- Liberties, Letters, and LivesThe Many Voices of Early American Women
In the opening letter of Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 novel The Coquette, Eliza Wharton famously exclaims over the “unusual sensation” that “possesses her breast”—the sensation of “pleasure; pleasure” at her newfound [End Page 535] freedom (4). Released by his death from her unwelcome engagement to the dutiful Mr. Haly, Eliza’s first missive celebrates her unfamiliar liberty from obligation and expectation. While Eliza’s subsequent (mis)use of her freedom and the pleasures thereof remains contested among modern-day scholars, her joyful embrace of newfound independence resonates with many contemporary readers, especially those who are themselves experiencing college life, newly freed from the restrictions of their own “paternal roof” (4). In a typical semester’s teaching, my students generally find Mary Rowlandson’s story fascinating and admire Phillis Wheatley, but they genuinely like Eliza Wharton; she, among the figures they encounter in early America, fictional and historical, seems most to resemble them. Her dilemmas—overeager but inappropriate romantic partners, judgmental friends, old-fashioned parents who seem determined to constrain her unreasonably, and the desire for a stable future, just not yet—are theirs as well.
Eliza’s popularity among today’s students is both blessing and curse: given their strong identification with her, or, more accurately, their identification of her with them, how do we as teachers awaken them to the distinctly different systems of assumptions and values that shaped the lives of Americans in the first decades after independence? To students born, as today’s traditional undergraduates largely were, after 1991, the world has always encompassed discussions of women’s rights and provided examples of prominent, powerful women; many of my students, male and female, identify themselves as “postfeminist” in the erroneous belief that women have achieved parity with men in every significant social, economic, and political dimension. Is it any wonder, then, that they often approach literature by and about women “back in the day” as testament to the restricted and outmoded beliefs long surmounted in our more sophisticated era, finding in it merely anachronistic instances of protofeminism or repetitive examples of the cultural misogyny they insist we’ve long since eradicated? Eliza Wharton’s very popularity encapsulates a long-standing dilemma: how best to help students grasp the complexity of the positions, identities, and thoughts women held in early America? How can we recreate in our classrooms the richness and variety of female experience from the limited materials in our archive and within the pragmatic parameters of textbook price and availability?
As Cathy Davidson reminds us, the American novel was “[b]orn in [End Page 536] scandal,” “[m]oralistic and sensational,” “[p]olitical and sentimental” (Revolution 9); it was also deeply reliant on plots that revolved around the circulation of young women who “were often misled or mistreated by the rich and powerful” (10). Given its historical popularity and function as index of the health and moral fiber of the young nation, the seduction novel, especially its most familiar examples, continues to feature prominently on syllabi—a fact confirmed by even a brief look at course syllabi provided by the Society of Early Americanists’ “Syllabus Exchange” on its website on teaching resources.1 In a recent review essay in these pages, Karen Weyler asked whether we as teachers of early America have ourselves been “seduced by the seduction novel, by its very familiarity and availability?” (241). Weyler laments our collective overreliance on several staples of early...