- A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America by Elizabeth J. Clapp
In her study of nineteenth-century travel writer and newspaper editor Anne Royall, Elizabeth J. Clapp argues that Royall's life reflected contemporary struggles over women's roles, especially as evangelicals fought for ascendancy in the 1820s. Using Royall's own published writings and business correspondence, as well as court records, pension files, and commentary by editors and acquaintances, Clapp also sheds light on a Jacksonian America whose political culture feels surprisingly relevant today: one in which media shaped the national discourse; personality could be parlayed into political influence; and debate surrounded the role of religion in public life.
Royall is perhaps best known for the ten travel accounts she penned in the late 1820s and early 1830s. The widow of a planter and Revolutionary War officer, Royall supported herself through travel writing as she followed [End Page 412] stagecoach routes throughout the country and, later, by editing two independent Washington, D.C., newspapers. Through her publications, she campaigned vigorously against the evils she saw as threatening American liberties, including the Bank of the United States, corruption in government, and a growing evangelical movement.
In so doing, Royall largely ignored forces that sought to limit women's roles in public life. Yet gender remained a powerful feature of contemporary discourse, and Clapp shows effectively how both Royall and her detractors deployed these ideas to undermine each other's positions. Most dramatically, members of an evangelical congregation in Washington took Royall to court in 1829 on the archaic charge of being a "common scold" (p. 136). Turning on notions of female respectability, it was a gendered charge, one that Clapp argues was used to discredit a political opponent while allowing evangelicals to define the terms of respectable womanhood.
Clapp's argument here is well executed if not surprising given the growing body of scholarship on gender in nineteenth-century America. Yet her subject adds nuances to our understanding of the era. Unlike many other politically active women, Royall opposed abolition and women's rights and was contemptuous of female reformers, seeing them as the dupes of evangelicals. In contrast to scholarship that focuses on the progressive aspects of antebellum reforms, Clapp shows, through Royall, a counterargument that viewed evangelicals' efforts to legislate godliness as a fundamental threat to American liberties.
Equally intriguing is Clapp's portrayal of Royall as an entrepreneur at the cutting edge of the emerging national market. Adopting and improving on the tactics of itinerant booksellers, Royall developed a personal "national distribution network," delivering books on her travels, chivying booksellers, calling on far-flung acquaintances to promote sales and remit profits, and maintaining an extensive correspondence to monitor her sales (p. 72). But she also knew that she herself was a commodity. Courting controversy and recognizing that readers purchased her works partly for their strongly worded opinions and caustic commentary, Royall peppered her writing with "cayenne" and even capitalized on the scandal surrounding her trial, advertising an account of its proceedings in her next travel volume (p. 155).
Overall, Clapp's work provides insight into not only the debate over women's roles but also publishing and political culture in Jacksonian America. Even as she discusses Royall's political involvement, however, this study raises further questions about the degree to which Royall was able to exert real pressure on policy makers. A divisive figure, Royall often found her warnings ignored or mocked, while her long-running campaign to obtain a war widow's compensation met with only partial success. At the same time, Clapp notes that Royall counted congressmen, officeholders, and editors among her subscribers and supporters and that, because her writings were reprinted and commented on by other editors, her influence extended beyond her own subscribers. In the absence of subscription numbers—notoriously elusive for early publications—Clapp has provided [End Page 413] an insightful and thought-provoking analysis of an important literary figure in Jacksonian America and of...