Dissent and the daughter in A New England Tale and Hobomok.
Western literature has featured disobedient daughters ever since Genesis, the master narrative that established the defiant daughter as an irreparably destructive force in both the family and society. The disobedience of the daughter traditionally renders her vulnerable to exploitation and ruin and catalyzes the corruption of others, a pattern repeated in other masterworks, including Paradise Lost, King Lear, and Clarissa. In these narratives, daughterly defiance is so irremediable that social order can be restored only with the daughter's banishment and death.
Novels of the eighteenth century take tentative strides away from this master paradigm of daughterly disobedience. In America, seduction novels such as Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794) and Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) follow Samuel Richardson in cultivating readers' sympathies for their heroines by suggesting poor parenting as a cause of the seduced daughter's inability to govern her passions or to resist the advances of unscrupulous suitors. By representing the eventual repentance and Christian conversion of their heroines, these novelists envision the possibility of redemption for the disobedient daughter. Nevertheless, even Rowson's and Foster's narratives of filial defiance continue to resolve with the daughter's death.
Daughters in the late eighteenth-century novel in both England and America are more typically impeccably virtuous than they are disobedient. Gothic fictions such as Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond (1799), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) also subject such daughter-paragons to torment and death, but for the purpose of illustrating the depravity of the forces--Catholicism, international intrigue, science--that would make a sacrifice of such rarefied creatures.
The more complex daughter-figures of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott exhibit intelligence, independence, and a sense of moral propriety often exceeding that of their guardians. Still, filial and religious duty are central to the notion of virtue for the English daughter of the early nineteenth-century novel. Epitomizing such dutifulness is Rebecca of Scott's Ivanhoe (1819): steadfastly rebuffing all threats to her life and honor, she is dedicated above all to the laws of her Jewish faith, which prohibit her union with the Christian men who tempt her. Like her English counterpart, the American daughter in the early decades of the republic is portrayed as eminently dutiful, yet also capable and rational. Turn-of-the-century American heroines are often the scions of weak or foolish fathers. Typical are Constantia of Brown's Ormond and Rip Van Winkle's daughter Judith (in Washington Irving's 1819-1820 story), both of whom exhibit a consummate filial loyalty through their self-less care for aging, decrepit fathers.
What distinguishes the novels of Child and Sedgwick from their American predecessors and their English counterparts is the nineteenth-century American recourse to religion as a foundation of independence for daughter-heroines. The nation's commitment to freedom of conscience--the "first freedom"--affords the American novelist opportunity to place the pious but dissenting daughter in conflict with her irrational and superstitious Calvinist elders without forfeiting the daughter's virtue. Religion in America served as a unique medium for the expression of independence by daughters devoted to a higher law than that of obligation to their earthly fathers. As Barbara Epstein has put it, "[O]nly in the name of something as deeply held and long established as orthodox religious belief could women bring themselves to challenge the supremacy of their husbands and fathers" (61-62). Accordingly, the daughter-heroines in the first works of Sedgwick and Child exhibit considerable religious piety. Together with their elevated sense of decorum and social conscience, these attributes and the self-restraint that they impose legitimize the daughters' expression of dissent from corrupt authority.
Both Sedgwick and Child employ the daughter's religious-based dissent as a model for virtuous disobedience in a nation in need of a new paradigm of filial comportment. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical" (Writings 882). But a generation later, rebellion no longer possessed the air of benevolent necessity attributed to it by Jefferson. In a time of relative calm in domestic and international affairs, and with many of the revolutionary heroes dead, the defiance of the founding age had assumed a mythic stature, legendary but no longer applicable to contemporary standards of political and social behavior. Thus, in 1825 Daniel Webster declared,</p> <pre> We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us by the side of Solon, and Alfred, and other founders of states. Our fathers have filled them. But there remains to us a great duty of defense and preservation; and there is opened to us, also, a noble pursuit, to which the spirit of the times strongly invites us. Our proper business is improvement. (27-28) </pre> <p>The generation born after the Revolution sought to emulate the founding fathers they lionized, but even more important, to preserve what those fathers had wrought so valiantly and bequeathed to their successors (Forgie).
