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  • Imagining Rhetoric: Composing Women of the Early United States
  • Pattie Cowell
Imagining Rhetoric: Composing Women of the Early United States. By Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. 279 pp. $34.95.

In An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America (1992), political scientist Benjamin Barber points to an inextricable link between twentieth-century American schools and participatory democracy. He goes on to develop a persuasive case that public education should be education for citizenship. In Imagining Rhetoric: Composing Women of the Early United States, Janet Eldred and Peter Mortensen explore the historical roots of this connection between education and democracy for women. Focusing on the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, they ask how liberatory civic rhetoric in the new nation shaped women's education, especially as that education manifests itself in writing pedagogy and practice.

After an introductory chapter that sets historical contexts and defines a tradition of civic rhetoric, Imagining Rhetoric uses fiction, essays, textbooks, and journals to explore the rhetorical and pedagogical ideas of Hannah Webster Foster, Judith Sargent Murray, Mrs. A. J. Graves, Louisa Tuthill, Almira Phelps, and Charlotte Forten. These six writers shared a belief that neoclassical civic rhetoric should be a key component of education generally and women's education in particular. They saw this liberatory civic rhetoric as an attempt to foster a full literacy, one that went beyond the passive reception of ideas and values to develop female expression as well.

Despite that common ground, however, these women had remarkably divergent ideas about how and why a civic rhetoric should be taught. Writing in an era of revolutionary nationalism, [End Page 100] Foster and Murray were part of a community that took for granted the value of the neoclassical tradition. They wrote for an audience that shared their concern with the cultivation of public voices and argued strenuously that those voices should be female as well as male. Unlike Mrs. A. J. Graves, who sharply criticized institutional or professionalized schooling for girls in favor of the home schooling at the heart of Republican Motherhood, Foster and Murray created literacy narratives that turned teaching and learning into higher callings than the typical home was prepared to answer.

Tuthill and Phelps, by contrast, developed their ideas and curricula in an antebellum America fearful of disunion. They were attracted to a romantic (Eldred and Mortensen might say escapist) aesthetic that grounded itself in belletrism and favored private over public discourse. They fostered female expression, but in ways that subordinated civic participation to properly gendered conduct and belletristic measures of taste. Tuthill's pedagogy, for example, used writing as a tool for regulation of imaginative excess rather than for original expression. She advocated a writing practice that valued order above all, fearing both revolutionary and romantic discourses that would lead to action, chaos, and in the end, civil war.

In their concluding chapter, Eldred and Mortensen draw on Charlotte Forten's journals as an example of the tension between civic and belletristic rhetorics. The only African American girl in a Massachusetts school, Forten anguished over her observation that even those white students and teachers closest to her could not understand her passionate abolitionist politics. She sought a rhetoric that "sanction[ed] the articulation of strong emotions such as hatred" in a community that turned away from risks to national unity in favor of polite belletristic discourse (197). She would settle for nothing less than a rhetoric that merged public and private voices working for social change.

Eldred and Mortensen have given their attention to writers usually left out of the discussion of early national life. In the process, they explore rhetorical standpoints that early national and antebellum women created for themselves and provide new insight into changing gendered expectations for girls and women. They include a fascinating extended discussion of plagiarism and copyright and another of letter-writing as a pedagogical tool. All this comes in a carefully edited volume that appends chronologies for the key rhetoricians they discuss and includes excerpts from all except Forten, whose journals are available in a modern edition.

In sum, Eldred and Mortensen have given...


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