Date of this Version
American Literature (2008) 80(1): 170-172. DOI: 10.1215/00029831-2007-067.
Two books published in the 1980s had a deep influence on the study of American women novelists of the early republic and the antebellum era. Mary Kelley’s Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (1984) presented twelve popular women novelists as deeply conflicted about their role as public producers of culture. The chapters in Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (1986) that treat women novelists and their readers as worthy of serious analysis significantly altered the course of scholarship on the early American novel. Angela Vietto clearly frames Women and Authorship in Revolutionary America as a response to the work of Davidson and subsequent scholars, asking: How would early American women’s authorship look different if scholars did not focus so centrally on the novel and on print publication? What if manuscript circulation and print publication were placed on a continuum and forms other than the novel were included? Kelley does not frame Learning to Stand and Speak as a revision of her own Private Woman; indeed, the scope and the focus of her new project are different and much broader, extending back to the early republic and treating scores of educated women who left traces of their intellectual engagements in writing (both manuscript and print); nevertheless, Learning to Stand and Speak is likely to most interest literary historians for its revision of Private Woman.
For Vietto, authorship is primarily a discursive formation. Relying on Judith Butler’s theories of gender as performance, she proceeds through a series of chapters tracing women authors’ engagements with (and occasional parodic subversions of ) gender ideology in literary texts: women authors affiliated themselves with other women’s writing by representing “literary sorority”; they used the narrative authority of the republican mother to advise men on proper conduct; they referenced historical instances of women warriors in complex ways that simultaneously disavowed and claimed the agency enacted by these violent women; and they claimed the role of citizens, rather than only mothers of citizens, by writing explicit political analysis. In a final chapter, Vietto analyzes shifts in gendered authorial strategies over time in works by Judith Sargent Murray, Mercy Otis Warren, and Sarah Wentworth Morton. Vietto usefully insists that scholars should read women authors as having careers. Arguing that “the relationship between authorship and gender is far from static,” she claims that “each time a writer . . . set pen to paper, her work entered a cultural context that, in regard to both her gender identity and her vocation as an author, was constantly changing” (115). Her broad focus on a variety of authors and genres, manuscript and print, is welcome. Additional authors who make significant appearances include Hannah Adams, Hannah Mather Crocker, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Annis Boudinot Stockton, and Sarah Pogson. Vietto recognizes and accounts for the fact that these are all elite white women, briefly suggesting how Phillis Wheatley’s career might be understood within her paradigm. One might wish, however, that a study with the word “authorship” in the title would have been more archival rather than consist largely of close readings of literary texts.