- Early American Women Critics: Performance, Religion, Race
In Early American Women Critics, Gay Gibson Cima performs the important work of both recovering the texts of unknown, forgotten, and undertheorized women and uncovering the strategies by which they functioned as "serious-minded cultural commentators" in America from the 1740s to the 1830s. Drawing on texts by early women of European and African descent, free and slave, representing a variety of political and religious allegiances, Cima traces the diverse ways in which they "passed public judgments on religious, political, and cultural issues, thereby shaping and contesting incipient notions of race, religion, American-ness, and gender" (2). Cima applies the term "critic" very loosely to represent "a broad-based genealogy" of discursive and cultural performances in "religion, partisan politics, and the arts" (2) that led early American women to simultaneously critique and re-create American identity.
The strength and brilliance of Early American Women Critics lies in Cima's ability to assemble a breathtaking array of diverse examples that support the broader view of criticism for which she argues. In the course of this study, we encounter colonial women like Elizabeth Timothee (Anglicized to Timothy), the Dutch widow who, upon her husband's death in 1738, became the editor of the sole newspaper in South Carolina from 1738 to 1746; a Pennsylvania ferrier named simply "Alice"; Lucy Terry Prince, the writer of perhaps the first poem by an African American woman; poet Phillis Wheatley (Peters); Mercy Otis Warren, an early satirist; Judith Sargent Murray, who wrote a Unitarian primer; Susana Haswell Rowson, author of Slaves in Algiers (1794); and early nineteenth-century African American itinerant preachers Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw. [End Page 211]
As stunning as this eclecticism is, it is perhaps also the book's toughest challenge. Cima's task is to create a theoretical rubric that will help the reader to navigate and negotiate such important differences not only of race, religion, historical period, and genre, but of differing interpretive stakes inhering in performance and performative gestures. In creating such a rubric, Cima not only supplies the necessary intellectual support for a history that draws these women together in a meaningful way but also advances a theory of women's engagements with discourses of power that is transportable to other literary, historical, and theoretical contexts. Noting that criticism was a "European male prerogative," Cima argues that American women's cultural critique was necessarily "cloaked . . . as revelation, autobiography, or fiction: they engaged in religious exhortation, printed a spiritual autobiography, sang a ballad, published a poem, staged a play" (2). At the center of this theorizing is Cima's intriguing but often enigmatic concept of the "host body," which she defines as a "spectral body, a generic body in movement, an abstraction which nonetheless serves as a life-like body shield" (4) for women who ventured onto the male-dominated terrain of public critical performance. In addition to individual performance, Cima theorizes the host body as collective, a site for an imagined community "alongside or outside of nationhood" (5).
Cima states that her conceptualization of the host body is an "amplification" of Joseph Roach's work in theatre studies on bodily substitution and "surrogation" in order to account for gender. Thus, she posits a term that represents not merely a diachronic displacement, as Roach views surrogation, but one that inhabits a middle ground "between center and margin, material and immaterial" (6). In other words, Cima's perspective on the host body goes beyond the idea of material substitution and considers ways in which women's discourse and performance reveals a space between body/spirit, material/spiritual. "Women critics," she writes,
attempted to find a zone in between embodiment and abstraction, a bodily space within which they could safely speak or write, while protecting their material bodies and creating new hermeneutic pathways for perceiving those bodies. I am calling this space the "host body." Host bodies resist materialization.(6)
Here, Cima could have benefited from Hortense Spillers's distinction between "body" and "flesh" in "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An...