Having witnessed the aftermath of revolution in Europe, Americans had much to fear from disobedience and rebellion. Still, for the generation that succeeded the War of Independence, filial duty and self-restraint competed with a yearning for self-definition, for the capacity to dissent. The 1820s, which Emerson once called the "age of the first person singular" (Journal entry, Jan.-Feb. 1827, 61), saw the continuing rise of individualism, a trend fostered by the growing availability of consumer goods, voluntary societies, and autonomous labor, all of which called upon individuals to fashion their own identity (Wiebe 23; Howe 111). Antebellum Protestantism in its liberal and evangelical forms further promoted individualism by emphasizing the capacity of the individual to think, read, and interpret Scripture without the intervention of an elite clergy (Hatch 41-43; Gutjahr 16, 44-47, 118). Undergirded by Scottish Common Sense philosophy, with its faith in the perceptive and reasoning capacities of the common person, nineteenth-century Protestantism elevated the status of the individual, often with radical consequences. Women, slaves, and people of scant means and education often discovered new license for independence in thought and action through the teachings of evangelicalism (Heyrman 15, 26; Raboteau 290-318).
For Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child, the disobedient daughter-heroine is the character uniquely suited to negotiate the division between this rising individualism and Websterian filial obligation with its conservative focus on preserving the nation's legacy. In the first works of these two writers, A New England Tale and Hobomok, the filial and religious dissent of the daughter, far from exposing her to seduction, proves crucial to a progressive denouement establishing reason, order, and refinement in a still-developing nation. Where-as the male heroes of nineteenth-century American fiction tend toward a radical individualism as they set out for the woods and the sea, the pious daughter-figure reconciles her self-reliance with duty to community, tradition, and family. For Sedgwick, the individualism of the pious daughter must accommodate her abiding concern for social relationships and social justice. The daughter thereby becomes a model not only for women, but also for a nation at large as it seeks to develop and define the relationship between individual and community. For Child, envisioning the daughter-heroine as a virtuous dissenter enables her to rewrite the legacy of Puritanism in a manner that emphasizes the moral, social, and religious refinement that the daughter-figure represents. For both writers, the disobedient daughter proves an invaluable literary construct for synthesizing a particular blend of progressive and conservative ideologies that dispenses with the hierarchy and intolerance of colonial Calvinism yet maintains the measure and constraint of traditional social order.
"A LABYRINTH OF OPPOSING DUTIES": A NEW ENGLAND TALE
The daughter of the prominent Federalist politician Theodore Sedgwick, Catharine Maria Sedgwick confronted the question of the proper role of authority and obedience in American life. In the early years of the republic, her father served as Speaker of the House and U.S. Senator, only to see the influence of his party wane with the rise of Jeffersonian Republicans suspicious of centralized and aristocratic power. Although devoted to her father, Sedgwick developed sympathies for the democracy and individualism espoused by her father's political rivals, an inclination bolstered by her disillusionment with the authority of the Calvinist elders who presided over religious life in her native Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Kelley 36-37; Maddox 95-98).
In her first novel, A New England Tale, published in 1822, Sedgwick grapples with themes of obedience and justifiable opposition to misguided authority, and ultimately she establishes obedience as a conditional virtue for men and women alike. Navigating the complexities of this contingency is Sedgwick's protagonist, a daughter-heroine at risk of "losing herself in a labyrinth of opposing duties" (123), which she can extricate herself from only by giving primacy to private judgment. In so doing, she becomes a practitioner of what Sedgwick portrays as the proper response to authority mis-used: a chaste disobedience informed by piety, reason, and decorum.
