- Intricate Relations: Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789–1814
Karen Weyler's work situates a variety of early American novels within a larger cultural context of conduct manuals, political pamphlets, economic tracts, and medical treatises to argue that in the early republic, themes of sexual and economic regulation pervaded fiction and nonfiction alike. She asserts that the use of the epistolary mode and the repeated use of tropes such as "self discipline, seduction, female madness, and economic speculation" reveal cultural anxieties about sexual and economic activity and a desire to regulate reader behavior (2). By combining a variety of approaches—cultural history, intellectual history, book history, and literary analysis—Weyler positions her study as furthering the important work of scholars such as Cathy N. Davidson (in Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America ), Linda Kerber (Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America [1980, 1986]), David Shields (Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America ), Carla Mulford (in her introduction to The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette ), and Michael Warner [End Page 692] (The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America ).
According to Weyler, sexual and economic issues in the American novel constituted "gendered but homologous forms of expenditure and exchange" (25). She argues that novels for and about women were largely concerned with the regulation of sexual activity, while the regulation of economic behavior was constructed as a primary concern for men. This gendered assumption about the aims of novelistic discourse is grounded in the "separate spheres" ideology that draws distinctions between the masculine, public sphere and the feminine, private sphere. It informs not only Weyler's readings of the texts, but also the organization of her own four-chapter study, which first addresses the regulation of female sexuality and moves on to the regulation of male economic behavior.
Weyler opens her discussion of early American fiction by questioning the popularity of the epistolary novel. She argues that during this period, the choice to write a novel of letters was ideological, not just aesthetic. Epistolary novels modeled the kind of self-scrutiny and self-regulation that young women were supposed to develop in order to maintain their virtue. Such texts also highlighted a kind of transparency that this audience should seek to develop in their own correspondence. Examining works such as William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette, and Judith Sargent Murray's The Story of Margaretta alongside Lockean educational theories and advice manuals, Weyler explains that young women were encouraged, like the fictional Margaretta, to lay their souls bare to a "moral preceptor" (41). The dialogue between writer and mentor assisted the development of a virtuous character and the ability to assess the character of others, both of which were seen as important to the formation of a virtuous republic.
Weyler continues her book with a discussion of seduction novels, viewing them in conjunction with legal and medical discourses regarding female sexuality. During the early national period, "fiction became a surrogate for the law" in the regulation of female chastity in that it "assisted in the pathologizing of extramarital sexual desire and helped to provide social structure during a period of changing attitudes toward sexual morality" (25). To support this argument, Weyler brings in medical writings by Benjamin Rush and John Haslam that link extramarital sex to the development of mental illness, specifically with regard to women. She then provides a fascinating reading of Sally Wood's Dorval; or, The Speculator [End Page 693] (1801) to show how even the appearance of a lapse of chastity can be enough to plunge a young woman into a delirious state.
The focus of Weyler's study then shifts to examine how in the postrevolutionary era, novels, political pamphlets, and economic tracts sought to ameliorate economic concerns by distinguishing between legitimate trade and reckless practices such as gambling and speculation. According to...