- The Radial Sphere:Structural Virtue in The Female Marine
By her own account, the cross-dressing heroine of The Female Marine (1816) takes to the sea with an agenda in flux. Weary of prostituting herself in a filthy brothel, she escapes aboard a frigate that she construes as a vessel to freedom: "I felt now no other disposition than in disguise to visit other parts of the country."1 The ocean beckons as a space without duty or submission, where she might finally indulge her roving curiosity. The naval warfare that ensues, however, radically alters her singular disposition: "I felt an extreme desire to render myself conspicuous, and to perform that which woman never before achieved" (72–73). Her ambition, thus modified, shifts from personal extrication to aggregate vindication, as she endeavors to exonerate womanhood. Already, these aims manifest tensions: secrecy and conspicuousness, personal freedom and social equality. Her intentions become still more complicated when a yearning for national belonging displaces both prior motives. The heroine seizes upon a pugnacious rhetoric that exalts the efficiency of her own masculinized violence—"I discharged my piece nineteen times" (74)—to help secure the "noble achievement of our gallant ship" (73), hallowed "by our countrymen with every demonstration of joy and esteem" as [End Page 31] the crew returns to port (75). Here, patriotic citizenship that valorizes unity supplants her erstwhile quests for freedom and gender equality. The novel thus wrestles with a problem that bedeviled early nineteenth-century discourse more broadly: how might American identity bring structural coherence to the seemingly intractable conflicts between personal liberty, gendered virtue, and national belonging?
Recent scholarship has increasingly adopted the ocean itself as a hermeneutical nexus, eroding foundational paradigms that previous studies had used to define the early national period. Historians had long construed the sea as a buffer that conferred geographical isolation on the fledging nation, essentially sequestering it from foreign entanglements and European corruption and thereby quickening its unitary consolidation.2 More recently, however, the bulwark theory of the sea has given way to recognizing a precarious nation that was, as Paul Gilroy puts it, "as uncertain, as provisional, as its cartography."3 Not only did menacing British, French, and Spanish colonial settlements render the United States geographically insecure, but the Atlantic had itself become a hybridizing transit space for African, Latin American, and Caribbean cultural formations that occupied multiple coastal contact zones, imbuing an already displaced European heritage with creolized influences.4 Moreover, the ocean, rather than acting as a boundary shoring up ethnic and linguistic purity, frequently functioned as a shifting site of belonging that, in Leslie Eckel's words, "threaten[ed] to annihilate the nationally grounded self."5 Not only did an oceanic matrix avoid nationalist predication on an underlying territorial foundation, but its "constitutive position of unboundedness, drift, and solvency" inherently troubled boundaries of belonging and foreignness.6 Scholarship that attends to the sea's salience makes visible rhetorical strategies in nineteenth-century texts that naturalized and fortified what were actually contested and porous borders. [End Page 32]
The Female Marine seems well-primed to flow into a protean oceanic schema, for it limns close-quartered labor onboard a literal frigate even as it feeds metaphorical fluidity back into the racial, gender, and political systems that emerged during a period of wartime upheaval.7 Undertaken in late 1816 by entrepreneur and publisher Nathaniel Coverly Jr., the novel compiled three anonymous Boston pamphlets that he had printed over the previous year: An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker (August 1815), The Adventures of Lucy Brewer (November 1815), and The Awful Beacon to the Rising Generation (May 1816).8 Though marketed as an authentic autobiographical account, the narrative splices together the sentimental seduction plot, picaresque tale, warrior ballad, urban exposé, and didactic sermon, and thereby discloses the varied generic ingredients that underwrote this fictitious invention. Liberally saturated with hackneyed tropes—marriage as an indissoluble knot, chastity as a jewel, virtue as a narrow path, the fallen woman as a ship caught on rocky shoals—its plot follows Lucy Brewer (swathed in successive aliases), an ingénue of sixteen hailing from rural Massachusetts, who, seduced and impregnated by a...