Jane Elton, the heroine of A New England Tale, is a merchant's daughter, orphaned at the age of twelve and adopted by a stern, Calvinist aunt, who, together with her "wilful and trickish" children, abuse and scapegoat Jane (38). The Wilsons not only scheme to upset Jane's marital prospects with the dashing and eligible Edward Erskine, but also to derail Jane's success in the local seminary, where she develops social and financial autonomy through her occupation as teacher, a role that illustrates her dedication to the Enlightenment ideals of reason and independence. Jane's relationship with her stepmother is not strictly filial, which enables Sedgwick to mitigate somewhat the impropriety of Jane's eventual defiance. Nevertheless, Jane holds familial duty and obedience to her aunt as central and binding virtues.
Jane, though meek and dutiful, also possesses a store of autonomy and self-reliance rooted in her strong Christian faith. Her prospective marriage to Erskine fails not because of the Wilsons' meddling, but because Jane herself breaks off the engagement upon apprehending Erskine's fundamental irreligiosity. Only once Jane has established her self-sufficiency does the novel culminate in her marriage to Mr. Lloyd, a prosperous Quaker who represents an alternative to the hierarchical, intolerant, and rigidly orthodox culture of the fictional New England town in which the novel is set. Jane's marriage consummates her own inchoate liberal Protestantism and signals her final break from Calvinism.
Both Jane and her "trickish" stepsiblings oppose the authority of Mrs. Wilson and the established church. But only the pious Jane is vindicated by the novel in this disobedience. The Wilson daughters, in their disgust for "deaconish nonsense," give "bold and turbulent opposition" to their mother's inflexible orthodoxy (39, 43):</p> <pre> Mrs. Wilson's children produced such fruits as might be expected from her culture. The timid among them had recourse to constant evasion, and to the meanest artifices to hide the violation of laws which they hated; and the bolder were engaged in a continual conflict with the mother, in which rebellion often trampled on authority. (24) </pre> <p>Susanna Rowson and Hannah Foster suggest in their novels of seduction that inadequate parenting accounts in part for the subsequent moral failures of seduced daughters, a suggestion in accordance with a Lockean understanding of the parental role (Fliegelman 12-23, 83-86). Sedgwick similarly attributes the impiety of the Wilson children to their mother's overbearing and irrational parenting. Still, Mrs. Wilson's tyranny fails to exonerate the Wilson children. Indeed, the difficulty of responding with virtue to authority abused is the central problem of A New England Tale, having implications not limited to the interests of women.
The emotionally unrestrained Wilson daughters exercise their opposition through subterfuge because they despair of reasoned reconciliation between authority and subject. "Why, child," Elvira Wilson warns Jane, "if you are going to fight your battles with Mother with plain truth, you will find yourself without shield or buckler" (39). Characteristically, Elvira one night hits upon "a capital plan to cheat mother," sneaking off to a ball (44). When the truant returns bearing a wreath of flowers as the "hoisted flag of successful rebellion," an enraged Mrs. Wilson attacks Jane for her supposed complicity in the affair (45). Jane, who has selflessly spent the night nursing a dying servant, denies the charge in a manner that marks the distinction between her justifiable opposition to her guardian's authority and the self-indulgent insurrection of Elvira: "Aunt, we are in the chamber of death; and in a little time you, and I, and all of us, shall be as this poor creature; as you will then wish your soul to be lightened of all injustice--spare the innocent now; you know I never deceived you" (46). Jane's appeal to religion and reason checks her guardian and contrasts with her stepsisters' strategy of deception and their lack of faith in the power of rational discourse.
Jane's admonishment of her stepmother functions also as an indictment of Mrs. Wilson's bad manners in not observing proper decorum in the solemn atmosphere of "a chamber of death." This contrast between Jane's delicacy and Mrs. Wilson's indecorousness signals Jane's superior respectability and moral authority. Polite culture, despite its aristocratic origins, had taken hold in early American society as a form of self-discipline that could regulate the personal license granted by the rise of individualism (Howe 113). Polite behavior, especially as prescribed by conduct books, entailed a self-possession harnessed in consideration for others. The self-restraint inherent to politeness further operated as something of a spiritual barometer. Refinement in manners was understood to accord with an elevation of soul and reflected a state of grace, even in middle-class homes such as Mrs. Wilson's (Bushman 321-26). Jane's demonstration of good manners illustrates not merely her delicacy, but corresponds with her inner spiritual grace as well.
