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  • Cultivating Cultural Cohesion in Reuben and Rachel
  • Jennifer Desiderio (bio)

Reuben and Rachel; or, Tales of Old Times (1798) depicts the long and intricate history of ten generations of a single family, beginning with the marriage of Columbus and Beatina in the Old World and concluding with the marriages of Reuben and Rachel Dudley in the New World. Reuben and Rachel are the descendents of the Italian Columbian family, which has intermarried with Peruvians, British dissenters, and Native Americans, and emigrated to Spain, Peru, England, and America.1 In her sixth and what she thought would be her final novel, Rowson reimagines American identity as she portrays Americans as the descendents of South Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans. She challenges the notion of a fixed and pure American identity by changing the major players in the country's founding and settlement to include women and people of color. Within this rich multicultural and multiracial genealogy, Rowson models for her readers a process of cultural cohesion dependent upon the exchange of language or history. For a relationship to thrive, she insists that characters of different races, creeds, or nationalities teach each other their languages or reveal their familial histories. History and language function as interchangeable as both serve as a means to understanding identity. The sharing of language and personal history creates bonds based in sentiment and affection where previously there was only antagonism and uncertainty. To Rowson, a textual or verbal telling of history or the learning of language perpetuates family lines and ensures the historical progress of America itself.

Rowson writes her novel just as she is embarking upon a successful career as the preceptress of a boarding school. Her interest in history and its importance to the American imagination should come as no surprise when we learn that Rowson was preoccupied with her new career when penning the novel. In fact, she tells us in her Preface that she [End Page 77] wrote Volume Two while teaching girls and women at her Young Ladies' Academy in Boston. This change in her occupation helps us to locate a shift in emphasis that occurs between Volume One and Volume Two of Reuben and Rachel. In Volume One, Rowson largely focuses upon heterosexual marriage between men and women of different cultures. The success of these marriages depends upon the exchange of either history or language. In Volume Two, Rowson modifies her focus from heterosexual relationships to homosocial relationships between women of different cultures. Given her day job, Rowson not surprisingly concentrates on women and their interaction with history and each other. In her portrayal of Jessy and Rachel in Volume Two, women strengthen their affectionate bonds to one another and survive the often unfair and unjust actions of men when they exchange history. While Volume One features heterosexual marriages and Volume Two homosocial friendships, Rowson is ultimately interested in conveying the importance of cultural cohesion and the remarkable promise it holds for the young republic at the end of the eighteenth century.

Heterosexual Marriage in Volume One of Reuben and Rachel

The first racially mixed courtship and marriage that Rowson portrays is between Columbus's and Beatina's son, Ferdinando, a Catholic Spaniard of Italian descent, and the Peruvian pagan Orrabella, the eldest daughter of King Orrozombo of Peru. At their initial meeting, Ferdinando and Orrabella respect and revere one another equally, willingly performing "tokens of supplication" as Orrabella kneels to the ground and Ferdinando lays his sword at her feet.2 Shortly after their first meeting, Ferdinando and Orrabella move beyond gesture and exchange one another's languages: "Ferdinando had numberless opportunities of improving the favorable impression his first appearance made on the lovely Orrabella. He soon instructed her in the Spanish tongue; and with equal facility, became himself a proficient in her native language."3 After learning each other's language, Ferdinando and Orrabella marry, forever altering the relationship between the New and Old Worlds. Rowson dismantles the traditional white American identity with her depiction of Ferdinando's and Orrabella's marriage. It is this marriage that marks the beginning of an American multiracial, multicultural, and international genealogy that Rowson then continues into and completes in contemporary eighteenth-century...


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pp. 77-97
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