Monday, July 31, 2006

Henderson, Desirée. “The Imperfect Dead: Mourning Women in Eighteenth-Century Oratory and Fiction.” Early American Literature 39.3 (2004): 487-509.

Henderson looks at the way that fallen women were eulogized in the early republic. She discussed the form and function of the funeral sermon arguing that the sentimental novel stepped in and eulogized women who the spiritual leaders of the time could not.

Henderson does this by looking at the shift in Puritan influence. The moving ideas toward an embracing of individualism that came after the Revolution. She lays out the style and content of the religious funeral sermon of the time, then moves to Brown, Rowson, and Foster as examples of novels that, she argues, debates with what can be said about fallen and disgraced women. The seduction novel becomes the antithesis to the funeral sermon. Where women are told to imitate the pious women of the sermon, they are told never to be like the women of the novels. Yet, it also allows the reader to mourn in, where as the sermon allows no mourning for a woman who is going on to a wonderful reward. As the pious woman funeral sermon dies away, the sentimental novel continues to gain readers.

The author has a strong argument, looking at the emotional and “car wreck” appeal of the seduction novel to show how it replaced the funeral sermon as a place where women could gain and debate their own ideas of womanhood.

Bib of Note:

Elliot, Emory. "The Development of the Puritan Funeral Sermon and Elegy: 1660-1750." Early American Literature 15.2 (Fall 1980) 151-64.

Engebretsen, Terry. "Being Dead She Yet Lives: The Rhetorical Work of America's First Funeral Sermon." Studies in Puritan American Spirituality 6 (Dec. 1997): 25-43.

Korobkin, Laura H. “’Can Your Volatile Daughter Ever Acquire Wisdom?’” Early American Literature 41.1 (2006): 79-107.

Korobkin argues that while championing Eliza as a modern woman who chooses not to follow the constraints that her society places upon her, critics have pushed aside the real reasons for her actions – her need for luxury and her materialism. If one historicizes the novel, one sees that Eliza’s wants are connected to British consumerism and class distinctions that early America was striving to tear down.

She furthers her argument by studying the difference between the modern and 18th Century meaning of the word volatile, showing that they lead the reader (depending on the when of the reading) to have different ideas of Eliza’s character.

The argument is quite sound and the history convinces me, as history often does, that the modern reading of Eliza that many critics have conveyed is meant to fit their agendas more than to truly show the ideas being conveyed by the novel. Seeing Eliza as a 18th Century Sex in the City character is fun; however, in a true historic feminist reading of the work, she is working against the freedoms that women for striving for in her time.

Bib of Note:

Cott, Nancy F. "Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in 18th Century Mass." William and Mary Quarterly 3.33 (1976) 587-92.

Evans, Gareth. "Rakes, Coquettes, and Republican Patriarchs Class, Gender, and Nation in Early American Sentimental Fiction." Canadian Review of American Studies 25 (1995) 41-62.