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  • Eyes Wide Shut and the Cultural Poetics of Eighteenth-Century American Periodical Literature
  • Mark Kamrath (bio)

The image of "A FEMALE Algonquin being taken by the Iroquois . . . [and] carried by them to one of their villages, stripped naked, bound hand and foot" can, at first glance, hardly be compared to Stanley Kubrick's erotic camera shot of Nicole Kidman's bare backside or the sequence of soft-porn orgy scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. According to reviewers, Kubrick's film fared miserably at the box office, failing, on the one hand, to convince us that Cruise's or Kidman's character pursues sexual desires in realistic ways and, on the other, to develop the screenplay in a manner that rises above the plot and concerns of the 1929 Viennese novella—Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Rhapsody—upon which it was based. To paraphrase more than one critic, with its anachronistic use of marijuana and sexual foreplay, heavy formalist tendencies, and, at the end, self-indulgent morality concerning marriage, Kubrick finally made a movie that is so discordant or schizophrenic that it is actually more interesting to "analyze" than to see.1

Similar perhaps to the manner in which a film like Eyes Wide Shut sought to capitalize on a public appetite for sensuality, the gesture by the editors of the Philadelphia Minerva of placing an anecdote about a naked "FEMALE" Algonquin woman alongside Madame de Montalembert's prescriptions of how to raise a granddaughter in "the Calvinist religion" could hardly have eluded the eyes of those reading the magazine on 21 February 1795. For beyond the manner in which the French article addresses aspects of republican virtue, its juxtaposition on the first page of the magazine with "Remarkable Escape of an Algonquin Woman" encodes the intense—and contradictory—nature of female eroticism and morality in eighteenth-century society. The dualism, in other words, between how white Christian women were supposed to behave and the way [End Page 497] Other women were imagined or represented points to the manner in which editors of the Philadelphia Minerva struggled to maintain the country's moral and political virtue and, at the same time, to survive as a commercial enterprise amidst the increasingly liberal and unpredictable influences of a market economy. The periodical, like Kubrick's film, encodes not only competing sexual and moral impulses—or perhaps even an effort to control erotic impulses—but also an enduring entrepreneurial element of the media.

If the sexual and moral dynamics at play in the Philadelphia Minerva, like those in Kubrick's enigmatic and controversial film, reflected the desire to hold on to or (re)establish traditional virtues while it also experimented with other dimensions of sexual, ideological, or aesthetic experience, they also appear in one shape or another in American periodicals as different as the Boston Magazine (1783–86) and the South Carolina Weekly Museum and Complete Magazine (1797). That is, just as the early republic may be seen as the embodiment of competing or often conflicting moral and political ideologies, so its print culture, especially the periodical literature produced during the unstable decades of 1780s and '90s, points to the dual and highly conflicted concerns of publishers: their desire, on the one hand, to do their patriotic duty and to help establish a virtuous citizenry and, on the other, to try to realize their own entrepreneurial ambitions and financial interests. As such, early American periodical literature not only records the moral and political aspirations of a virtuous republic but also contains a forgotten, indeed neglected, array of literary innovations and cultural interventions—a body of texts which when read, as Sharon Harris has suggested, in light of various "postmodern and cultural theories," promises to radically alter the ways we see and construct early American literature (185).

Until recently, of course, American periodical literature, particularly that of the eighteenth century, has been viewed as a kind of literary hinterland or vast record of not-so-exciting attempts to institutionalize literacy in the colonies and the early republic vis-à-vis correspondence and news from Europe; amateurish, heavily didactic essays and poems; reprinted speeches and dry historical biographies; and numerous extracts and miscellaneous trifles concerning a range of...


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pp. 497-536
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