- Intricate Relations: Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789–1814
What are the politics of the early American novel? Cathy N. Davidson identifies fiction's power to counter traditional authorities such as clergy and parents and to create a space for women to articulate anxieties over marriage and seduction. Though clearly influenced by Davidson's arguments, Karen A. Weyler claims that early American texts such as Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette and Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn were, in fact, sites of regulation and control. In her book, Intricate Relations, Weyler repeatedly asserts the conservative function of such fictions, framing these works as attempts to reassert authority over the desires of an often unruly populace.
In particular, Weyler explores how early fictions disciplined both the sexual and economic desires of early Americans. With the collapse of traditional forms of authority, she argues, early American novels served as "loci of cultural anxiety and energy" over such issues as gambling, speculation, infidelity, and premarital sex (22). In searching for legitimacy, novels appealed to more traditionally authoritative sources, such as medical, political, and pedagogical experts, and in so doing, transformed themselves into vehicles to punish rather than to celebrate these early Republican vices. For example, although epistolary novels may have created a textual space for subversive desires absent in pedagogical treatises, ultimately they, too, functioned primarily to teach self-discipline, to inculcate self-examination through writing, and to promote the internalization of an older and wiser [End Page 200] "monitor," such as Judith Sargeant Murray's Gleaner in her Story of Margaretta (63). Other chapters also explore this relationship between authoritative texts and their fictional counterparts: in chapter two, Weyler contextualizes narratives of seduced women such as Eliza Wharton with medical studies concerning madness and criminality by Benjamin Rush.
In another chapter, Weyler explains that economic desires were also seen as surging out of control during this period. With the growth of commerce, authorities feared the loss of Republican virtue, but fiction, she argues, offered an interesting palliative for this anxiety: fantasies of retirement in an agrarian idyll after a lifetime of trade reconciled unappealing economic realities with the American need for virtuous farmers such as Crevecoeur's James. Such fantasies displaced the vicious activity of trade onto the distant locale of the East Indies and also, Weyler asserts, served the convenient function of gendering economic activity as masculine in a culture invested in the creation of the ideology of separate spheres.
Overall, Weyler's study is informative, thoughtful, and particularly useful for its examination of lesser-known early American novelists, both male and female. While offering detailed and substantive readings of Foster's and Brown's better known works, Weyler also explores the cultural and political significance of such works as Sally Wood's Dorval; or The Speculator, Rebecca Rush's Kelroy, Caroline Matilda Warren's The Gamesters, and Samuel Relf's Infidelity. For someone currently in the process of designing a course in early American literature, this book has proved invaluable. Weyler grounds these interpretations in strong close readings of the texts and situates herself clearly within the vast scholarship on the early American novel. There are moments, however, when the close textual readings might have been more smoothly integrated into the critical context. This lack of integration deprives readers of the opportunity to situate Weyler's arguments more smoothly into past debates on her important but often contested critical stance.
Furthermore, while her focus on economic and sexual desires seems apt for the literature she discusses, Weyler may too easily dismiss the significance of race and class in these fictions. Such concerns, she claims, did not register with American writers until after 1814, with the publication of Walter Scott's Waverly (10). With this dismissal, Weyler consigns stories of slaves, servants, Native Americans, and immigrants to scholars of the antebellum period without fully demonstrating her justification for such an exclusion. Her repetition of this assertion might be read as protesting a little too much.