literature, as well as the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment writers, whose profound influence on the American educational system peaked in the 1790s. In this environment, the personal letter assumed profound importance.
The works of John Locke provide a critical starting point to trace this convergent genealogy of educational, medical, religious, and philosophical thought. Locke's works were well known in eighteenth-century British America, and his educational theories permeated American discourse about education and habit formation, not only via his own works, but also through works by other British writers of educational and advice tracts, since the pedagogical works most often reprinted in British America tended themselves to be derivative of or influenced by Locke's theories. So pervasive were Locke's ideas that even Richardson's eponymous epistolary heroine Pamela is seen reading and critiquing Locke's work in the seldom-read continuation of that novel.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgments....................ix
INTRODUCTION. Intricate Relations....................1
1. A Manner Unquestionably More Agreeable The Politics, Aesthetics, and Praxis of Epistolary Fiction....................29
2. Unlawful Embraces Sexual Transgression, Madness, and the Ascendancy of Medical and Narrative Discourse....................75
3. A Speculating Spirit Economic Anxieties and Opportunities in Early American Fiction....................105
4. Gentleman Strangers and Dangerous Deceptions....................140
EPILOGUE. Looking Forward to Antebellum Fiction....................183