- In the Neighborhood: Women’s Publication in Early America by Caroline Wigginton
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016
Caroline Wigginton’s fine study of eighteenth-century American women’s cultural productions and their multimedia publication begins by setting the idea of an uneasily mixed neighborhood of black, white, and native populations against that of a unified nation or virtuous republic. The book’s goal is to peer beneath constructions of national unity in order to trace how women drew on the particularities of lived experience and affiliation—embodied as these were in unequal bonds of race, class, gender, and religion—to represent, reimagine, and transform their local communities.
Distancing itself from both “republican print” (1) and “belletristic” writing (4), In the Neighborhood considers a wide array of cultural artifacts, from baskets and dresses to performances and estate records. It then [End Page 801] explores how women publicized these artifacts through a practice of interpersonal exchange or “relational publication” (6). Wigginton offers two vivid examples to define relational publication. One is a Lenape woman who made and sent a wampum belt to the leader Manawkyhickon in 1728, for him to read and resend to others on her behalf to mobilize their community to avenge her son’s murder. The other is Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, whose 1768 manuscript poem “The Dream” has a resurrected William Penn hand a scroll to the Patriot writer John Dickinson, who reads it aloud to others to foment rebellion. Both the Lenape belt and the imagined scroll involve transmission of a cultural artifact through sequential exchanges and by means of multiple technologies in order to “realign . . . communal affiliations and partitions, local and transnational” (3). Wigginton insists on the element of change here: relational publication drew on the intimacy of local experience specifically to “revise and reimagine the neighborhood” and to “advance [its] communal visions and desires” (12–13).
Neighborhood, particularity, relational publication, and transformation: these are key concepts in Wigginton’s study, and as she defines each of them in her introduction, two things become apparent. One is the extraordinary depth of her research, both primary and critical. Her copious and detailed notes represent a remarkable database of early native, black, and colonist women’s productions and communications, all of which she scans with a keen literary (and storytelling) eye, and with full command of recent developments in early American and native studies, as her study’s generic inclusiveness and grasp of nontraditional and multimedia forms of cultural publication make clear. “In the Neighborhood compiles its archive from the publications of early American women of diverse racial, spiritual, and social backgrounds,” Wigginton notes. “It examines letters but more often other kinds of communications and performances, public rituals, material objects, occasional verse, legal and diplomatic documents, commonplace books, and diaries” (23).
The second overall observation emerges from reading both the introduction and afterward. Wigginton takes pains to set female relational publication apart from more traditionally belletristic texts and print publication. That said, she does in the end turn to a number of more traditionally literary works—notably Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 The Coquette, but also Annis Boudinot Stockton’s “late-night musings” on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication in her 1793 letters to her daughter (136), Emily Dickinson’s [End Page 802] poetic fascicles, Ann Plato’s 1841 Essays, and Frances E. W. Harper’s 1892 Iola Leroy. Wigginton is persuasive in arguing that these writings all derive from, depict, include, and participate in the cultural traditions of relational publication that this book explores. Her reading of The Coquette, for example, is brief but brilliant in its characterization of Peter Sanford as a man who refuses the particularities of relational publication: “When juxtaposed with the rich manuscript culture to which it refers, Foster’s epistolary novel reads as an anxious meditation on relational publication’s possible supercession [sic] by republican print and the concomitant ruptures in women’s neighborhood particularity and bonds” (137). This reader for one will welcome the author’s future work at this intersection of belletristic and relational publication.
The main task of In the Neighborhood, however, is...