Through her religious faith, Jane finds the power and sanction to disobey her guardian's crudeness and tyranny. Sedgwick fashions Jane's resistance as an essentially religious action and thereby gains her heroine some immunity from charges of female filial disobedience. In the decades after the Revolution, freedom of conscience had become a right almost sacred in itself in the young republic (Hudson). (1) Whereas the rights conferred upon American citizens by the Constitution had little legal or practical applicability to women in the early nineteenth century, freedom of religion was a de facto exception. Both evangelical Protestantism and the Enlightenment rationalism at the heart of early American culture demanded that worship be free and uncoerced. Isaac Backus expressed this sentiment in 1779 when drafting a Bill of Rights for Massachusetts. "[N]othing can be true religion," he wrote, "but a voluntary obedience unto [God's] revealed will, of which each rational soul has an equal right to judge for itself" (268). Rationalism dictated, in the words of Sidney Mead, that "the individual was, and could be, moved and guided only by the weight of the evidence contemplated in his own mind," while evangelicalism likewise insisted that the individual must be "guided by his own personal experience" of divine grace (61-62). By rendering Jane's disobedience of her guardian as a form of religious dissent, Sedgwick makes broader use of this early American emphasis on freedom of conscience.
When her aunt's injunctions threaten to compromise her own standards of moral and religious propriety, which emphasize above all the well-being of others, Jane openly disobeys, as when she disregards Mrs. Wilson's instructions to pilfer from her dead father's estate. Similarly, when Jane witnesses her stepbrother David stealing five hundred dollars from his mother's desk, she refuses to comply with Mrs. Wilson's subsequent demands for explanation, having given David her vow of silence. Even when Mrs. Wilson publicly accuses Jane of the theft, Jane, ever ready to suffer for the sins of another, stays true to her word.
The works-based Protestantism that serves as the foundation for Jane's autonomy contrasts with the Calvinism of Jane's guardian. The central precepts of Christianity for Jane are articulated in the scripture that Sedgwick cites in reproach of the clergyman of her fictional New England village. Cruelly, this minister has selected "The wages of sin is death" as the text for the funeral sermon of Jane's mother. Encapsulating the primary commandments of Sedgwick's understanding of Christianity are three very different texts: "Bear ye one another's burthens," "Weep with those who weep," and "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these, ye have done it unto me" (13). The clergyman, Mrs. Wilson, and, by extension, Calvinism itself, all fail to obey these three "sacred rules of our blessed Lord" and thereby discredit their claims to legitimate authority (40). Mrs. Wilson, a staunch adherent to the doctrine of innate depravity, triumphantly announces "that she should not presume to appear before her Judge with any of the 'filthy rags of her own righteousness'" (24), a sentiment that she misuses in order to disregard the interpersonal duties of a Christian.
Jane's most dramatic act of disobedience, however, takes the form of her own secret midnight excursion, which echoes that of her ball-going stepsister. Summoned by old John of the Mountain, Jane agrees to make a clandestine journey to his cottage beyond the village on his promise that "there is good to be done; and I tell you, you may save life" (79). The impropriety of such an outing is considerable, as Elvira's earlier dance escapade demonstrates. En route, Jane is guided by Crazy Bet, the eccentric spinster whose "sagacious observations" and "quick eye" render her something of a Shakespearean clown (16, 17). Bet, who flouts Calvinist orthodoxy and spurns conventional feminine propriety, plays the foil to the grand figure of Mrs. Wilson and models an alternative religious and social bearing. Along their midnight journey, Bet insists upon pausing to "worship in this sanctuary of nature" (85), where she and Jane together apprehend "the revelations of [God's] goodness, in the varied expressions of nature's beautiful face" (33), a sentiment anticipating Emerson's declaration that "[t]he noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God" ("Nature" 49). Bet encourages Jane to understand nature as divine revelation, superior to all the orthodoxies of Calvinism.
