- The Constantias of the 1790sTales of Constancy and Republican Daughters
Little attention has been paid to the many tales of constancy, fidelity, and fortitude authored by “an American lady” during the “nativist” 1790s or, indeed, to the way they were supported by printers who reprinted British tales and exhortations on these same interconnected themes. Yet the Constantias of the 1790s were more popular with American readers during this decade than Harriot, Eliza, or even Charlotte, and more obviously relevant to the building of the new nation, to early republican womanhood, and to most women’s ordinary lives. The most widely read of these tales offered models of unswerving, principled, and courageous female agency and of virtuous women, undaunted by patriarchs, penury, danger, and war, submitting nobly to troubles and sufferings to establish families in America. They taught that the establishment of virtuous, happy families and the stability of the early Republic depended on daughters’ patriotic constancy and fortitude.
American-authored tales of constancy were generally transatlantic, or had a transatlantic component, which addressed the relationship of Americans to foreign commercial ventures and seductive British or French metropoles. They offered a sort of counterdiscourse to the discredited language of loyalty-Loyalism, at a moment during the early Republic when unswerving allegiance to patria needed to be articulated anew for a white population that had been accustomed for two centuries to traveling back and forth on “the Atlantic highway” for purposes of education, patronage, or work, and to largely unhampered mobility within an “Atlantic World-System,” where provincial, national, and even imperial frontiers were still unstable, impermanent, and widely ignored.1 By representing the Atlantic wanderer’s constancy to the new Republic as dependent on his constancy to the republican daughter who had planted herself firmly on American [End Page 435] soil, many tales indicated that the American family, and with it the viability of the new nation, depended on daughters’ patriotic constancy and fortitude. As we will see, the protean anonymous voices urging constancy on republican daughters in the name of an American lady also left their mark in important ways on the skeptical and mutually debating texts of now canonical early American authors, such as Judith Sargent Murray, Susannah Rowson, and Charles Brockden Brown.
Cathy Davidson was perhaps the first to notice that American-authored novels were often published “because [they] served social objectives that the printer considered worthy of supporting with his enterprise” and thus that “the larger … concerns of the printers were … crucial … to the genesis of the American novel” (98, 99).2 But her insight has not, on the whole, been pursued, perhaps because patriotic printers often addressed contemporary American concerns through conjunctions of carefully selected foreign reprints and American-authored texts. In reading American-authored texts against British novels, modern critics have been more struck by “the narrative ingredients” (Armstrong 373) that foreign- and American-authored stories shared, and have tended to see them as merely imitative as a result. But the fact that eighteenth-century writers on both sides of the Atlantic normally indited by imitating and varying models made variation a significant statement for contemporaries who were accustomed to “read double” (Bannet, “Quixotes” 560). Imitation involving the selective reproduction, alteration, and variation of British models was a technique used by Americans who were culturally and diasporically English in Leonard Tennenhouse’s sense to “adapt” extant British literary and cultural materials to new, national, and republican ends. Itself a “reproduction of cultural practices that originated somewhere else” (Importance 9), imitation as British and American writers practiced it positively required them both to “reproduce English literary forms” and to “remodel [them] to make a statement” (12, 25). Intertextual to the core, its effect was to give American-authored works the “dual capacity to be both British and American” (Tennenhouse, Importance 73) As Judith Sargent Murray put it, American authors were “gleaners” who gleaned “piecemeal commodities” from the “fields” of others, because “imitation of that part of the past which can take on new life in the present” enabled “an American author” to produce a significantly “new book” (17, 19).3
In what follows, I use what might be described as a...