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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 301-304
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Cultural Production in the Early American Republic
California State University, Long Beach
Lillian B. Miller and Sidney Hart, eds. Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Volume 5, The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Pp. xliv + 513. $85.00.
Laura Rigal. The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic (Princeton. Princeton University Press, 1998). Pp. xii + 253. $55.00 cloth. $22.50 paper.
These recent studies explore the artists' and artisans' contributions to nation building in the nascent American republic. Read together, these complementary works, one an edition and one a collection of interdisciplinary studies, [End Page 301] constitute a testament to the cultural practices and strategies that would shape the representation of our national patrimony.
The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), written when he was in his eighties in 1825 and 1826, has long served as an important resource for scholars of American art. While it has been available on microfiche for over twenty years, its publication as part of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family makes it more accessible to historians engaged in a wide variety of inquiries into late colonial, revolutionary, and early American culture. After all, Peale himself was a major actor in many of the new nation's significant cultural and political events.
Peale's autobiography follows a chronological design, beginning with a narrative of his early life, including his apprenticeship, the courtship of his first wife, Rachel Brewer, his career as a saddler in Annapolis, and his transition from artisan to artist. Peale describes his activities during the American Revolution and, in wonderful detail, discusses the founding and evolution of his Philadelphia museum. While his career as a museum proprietor remains central to the remainder of the autobiography, Peale also describes his involvement in Philadelphia and national politics, his role in the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and his experiences as a farmer, reformer and inventor. His accounts of events such as the Maryland Election of 1764, his travels both abroad and within the United States, and the triumphant return of the Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1824-1825, are accompanied by informative editorial notes that illustrate how broadly useful Peale's autobiography can be to historians.
There is also a wealth of information about Peale's family contained in the Autobiography, although like all such efforts at self-revelation, as much remains hidden as is revealed. Despite his claim that "the truth must be spoken by the faithful Historian, however disagreeable it may be," (10) Peale also reflects upon "how circumspect and careful we should be in what we speak, but how much more so in what we write, since what we commit to paper is not afterwards at our disposal" (229). As a result, there is no indication here, for example, of his bitter arguments with his son Raphaelle or of his disputes with his son-in-law Alexander Robinson. Scholars can use the other six volumes of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family and the larger microfiche series to explore the gaps between Peale's "biografy" and his experiences.
While the publication of a scholarly edition of Peale's autobiography is much welcomed, the editors observe that Peale's 1825-1826 effort to make sense of his life was not his first. As it turns out, in 1790, at age fifty, Peale wrote what the editors call an "Autobiographical Fragment" during his courtship of Mary Tilghman. This text, apparently, was used to defend his character and behavior as he attempted to marry up into one of the leading families in Maryland. Unfortunately the editors did not publish this "apologia" which, they add, ultimately "failed to convince the Tilghman's of Peale's standing" (xix), forcing readers to turn to the microfiche edition to flesh out this significant aspect of Peale's effort to rise and win acceptance in society. Despite this omission, however, scholars working...