Another variation on the theme of rebellion occurs in Crazy Bet's tale of Lucy Willet, a widow who has died of grief after her lover's murder during Shays's rebellion. In a lengthy historical note appended to her text, Sedgwick recounts the 1786 uprising in which insurgents led by Revolutionary Captain Daniel Shays took up arms in western Massachusetts, killing bystanders before seeing their rebellion crushed by the Continental Army. Although critics have questioned the relevance of Shays's rebellion to the novel (Foster 28), Sedgwick's reference to the uprising speaks directly to her preoccupation with the justifiability of rebellion and the manner in which dissent should be enacted. In contrast to Jane's virtuous disobedience, the rebellion of Shays's men stems from their lack of virtue and self-discipline--their irrational expectation that political liberty would confer easy blessings, their lack of a work ethic, and their cowardice, as evidenced by their use of human shields, such as Lucy Willet's lover. Shays's Rebellion captures the national and political, not just feminist, implications of Sedgwick's subject. Sedgwick declares the insurrection "a stain upon the character of Massachusetts" (166), and it functions in the novel as an example of political dissent gone wrong, paralleling the domestic rebellion of the Wilson children.
Jane's nocturnal excursion with Crazy Bet frames the appearance in the novel of another kind of narrative: the traditional seduction tale. Jane's mission is to minister to a young woman, Mary Oakley, who has just given birth to the illegitimate son of David Wilson, Jane's dissolute stepbrother. Mary Oakley has been raised by doting grandparents unwilling to discipline their headstrong charge, thus rendering her unable to "govern her childish inclinations" or to resist the superficial charms of David Wilson (90). Like Rowson's Charlotte Temple and Foster's Eliza Wharton, Mary and her baby die, and Jane's ministrations are in vain. In the story of Mary Oakley's seduction, pregnancy, and death in childbirth, Sedgwick preserves the master narrative of daughterly disobedience in order to emphasize the distinction between Jane's restrained dissent and unwise emotional insurgency.
CHRISTIANITY AND THE "HABIT OF SELF-COMMAND"
By nature, Jane Elton is no rebel. When one character implores her to revolt, Jane replies, "It is my duty to subdue, not rouse my spirit" (73). Such restraint seems to accord with the submissiveness that scholars have seen as central to feminine virtue in this era (Clements; Westerkamp 134). Thus, one critic proclaims Jane's character "colorless precisely because she never acts decisively and meekly endures the false accusations of her enemies.... It is left for men such as Mr. Lloyd to combat actively the evil in the world" (Foster 49). But the rhetoric of battle misidentifies Jane's mission. For Sedgwick, reason and self-control--not the spirit of rebellion--inform virtuous and Christian disobedience. Jane thus bears little resemblance to the famous first female dissenter in American history, Anne Hutchinson, and the antinomianism that she represented for early nineteenth-century Americans (Lang 3, 112-14). In keeping with the pacifism of the Quaker tradition that she eventually adopts, Jane has none of the rancor and "roused spirit" that "active combat" demands. Her selective disobedience has no interest in vanquishing the authority of Mrs. Wilson, to whom she remains loyal as her conscience permits. For Sedgwick, confronting evil requires a dedicated self-discipline that critics have misread as passivity.
Jane's self-restraint contrasts in fact with the feminine passivity modeled by her mother, a woman who, though gentle and benevolent, "could not oppose a strong current" (10). Significantly, the novel attributes the ruin and death of the Eltons as much to the "habitual passiveness" of Jane's mother, who lacks "the energy to avert an evil," as to the rashness of her spendthrift father (10). Mrs. Elton's inactivity extends into her mental life. She has married Jane's father "without much consideration" (9), and she is plagued by a depression of which she "never investigated, certainly never exposed the cause" (10). Sedgwick intends this meek and unthinking endurance of the wrongs of the world as an indictment of female acquiescence to husbandly authority.
