- In the Neighborhood: Women’s Publication in Early America by Caroline Wigginton
What was the place of women in the early American “republic of letters”? Women’s writing, reading, and role in eighteenth-century print culture has been the subject of much recent scholarship (see Dillon 2004; Kelley 2006; and Hackel and Kelly 2008), but few works have redefined the parameters of the topic as decisively as Caroline Wigginton’s In the Neighborhood. In describing how women’s “relational publications” shaped real and imagined neighborhoods, Wigginton’s work suggests that a better question might be: what sorts of places did women craft for themselves and others in the textual landscape of early America?
In the Neighborhood, winner of the 2018 Early American Literature Book Prize, argues that reading women’s publications both with greater expansiveness and greater particularity may undo the very notion of a “republic of letters” as the primary mode of authorship in early America. The role of republican print culture in shaping the modern nation-state has been influentially described by scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Michael Warner. Women authors, however, “mediated between the extremes of detachment and amalgamation” (134) set forth by this imagined fraternity, unable and unwilling to fully anonymize within a print culture that insisted on the male nature of the nation and its citizens. Wigginton makes [End Page 140] a firm case that an exclusive “focus on print and nation has masked women’s occupation with [a] different scale of community” (8): the neighborhood. Her use of the term highlights the way that women’s publication practices were often addressed to particular and known audiences within their communities, reflecting interpersonal intimacies rather than an imagined and unknowable national readership. In acts of “relational publication” ranging from commonplace books exchanged among a group of Quaker women to funeral elegies written by Phillis Wheatley, Wigginton shows that women “reimagin[ed] geographies of boundedness [and] transformed early American neighborhoods, sometimes in revolutionary ways” (9).
The book begins with a boldly performative act of publication: an armed march into Savannah, Georgia, in 1749 led by the Creek diplomat Coosaponakeesa (sometimes known as Mary Bosomworth or Mary Musgrove). Attempting to compel the colonial government to recognize her land claims and her political authority, Coosaponakeesa artfully structured the procession to highlight both her English husband and her Creek kin, positioning herself as a crucial translator and “a sovereign power that reconciled and united disparate interests” (28). As this example suggests, Wigginton utilizes a generous definition of “publication”, describing it as something that “makes public an expression of its author, invites a reading, submits itself to circulation” (5). Setting such terms aids in envisioning the communications of women beyond the white elite — indigenous, African American, or poor — which might take the form of wampum belts, petitions, or symbolic sartorial choices in lieu of (or in addition to) print and manuscript text. Coosaponakeesa, for her part, paired “indigenous rhetorics of kinship with English legal documents” (40) in order to shape the shared residency of Creeks and Georgians on the same lands, “making a public” in the transnational neighborhood of the Southeast.
Even seemingly private forms of authorship, such as diary-keeping, are interpreted by Wigginton as publications when they demonstrate the power to rearrange neighborhood dynamics. The second chapter considers the asymmetrical intimacy between Phillis, an enslaved woman in Newport, Rhode Island, and Sarah Osborn, a schoolmistress who claimed ownership of Phillis’s son Bobey. Osborn’s proposal to sell Bobey — announced during a prayer meeting attended by both women — prompted Phillis to become “vext”. Osborn’s surprise, and her subsequent spiritual crisis, were reflected in diary entries that were a “private correspondence with God” (64), but which bore public results: Osborn did not sell Bobey. Her repositioning of herself as a spiritual mother to Bobey and other black Christians rewrote the “affiliatory terrain” (83) of the neighborhood, although her change of heart did not extend as far as freeing Bobey. As Wigginton demonstrates, [End Page...