- Sensuous Cognition and the Shifting Terrains of Aesthetics, Taste, and Relational Publication
The Coquette (1797) has come to be that book, the touchstone for discussions of early American literature and culture that cover the 1790s. Aesthetics and the early development of the novel meet politics and the vexed nature of liberty and self-determination in Hannah Webster Foster's novel. Cathy Davidson's reading of this and other early American novels in Revolution and the Word (1986) opened up a rich, untapped vein for scholars of American literature primarily by turning our attention to reading communities, women's writing in a genre then largely neglected by scholars, and the social and political concerns shaping American culture of the early republic. For Davidson, the fate of Eliza Wharton is tied up with the social condition of married women bound by the legal status of feme covert but also the varying responses of readers, particularly young women, who "read and reread it virtually into oblivion" (149). Michael Warner also treats Foster's novel in the closing pages of The Letters of the Republic (1990) to punctuate his argument about the relationship between public authority and private virtue in the early years of the US (174). These approaches to the literature of the early republic generally and The Coquette specifically help inaugurate a focus on what Jane Tompkins famously called the "cultural work" of literature that has dominated approaches to American [End Page 318] literature for the past quarter century (xi). In its starkest versions, this cultural approach seemed to reject aesthetic approaches to literature as elitist, universalizing, and ahistorical. Recent proponents of a new aestheticism, however, find that this position in its starkest forms "renders ahistorical questions of taste, beauty, affect, and feeling" (Weinstein and Looby 9).
Three recent books, Philipp Schweighauser's Beautiful Deceptions: European Aesthetics, The Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art (2016), Catherine E. Kelly's Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (2016), and Caroline Wigginton's In the Neighborhood: Women's Publication in Early America (2016), refer to The Coquette in their opening or closing pages as they frame studies that attend to the "cultural work" of art and literature of the period by historicizing aesthetic value and literary form. For Schweighauser, Eliza Wharton's defense of "fancy" and the novel's treatment of artifice and seduction is symptomatic of a transitional moment in the development of aesthetics (2); for Wigginton, Eliza's correspondence and Peter Sanford's refusal to write proper letters signal the threat "republican print" poses to "relational publication" (137–40); for Kelly, Lucy Sumner's preference for Daniel Bowen's Columbian museum over the "disgusting" circus instructs us in the specific ways taste was developed in the early national period (1–2). The attention these scholars pay to very different elements of Foster's novel—its philosophical underpinnings, its engagement of public discourse, and its standards of taste—epitomizes their approaches, but all three ask us to see how the relationship between politics and art was shaped by public participation in both.
New aestheticism insists on historicizing taste and understanding its relationship to social and political movements while at the same time recognizing that art is in some way distinctive from other forms of cognition and expression. In their introduction to American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions (2012), Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby acknowledge the significance of Tompkins's critique of aesthetic hierarchies but also deconstruct her own attention to the formal qualities of literature in ways associated with the aesthetic. They instead
choose to adopt aesthetic as a usable term precisely because its history involves the discipline of a careful attention to surfaces and appearances, to the sensible textures of things, and its history also preserves the conviction that social and political life always has a sensory and perceptual dimension.(8) [End Page...