Jane shares neither in Mrs. Elton's abstracted passivity nor in her irrationalism. Instead, she takes as her model the more active, spirited example of Mary Hull, the Methodist nursemaid who preaches an Arminian gospel of good works and perfectibility of the soul, in direct opposition to the Calvinist teachings of predestination and innate depravity. For Sedgwick, passivity and irrationalism do not represent inherently feminine attributes, but rather moral failings irrespective of gender; we see as much in the surpassing irrationality of such male characters as Mr. Elton, with his "unreasonable" temper and compulsive speculating habits (24), or David Wilson, who lands in jail after committing robbery to finance his escalating gambling activities.
For Sedgwick, submission to the "requisitions and restraints" of Christianity forms the basis of virtue for men and women alike (122). Sedgwick's emphasis on the universal applicability of these restraints indicates her distance from antinomianism. Jane's piety manifests itself in her "habit of self-command" (24), but also in her prolific practice of good works: nursing the sick, tending the dying, and befriending marginalized figures such as Crazy Bet and John of the Mountain. Obedience to God, the "Parent of the universe" (108), is for Sedgwick the hallmark of virtue and the sole obedience not subject to contingency. Scholars have argued that such an understanding of religious faith reinforces feminine passivity. For the antebellum woman, one critic writes, "submissiveness and piety were inextricably intertwined, for piety required submission, indeed, complete self-effacement, if not to men, then to God" (Clements xxii). (2) Yet the very act of defining submission to God, particularly in an era of such flux and diversity in Christian expression, is one that Sedgwick associates with individual autonomy. Paradoxically, it requires freedom of conscience for an individual to grasp the "requisitions and restraints" that, for this author, are central to true Christianity.
Christlike, Jane pays reparations for the sins of her misguided elders, and she makes redemption available through her defiance of their teachings. Her response to the appearance at the Wilson doorstep of Polly Harris, a former servant from the Elton household and now a destitute mother of three "little ragged children" (62), offers a case in point. When Polly asks Mrs. Wilson to make good on a debt of one hundred dollars in wages owed to her by Mr. Elton, the miserly Mrs. Wilson tosses Polly a "reluctant ninepence" (65). Jane reacts with the "keenest anguish" at the suffering her father and Mrs. Wilson have caused, and she resolves to make "reparation of her father's injustice" (66). Coincidentally, Jane has just raised the sum of one hundred dollars by selling her mother's finery in order to secure her own position in the village seminary. This hundred dollars is for Jane the "price of liberty and the means of independence" (66), but she gives Polly the money, asking in return only Polly's future silence about her father's failure to honor his debts. Jane's atonement for the sins of her father and aunt illustrate the power and responsibility the daughter-heroine wields in managing affairs, both earthly and of the soul, for her morally handicapped elders.
Sedgwick's concern with virtuous dissent was personal as well as political. Reared in the local Congregational Church where the minister, "stern as an old Israelite in his faith," was a regular visitor to her father's household, Sedgwick became a convert to the Unitarian church in 1821, just months prior to her publication of A New England Tale (Brooks 170). Sedgwick's conversion was not without "anxiety and pain," as she wrote to her sister, and not without censure from her family, including one staunchly Calvinist aunt who wrote to her niece, "Come to see me as often as you can, my dear, for you know, after this world we shall never meet again" (Brooks 171). Sedgwick's beloved father had also been won over to the Unitarians shortly before his death in 1813. With her portrait of virtuous dissent in A New England Tale, Sedgwick justifies her own dissent and that of her father from the Puritanism of their forebears.
