- Captains of Charity: The Writing and Wages of Postrevolutionary Atlantic Benevolence by Mary Kat Hlen Eyring
Mary Kathleen Eyring's excellent book takes up the question of the relationship between benevolence and opportunity in early nineteenth-century Eastern Seaboard communities. Waterways are fundamental to the developments and the texts Eyring examines. Maritime commerce drove the economy. It created losers—those who suffered materially and bodily laboring in this world—and winners—those who prospered and whose wealth helped fund the charitable institutions succoring the losers. It also created an occupation, underappreciated in the historical literature, of charity workers. For people struggling to maintain or gain respectable status, the philanthropic enterprises that boomed in this "Age of Benevolence during the Age of Sail" (2) offered attractive employment. In turn, the [End Page 994] texts some of these authors wrote helped to define "the American industry of charity" (13).
Covering the period from 1793, a year shaped by the French and Haitian Revolutions, to 1850, when the railroad age emerged, Captains of Charity "traces the intertwined development of charitable and capitalistic labor" (8) in relationship to maritime trade through works of fiction and non-fiction authored by women and men, African Americans and whites, immigrants and native-born Americans. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, Mathew Carey, Sarah Pogson Smith, Nancy Gardner Prince, and Sarah Josepha Hale probed the practices and meanings of charitable activity in their texts; some also penned the reports that charities used to raise funds. Writing as a facet of philanthropic development was of particular importance in this era. The print trades were at the forefront of commercial developments in the early nineteenth century. As the market economy burgeoned and benevolence grew with it, authors of literary texts about charity and of charities' materials benefited personally. They also generated capital for philanthropy. Moreover, they helped drive developments in the publishing industry. Benevolence was an engine of business, and the business of benevolence, Eyring argues persuasively, became "an integrated part of the industrial landscape" (11).
Each of the four chapters offers a case study of texts exploring the relationship between capital and charity in a particular arena. Chapter 1, "'To Be the Medium of Her Charity': Narratives of Vicarious Charity from Philadelphia's Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793," opens the investigation with a look at texts illuminating the momentary opportunities the terrible epidemic created for marginalized Philadelphians. When yellow fever struck the City of Brotherly Love in late summer of 1793, the city's social and medical systems largely collapsed. Anyone who could flee the city, including many physicians, did. The elites who stayed avoided contact with others as much as possible, including avoiding caring for sick kin. Into this vacuum, African Americans stepped in to provide critical care work and found themselves, rather than lauded, censured by the Irish immigrant and prominent printer Mathew Carey. In response, African American ministers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones took to print to defend their brethren. The controversy is well known to scholars. Eyring's insightful contribution is to uncover in those writers and, likewise Charles Brockden [End Page 995] Brown in Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, the distinct work of "charity brokers." The people who filled this role, such as Allen, Jones, and the fictional Mervyn, did not themselves perform charity work. Instead, they engaged in "vicarious charity" (49): they mobilized others to provide aid and reaped social rewards for their role. Portraying or serving as charity brokers drew on the authors' keen understanding of the benevolent economy. For Allen and Jones, in particular, organizing their people into a relief force and defending them included quantifying the value of charity work. Organized benevolence, they showed, paid—for laborers and their brokers alike.
Chapter 2, "Atlantic Publishing and Pathos: Literary Support for the Education of Maritime Laborers at America's First Schools for the Deaf," turns attention to a new philanthropic venture of the early 1800s and to the charitable workers who authored works to support it. Introduced by Americans...