- Of Compass Bearings and Reorientations in the Study of American Women Writers
In 1816 and 1817, two Boston publishers brought out second editions of a pamphlet titled A Narrative of the Shipwreck and Unparalleled Sufferings of Mrs. Sarah Allen, (late of Boston) on her Passage in May Last from New-York to New Orleans. Ostensibly a letter sent by Mrs. Allen to her sister on 2 July 1816, this little book tells how its writer took passage on the Mary, bound for New Orleans, to "join [her husband] in the Louisiana country, where he had been the winter past" (4). A week into the journey, the ship foundered in a ferocious storm and was wrecked short of its destination. The survivors wandered for more than two weeks in a "wild and pathless forest" before being found by a group of friendly natives who fed them, dressed their wounds, and "conduct[ed]" them to St. Marks, whence Sarah Allen was taken to St. Augustine and then returned to New York (11, 22).
This brief tale serves as an early example in Robin Miskolcze's Women and Children First, a study of shipwreck narratives and American masculinity. Miskolcze reads Allen's account within a typology common to other foundational American narratives, most notably that of "the Pilgrims' landing on Plymouth Rock" and their later fortuitous rescue by friendly natives (27). Studies such as hers exemplify the continued attractions and importance of literary recovery, for such work makes women visible in heretofore overlooked surroundings and situates their writings within an existing tradition of American literary history, methodologies that Legacy and its sister journals have honed to a fine art. Acknowledging such valuable work as the genesis for my thinking, I want to amplify and extend the directions so firmly established by the last quarter century's initiatives in feminist literary recovery. I will resist some foundational assumptions—among them that New England and the Northeast are places of American cultural, literary, and political origins. In the process, I will also ask what I hope will be productive questions—about [End Page 242] about the locations and boundaries of America, how gender still silently determines the canon of American literature, and about the limited vision that results from our class- and race-based privileging of printed, alphabetic texts.
Because A Narrative of the Shipwreck saw multiple editions within two years, it seems plausible that it had a large circulation, even if it did not remain in print after the early nineteenth century. This, in turn, suggests that it caught the attention of its readers by its timeliness, in much the same way as did The Female Marine, published in the same place in the same year. The brevity of Sarah Allen's narrative and her matter-of-fact and undeveloped references to actions, decisions, and geographical locations suggest her readers' familiarity with a bellicose and imperial subtext that is perhaps not immediately apparent to a contemporary reader. Seeking answers to some questions that Sarah Allen left unanswered opens an intriguing set of possibilities. Why was this woman en route to "the Louisiana country" (4)? What business there had occupied her husband? Why had he sent for his wife? Where did the Mary run aground? How did the shipwrecked sailors and their passenger know where they were? Once aground, how did they know in which direction to walk to try to reach safety? Why did one of the armed natives who rescued the survivors just happen to speak English?
To answer these questions, we must follow new compass bearings along unfamiliar routes through hitherto occulted spaces and times as we seek to establish the central importance of women's cultural work in a global context of coerced or willing contact and exchange. Such a reorientation can lead us to rethink the limits of the master narratives encoded in such paradigms as New England origins and westward expansion, structures of knowledge that have, over the past quarter century, bred their own explanatory feminist models—republican motherhood, true womanhood, gentle tamers, and Manifest Domesticity among them—and their own periodization—the closing of the frontier, ante- and postbellum (terms that signal the Civil War, and...