In the denouement of A New England Tale, Jane wins her independence from Mrs. Wilson through her employment as a teacher before she marries Mr. Lloyd and gives up her work, an outcome that for one critic is "the plot's general confirmation of patriarchal gender codes" (Clements xxii). But while Jane does relinquish her vocation and her hard-won financial autonomy, her marriage, in keeping with a Quaker emphasis on equality of men and women, is not a hierarchical relationship of subservience (Bacon 56). Jane admits submissiveness to God alone. The novel manages to skirt the difficulty of authority in marriage by suggesting the improbability that Jane and Mr. Lloyd will ever find themselves in moral disagreement. He, too, subscribes to a liberal Protestantism that places a supreme value on Christian charity, and if we are to judge him by his works, we can be assured of Lloyd's enduring virtue.
Sedgwick's laudatory portrayal of Jane's disobedience to her aunt and dissent from orthodox Calvinism presents us with a more nuanced treatment of gender and rebellion than critics have understood. Readers have construed the "predominant values" of the novel to be "obedience to legitimate external authority, female passivity, and self-denial" (Harris 59), but Sedgwick posits obedience as a virtue only when authority conforms to a Christian morality predicated upon freedom of conscience. The exercise of true Christianity, for Sedgwick, demands action of mind and body. In Jane's calm reasoning, her dedication to Christian charity, her decorum, and her good judgment, Sedgwick gives a portrait of a virtuous dissent that embraces individualist expression--such as that represented by Crazy Bet--while paying homage to elders, even as they misguidedly persist in unchristian behavior. In her youth and her calm competence, Jane represents the promise of a new nation as it refashions its colonial and Calvinist legacy into a future of benevolent piety, toleration, and order.
"MY HEART YEARNS FOR ENGLAND": HOBOMOK
Born in 1802, thirteen years junior to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child expands upon the paradigm of the dutiful-but-disobedient daughter in her first published writing, the novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times by an American, printed anonymously in 1824 when Child was just twenty-two years old. Set in seventeenth-century New England, Hobomok retells the story of America's founding as an English Puritan society. The novel features a heroine who, like Jane Elton, represents piety and refinement and who stands at odds with the bellicosity, coarseness, and religious benightedness of her Puritan father. But while Child's heroine also blends the demands of Emersonian individualism with a measure of Websterian conservatism, she operates less as a model of comportment than as a catalyst for progressivism in American history. Although Hobomok defies many racial and gender norms, the novel simultaneously reflects Child's dedication to an ideology of refinement that upheld the values of high culture: erudition, politeness, decorum, and aestheticism. In Hobomok, she expresses this preference for refinement through an Anglophilia that pervades the novel even as it seeks to create a new mythology of American origins as a "tale of early times."
Child paradoxically expands upon Sedgwick's paradigm of the virtuous-but-disobedient daughter when she envisions the wedding of her cultivated heroine to a Native American, a move unprecedented in the history of the American novel. Although Child would pursue a life-long career advocating the rights of African Americans and Native Americans, and though she emphatically denounced racial prejudice in her many writings on blacks and Indians, the novel presents Mary Conant's interracial marriage as a social transgression at the outer margins of female filial disobedience. Many readers were shocked by what they considered the indecorousness of Child's representation of interracial marriage. But Child's success in rendering Mary as a character of virtue and sophistication despite her marital waywardness is borne out by the acclaim and acceptance the novel earned its young author within the elite literary circles of New England.
Like Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child herself was a dissenter from the orthodox Calvinism of her father, Convers Francis, a hard-working baker of Medford, Massachusetts (Karcher, First Woman 2-9; Clifford 5-19). Despite her father's certainty that she would "have to burn hereafter" for her heterodoxy (Karcher, First Woman 8), Child rejected the stern religion of her father for a Protestantism rooted in a belief in the universal availability of God's love and salvation. (3) In 1821, when she was just nineteen years old, Child had herself rebaptized "Maria" in the liberal First Parish of Medford and thereafter preferred to be known by her baptismal name. Religious conviction and choice enabled Child to claim the power of self-determination, to rewrite her identity as she embarked on her literary and political career. Whereas her father discouraged the education of his son and deemed even less worthy the literary proclivities of his daughter, Child devoted herself at an early age to reading and study, devouring works by Homer, Milton, Scott, Kant, Locke, and Swedenborg (Karcher, Introduction x; Osborne 20). With this literary grounding, Child ambitiously undertook the writing of Hobomok as an American historical romance, a novel among the very first of its genre (Beach 80).
