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"Affecting History": Impersonating Women in the Early Republic
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"Affecting History":
Impersonating Women in the Early Republic

It is now a critical commonplace that Early American women's captivity narratives offer scholars and students alike rich material for our postmodern investigations into subjectivity and identity. The texts' representations of gender, ethnicity, and race conveniently dovetail with current theoretical work that seeks to reinterpret and expand the canon of Early American texts.Working from the older studies of Pearce, Slotkin, Vaughan, and Van Der Beets, more recent captivity scholars have presented the texts in light of contemporary concerns with performativity and gender (Christopher Castiglia), an ethics of reading (Gary Ebersole), structures of feeling (Michelle Burnham and Ebersole), and gender and race regimes (all of these scholars, as well as Kathryn Derounian-Stodola, Derounian and James Levernier, Gordon Sayre, and Strong).1

In the course of crafting important and compelling arguments about the captivity narratives' literary value and concomitant cultural effects, each of these scholars notes the persistent problem of authorial attribution. Indeed, indeterminate authorship is a hallmark of earlier women's captivity narratives; scholars routinely note the difficulty, even impossibility, of ascertaining whether a captive woman actually wrote the text herself or dictated it (with interpolated "improvements"), or whether another, usually male, hand actually composed the text.2 Foregoing an often futile antiquarian and essentialist quest for the "real" person who is the actual author of the text, most scholars reasonably and correctly move on to significant questions about the narrative's cultural work:How does it reproduce, resist, and reconfigure representations of gender, ethnicity, class, and race? How does it intervene in prevailing political, commercial, and intellectual discourses? What might we learn from tracing its intertextual dependencies?

These questions, and additional queries about the meanings of women's [End Page 511] captivity narratives, however, can be profitably extended and elaborated if we do recur to the vexatious question of the captivities' composition.We might ask, for example, why the attribution of authorship is so difficult? If not difficult to ascertain, might this apparent simplicity still be misleading, given that a notable characteristic of many of the texts is that they are presented in the captive's first-person voice? Might the problem of authorial attribution be related to gender and class structures, and what is the nature of that relation? Foregrounding the texts' methods of composition and publication, especially those of uncertain provenance, may tempt scholars to revisit and expand our use of hermeneutical categories such as gender and class and their role in the interpretation of early American texts. Especially because the frequent implication of the mode of presentation is that the woman's voice "produces" these texts, analysis based on gender and class categories makes clear the crucial role these representations play in current critical debates on the relationship between private voice and public text in the early national period.

As I will demonstrate, the practice of impersonated authorship articulates the disparate domains addressed in these recent debates on the textual and vocal dispositions of early republic discourses.3 When the impersonation crosses gender and class boundaries, this act of rhetorical drag produces a constellation of effects that display a deeply imbricated model of voice and text, of speech and writing, one premised on "appropriate" gender and class norms. Arguing for the cultural force of voice in the new republic, Christopher Looby asserts "the difference between the abstract, alienated, rational polis of print culture and the more passionately attached, quasi-somatically experienced nation for which many Americans longed" (5). Authorial impersonation rendered in the first person bridges this difference by providing the textual marker for the speaking body, the "soma" that experiences, and thereby creates a credible instrument when the author him- or herself might lack the experience that underwrites that credibility.

Moreover, gender norms are crucial to this operation. As current feminist and queer theories indicate, when the voice is female, the text most commonly reproduces sex/gender regimes that recurrently, even obsessively, deploy an unstable mind/body split across a male/female axis. That is, the relentless embodiment of women (and other dominated or marginalized subjects) constitutes one of most enduring practices in the social [End Page 512] organization of gender.4...