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American Literature 72.1 (2000) 1-30

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Libertinism and Authorship in America’s Early Republic

Bryce Traister *

Late in the first book of Tabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism (1801), the novel’s heroine, Dorcasina Sheldon, “calling herself the most wretched of women” because her unreasonable father has prohibited her marriage to Patrick O’Connor, rejects the novels “in which she had formerly taken such delight” and turns for comfort to the letters O’Connor had written her during their clandestine courtship. Dorcasina “had got them arranged in perfect order, tied with a silken string, and wrapped in a cover, upon which was written these words, Letters from my dearest O’Connor before marriage.1 One of the great novel-reading heroines of the eighteenth-century Anglo-American antinovel tradition, Dorcasina has already arranged her paramour’s letters into the form of her favorite genre and has even given them a title. Female Quixotism then presents what must have been for late-eighteenth-century readers a hilariously caricatured scene of female novel reading: “Taking the first [letter] in order she kissed the seal, and the superscription; then, after opening it, and pressing the inside upon her heart, she read it three times over. This done, she folded it up again and laid it on her bosom, with that she had received in the morning” (FQ, 93). Full of “all the ardour of counterfeited passion” (FQ, 44–45), the letters have permanently unmoored Dorcasina from the world of rational understanding in precisely the manner pernicious novels were believed to set the innocent female mind afloat in a sea of chaotic sensibility. Tenney’s satire images female novel reading as a kind of parodic sexual expenditure in which the artless feminine mind and body exhaust themselves in the libertine’s artful designs. [End Page 1]

Female Quixotism thus warns against the dangers lurking in bad novels by dramatizing Dorcasina’s repeated undoing by a series of false men, all of whom ventriloquize the stilted melodramatic language of sentimental novels as part of their design to acquire Dorcasina and her considerable estate.2 Not only the fortune-hunting O’Connor but also the trick-playing “Philander,” the class-crossing James, and the merchant Cumberland parrot the sentimental locutions of the seduction novel in order to advance their designs on the aging heroine. In this respect, Tenney’s novel could be said to imagine a relation between masculine sexual agency and narrative agency, a relation that suggests that the ability to counterfeit genuine sentiment posed a significant threat not only to young females but also to a young nation besieged, according to former president John Adams, by smooth-talking libertine males: “The time would fail me to enumerate all the Lovelaces in the United States. It would be an amusing romance to compare their actions with his.”3 Whether whispering the self-interested nonsense of love or of democracy, the American libertine was linked to a capacity to persuade or absorb his listener using only words.

Former president Adams’s wish for this “amusing Romance” was realized not only in Tenney’s gallery of rogues but in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799–1800 novel Arthur Mervyn: or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, one of the period’s most sustained treatments of the male libertine imagination and its effects on the credulous female reader. A novel of “plague and politics,” Arthur Mervyn has been read as a register of early national political turmoil and institutional change, as a negotiation of the relation between political self-understanding and print ideology, and as a meditation on the two “radically different” Americas (republican and liberal) available to novel-reading Americans.4 In such “political” accounts of Arthur Mervyn, the novel’s historical aspects—particularly its depiction of the 1793 cholera epidemic—take interpretive precedence over its narrative or textual features, one of which is a remarkably sustained focus on libertines, actual and imagined, and on the ways in which transgressive male sexual and narrative licence paces nearly all of the novel’s competing and complementary voices, which is to say that...


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