Monday, December 7, 2009

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

My knowledge of early American women writers is embarrassingly small. I’ve read the usual poems by Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, and once in a survey course I struggled through Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, which I ended up abandoning in disgust. My situation is, I suspect, not that different than other literary scholars who focus on other eras, and to my credit or debit, I’d never read other writers of the era (Charles Brockden Brown, for example) until very recently.

My committee added a few women writers of the early days of the republic to my comprehensives list, however, and it was with a certain amount of dread that I looked forward to Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. How wrong I was. These two books are by far the most enjoyable and interesting pieces I’ve read thus far from the days before the American Renaissance—and the fact that I’d not heard of them until this year suggests a tragic and gaping hole in my education.

Charles Brockden Brown is justly called the father of American literature, but just as often he’s rather unjustly called the first American novelist of note. I am, let me be clear, a fan of the Canon and think that every student of literature, no matter what his or her specific area of study, should have to read the “classics” (preferably in a multiple-semester and interdisciplinary core curriculum required of all university students, but that’s a topic for another post).

I am therefore generally unsympathetic toward arguments that call the Canon racist or sexist or otherwise exclusionary—I am certain that women writers from the Elizabethan era would be added to the Canon were there enough of them of the same quality as Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc., and it is not Shakespeare’s fault that there is no female Hamlet, Aphra Behn notwithstanding. (Another topic for another time: I do accept Paul Lauter’s suggestion that the Academy should have multiple canons, but even so, I wish to maintain the large one in the center, even though it’s composed of Dead White Men. Oronooko is simply not as important as Dr. Faustus, not as influential or as important to Western culture. I have not read it, but I suspect it is also not as good. Please no comments calling the Canon into question.)

So it means something when I say that Brown is unjustly called the first American novelist of note. One of the first things one learns about Charlotte Temple is that it was the first American bestseller, and among the next things one learns is that more than two hundred editions of the novel were printed between its first appearance in 1791 and its virtual disappearance from study in the early twentieth century. It sold far more copies than Wieland or Edgar Huntly, inspired far greater devotion, and was much more of a cultural touchstone. It seems obvious that Rowson is both the mother of American literature and our true first novelist of note.

But its cultural impact wouldn’t matter if it were a mere eighteenth-century version of Twilight, a weepy melodrama for young women that had nothing to say to the larger world. (God help my academic descendents who will have to fight against Stephanie Meyer’s inclusion in the Canon.) No, Charlotte is incredibly rich for its genre (sentimental romance) and length (just over one hundred pages in my edition); its message is complex and not easily stated, and its actors move beyond the stock characters who generally populate such novels.

Rowson sets Charlotte Temple up as a moralistic tale of a fallen woman, taking breaks throughout the narrative to reassure readers (constantly assumed to be either impressionable young women or their censoring matrons) that the moral is forthcoming. But it never really does—Charlotte falls, but she does so even after doing her very best to live uprightly, and unlike many other novels of this type, her seducer genuinely loves her and provides for her even after external circumstances move him to leave her.

You can find the criticism in your local university’s database that will tease out the implications of the plot-moral dualism in Charlotte Temple to much more effect than I am willing or able to in this space. I bring it up only to note that it’s far more complicated and intellectually engaging than the canonical novels of Charles Brockden Brown—who set out to raise moral questions, best I can tell.

As good as Charlotte Temple is, however, it pales in comparison to Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, first published several decades later as Early Times in Massachusetts. When Sedgwick is discussed at all—apparently a relatively and tragically rare occasion—it is as either a domestic novelist amongst domestic novelists, i.e., an American Jane Austen; or else it is as a female counterpart to James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier romances.

I must take this opportunity to express my absolute loathing of James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t hate him as much as Mark Twain famously did, but I’ve read both The Last of the Mohicans and The Pioneers, and if the former is bearable for the interest of its implications about race, the latter is among the most boring books I’ve ever read. Cooper has a lot of characters in these novels—characters who never, with a very few exceptions, rise above their status as characters to become human beings (especially not Natty Bumppo). The plots are interesting enough in places, but Cooper can’t write a battle scene to save his life. These are, simply put, bad books.

Not so with Hope Leslie, which covers the Pequod uprisings of the seventeenth century with far more grace than that with which Cooper handles the French and Indian War in The Last of the Mohicans. The characters ring true—the titular protagonist has more depth in the course of her three hundred pages than Cooper grants to Bumppo in more than a thousand, and her ideas (which, big surprise, is what I really read for) are far richer and more complex than anything Cooper can come up with.

Critics read the novel particularly for Sedgwick’s remarkably progressive views on race and gender. Her most likeable character is Magawisca, an Indian woman who does her very best to function as an emissary between Pequod and white society and ends up torn to pieces for her efforts. (She doesn’t die, but in one particularly gory scene, she has her arm chopped off by a tomahawk while trying to re-enact Pocahontas’ defense of John Smith.) She is tragic but never melodramatic, never approaching the “tragic mulatto” portrayal of race that would prove so popular later in the century. Magawisca is the route by which Sedgwick can express her views on racial reconciliation and female empowerment, but the incredible thing, to say it again, is that her use as a symbol does not detract from the verisimilitude of her portrayal. She is one of the most memorable characters in American literature.

I am ready, in fact, to name Hope Leslie the single greatest American novel before The Scarlet Letter, and to pronounce ex cathedra that no American literature class should ever teach The Last of the Mohicans without teaching it alongside Sedgwick’s far superior novel—unless, of course, the class is called “Novels Called Classics That Aren’t That Good.” It is leaps and bounds above Brown, Cooper, Poe, and all but the best sketches of Washington Irving; it stands with the best of our literature from any era.

I have joked before that I don’t read women authors. Susanna Rowson and Catharine Maria Sedgwick are going a long way in convincing me to change that habit.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

Clearly you've been with me too long. You're starting to read teh wimmunz. I'll definitely check out Hope Leslie over the break. I hate Cooper too, so it sounds good.