- "Recollection ... sets my busy imagination to work":Transatlantic Self-Narration, Performance, and Reception in The Female American
Winner, Eighteenth-Century Fiction Graduate Essay Prize 2006
The female American (1767) has puzzled and alienated scholars on accounts ranging from its unknown authorship and unconventional narrative strategies to its complex narratorprotagonist, Unca Eliza Winkfield.1 Using autobiographical form, the novel explores the ways in which a female self—in this case, a hybridized Native American and British female self—situates her own subject-position within the religiously and politically charged cultural context of colonial America. In contrast to many other eighteenth-century novels that make use of the autobiographical form, however, The Female American does not merely reflect on its protagonist's life experiences in order to make sense of them;2 rather, it determinedly performs life [End Page 127] experiences in order to reveal how the social systems informing them—namely, race, class, and gender—are constructed to support the cultural dominant of which Unca is not a part.3 In so exploring these social systems, The Female American engages with notions of performance on two levels: first, on the level of autobiographical narrative, as Unca's self-writing and the dramatic dialogue within it perform religious and political roles for its readers; and second, on the level of the female body within that narrative, as Unca's body must perform androgynous gender, hybrid race, and hybrid religion in order to attract and maintain a spectatorship that includes both Native Americans and European white men. Through this twofold engagement with performance, The Female American explores the vexed relationship between performer and audience, ultimately pointing to the ways in which religious and political beliefs are performed to manipulate audiences into perceiving them as absolute truths.4 [End Page 128]
The presence of textual and bodily performance in this novel functions as a lens through which we can examine the complicated relationship between the culture of 1760s colonial America and colonists' struggle for identity. Though we cannot definitively determine its author's nation or gender, The Female American's appearance in 17675 situates it in a historical moment fraught with cultural upheaval and mounting tension between Old and New World religious practice and political policy, tension that problematized the colonists' exploration and development of a sense of American identity. For instance, in 1767, the Anglican Church sought to allow its bishops to reside in America so as to ensure "the complete operation of the Church of England" in America and to provide support for the monarchy in the New World.6 Because the Church's suggestion occurred only two years after the Stamp Act—which, Edwin Gaustad explains, "levied taxes on colonists without their consent"—colonists feared that the introduction of Anglican bishops to America would only result in more unfair taxation and that, as a threat to religious liberty, it would represent a threat "to all liberty."7 Despite these concerns for religious and political liberty, however, colonists of 1760s America had not yet defined themselves as "Americans." According to Jack Green, these colonists were "far from having developed any explicit or new sense of 'American' identity" and "continued ... to be remarkably dependent for their normative values—their conceptions of what they would like for themselves and their societies to be—upon two ... overlapping, and occasionally conflicting social models." The first model, argues Greene, was [End Page 129] "an idealized conception of the character and achievements" of early colonial societies (especially those of New England);8 and the second, "more compelling" model was "an idealized image of English society and culture."9
Greene's models—in suggesting colonists' emulation of the British way—point towards the surge of missionary work that occurred in mid-eighteenth-century America and that, according to Sandra Gustafson, saw "itinerant ministers and lay exhorters beg[i]n traveling in large numbers to missions and native communities on the frontier to preach the gospel."10 Like Unca, these travelling ministers, says Gustafson, "violated traditional decorum and occupied a liminal space that encouraged cultural mixing."11 Of particular relevance to The Female American's depiction of this "cultural mixing" is the life and work of...