- Profligate Gleaning and the Textual Economies of Judith Sargent Murray
Judith Sargent Murray is best known to us as the author of the important essay "On the Equality of the Sexes." Published two years before Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Murray's essay makes the case for female equality in the natural rights tradition, declaring women to be equal to men in their capacity for virtue. More specifically, Murray emphasizes the ways that society has put a stranglehold on the abundant moral and intellectual resources that nature has distributed across the female population. Indeed, as is the case with Wollstonecraft, Murray's emphasis on the social restrictions imposed against women is critical to her argument on behalf of female education that extends beyond the domestic arts. But even as Murray proposes education as the means by which women can purchase self-ownership, she also describes individuals as so deeply implicated in the economic marketplace as to unsettle the fantasy of autonomy that is foundational to liberal individualism. While Murray only gestures toward this economic dependence in "On the Equality of the Sexes," it is of central concern to the text for which Murray was most famous in her own lifetime, the series of essays she wrote as The Gleaner. These essays, I argue, consistently evidence Murray's apprehension of the dependencies of the commercial marketplace and of the fundamental changes to the social world—one in which a Boston woman has greater access to global goods but also a more remote relationship to these goods and those who manufacture them. This rendering of entangled, albeit disembedded (that is, highly mediated and anonymous) social systems is nevertheless inextricable from Murray's feminism. Women are equal, she suggests, not because they should be free from the inequitable distribution of talents and resources but because women and men are equally dependent on these overwhelming social and economic systems. [End Page 310]
Murray, I argue, renders this commercial system as a generic experiment in her book The Gleaner, which takes its title from the popular essay series she wrote for the Massachusetts Magazine from 1792–1794 under the pseudonym The Gleaner. The book begins with these original periodical essays (in roughly the same order) and then adds seventy-odd more "columns."1 What is perhaps most striking about Murray's book is the generic heterogeneity that comprises its pages: Divided into one hundred different entries of roughly equal length, The Gleaner includes epistolary narratives, moral parables, travel sketches, two plays, instructional letters, fictional letters from readers, and numerous political, pedagogical, and literary essays. Murray herself calls attention to the generic heterogeneity in the book's subtitle, "A Miscellaneous Production," and, in doing so, she effectively classifies her book as a miscellany: a collection of texts written on a wide variety of subjects. The deliberate emphasis on variety on the book's title page also serves to underscore the formal continuity between the volume and the essays' original publication venue in the Massachusetts Magazine, which advertised its own commitment to a varied agenda in its subtitle by characterizing itself as a "Monthly Museum" containing "The Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners, [and] Amusements of the Age."2 Murray retains the periodical pacing within the longer book by dividing the whole into one hundred essay-sized and numbered sections—even separating longer texts, like her two dramas, into smaller sections—effectively serializing a literary form we might imagine she would want to present as an integral text.
The other notable feature of Murray's book—and one that likewise emphasizes textual variety—is her complex manipulation of pseudonyms and authorial voices. Following the conventions of the periodical essay, Murray introduces her pseudonymous Gleaner to the public with the conceit that her writer is a man of leisure offering his keen, if also desultory, observations from his daily wanderings around the city. Indeed, it would seem that Murray's dedication to the periodical essay is part and parcel of her larger dedication to equal distribution: Her Gleaner, like Richard Steele's Tatler, will offer his observations to "all Persons, without Distinction" (qtd. in McKeon, Secret History 79). The Gleaner, however, not...