- Kelroy’s Parlor Games
Poor Kelroy. When Rebecca Rush’s 1812 novel was brought back into print as part of Oxford University Press’s Early American Women Writers series, its future must have seemed at least as bright as the other four novels in the series: Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s A New England Tale, and Tabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism. The seduction tales—Charlotte Temple and The Coquette—have claimed solid places in the canon of early American literature. They appear on countless syllabi and are available in numerous editions, including multiple recent critical editions. A New England Tale is out in a mass-market paperback edition, and even Female Quixotism is available as an ebook. Not Kelroy; when I taught the novel recently, I found myself at the Xerox machine, scanning the entire book to make a pdf for my students, thinking of the hours and nickels scholars spent at microfilm machines making novels like Kelroy available to their students during the first wave of feminist recovery. Literary historians seem to have decided that Kelroy is not worth our time. I disagree.
Among early American novels dominated by seduction plots, Kelroy offers readers something radically different: an experiential re-creation of urban life in the early Republic.1 The novel prefigures literary realism in the way it simultaneously re-creates and critiques the delicate balancing act of trying to gain a foothold in the shifting class of elite Americans. But unlike the thing-heavy brand of literary realism that would follow a century later, Kelroy’s realism emphasizes the methods, strategies, behaviors, and performances—in short, the practices—that allowed early Americans to become city people decades before the advent of the industrial city.2 While Kelroy represents the cross-class proximity that characterized early American cities, the novel primarily explores urban practices shared by the Philadelphia elite—or those who aspired to become part of the elite class—at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Kelroy animates specific practices of everyday life in the early American city and invites readers to participate [End Page 467] in these activities, creating an experiential version of cosmopolitan culture through which readers uncomfortably learn to play the role of the aspiring elite. Although a range of urban domestic practices and performances animate the novel, Kelroy is fundamentally concerned with gender, economics, and financial transactions. Urban manifestations of these broad concerns, including card games, insurance schemes, and the lottery, as well as popular pastimes like visiting and parties, lie at the novel’s heart.3 But Kelroy emphasizes what happens inside city homes rather than on city streets, which perhaps explains why its significance as an urban novel has been overlooked.
Because it constructs urban culture not through physical objects but through social practice, Kelroy’s “citiness” is hard to grasp—is invisible, in fact, without the help of historical work on early American urban practices and performances. In this essay I draw on recent material and cultural histories of early American cities to explore Kelroy’s recreations of early urban practices, especially gambling, not as hallmarks of a sensational or sentimental plot, but as significant structural elements of a new American urban consciousness. I read Kelroy as a city novel, one that that opens early American urban practices to the reader and enacts these practices through narrative, thereby drawing the reader into an identifiably urban consciousness. Like Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn or Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Kelroy asserts Philadelphia’s identity as a cosmopolitan city and invites the reader to become part of its culture. In so doing, Kelroy offers potent clues to the ways in which early Americans imagined themselves to be city people in the protocities they inhabited.
Like the early American city, the American literary canon features seemingly permanent landmarks in the foreground of a more transitory landscape. And as this background shifts to incorporate newly rediscovered novels, Kelroy deserves recognition for its groundbreaking depiction of early urban practices through which women could enter into and shape the speculative urban society that would come to structure the nation.4 Read this way, Kelroy...