The mission of the historical romance is, as Nina Baym has put it, "to participate in the patriotic work of establishing and affirming national origins, characters, and values" (155). Child's novel partakes in the founding of a genre in which parental figures are freighted with the symbolic baggage of American religious history. Calvinist elders, who are characteristically narrow-minded, unaffectionate, and bigoted in such narratives, represent a benighted past that must make way for the liberal Christianity championed by daughters representative of the future (Bell 151, 159-73). Hobomok elucidates a progressive transformation of America from its unrefined and unenlightened Calvinist origins to a glorious present in which it models the Enlightenment values of reason, order, and toleration, as well as good manners and taste, the staples of polite culture.
Child's vision of national historical progress evinces itself in the opening of the novel, which pictures the "thriving villages of New England, which speak so forcibly to the heart, of happiness and prosperity" (5). These stand out against the hardscrabble scenes of early settlement: "[T]he remembrance of what we have been, comes rushing on the heart in powerful and happy contrast [to the present].... [T]he cold dew of our chilling dawn is still visible beneath the mid-day sun" (5). Central to Child's vision of national progress is the refinement of Mary, who confers on the New World both a conservative erudition and a tolerant liberalism. As a "tale of early times by an American," Child's novel exemplifies what Jonathan Arac calls "national narrative." "From the standpoint of America's present existence as an independent union," Arac writes, "national narrative told the story of the nation's colonial beginnings and looked forward to its future as a model for the world" (608). In her version of national narrative, Child shifts focus away from the patriarchal Puritanism of the New England forefathers, to whom history usually accredits the founding of America, and onto the figure of the culturally refined but disobedient daughter as the basis for present-day life. Critics have noted the inculcation of refinement in America as a central function of Child's heroine (Baym 156), but Hobomok also tells the story of the Americanization of its English heroine through rebellion, violence, isolation, and suffering. Mary's New World experience--epitomized by her marriage to a Native American--transforms her aristocratic bearing into qualities of humility, simplicity, and an abiding regard for the beauty and spiritual power of nature. As a national narrative, Hobomok portrays an America whose founding codifies these qualities as endemic to the national character.
In her heroine Mary Conant, Child created a character that reflected her personal experience. The dissenting daughter of a fanatical Calvinist, Mary finds solace in the practice of a religion abhorrent to her father. The refinement and learnedness of Mary, whose descent from an English earl on her mother's side establishes her credentials as a woman of "quality," reflect Child's own social proclivities. Mary's love of English culture, its arts and letters, its aristocracy, and its deep-rooted sense of tradition corresponds with Child's yearning for cultural erudition in the face of her father's denunciation of such niceties as a detraction from the industriousness that centered his own life.
Yet while the novel esteems its dissenting heroine, it also reveals Child's unease with the very idea of rebellion, which, like Sedgwick, Child associates with pride, vengefulness, and unreason. Despite Child's bold expansion on the paradigm of the disobedient daughter, the novel's trepidations for the propriety of radical dissent reflect the author's struggle to reconcile the notion of rebellion with personal and religious virtue. The legacies of Puritanism and Revolution continued to pose conundrums for Child personally and for the nation at large as it grappled with the meaning of an inherited tradition of dissent. Hobomok illustrates the degree to which Child was forced to wrestle with the idea of rebellion before she could embark on her career as a reformer.
Child initially mitigates the problem of rebellion in her novel by casting her heroine not as a rebel, but as the representative of an older and wiser order that has been shunted aside by Mary's Puritan father, a bitter critic of English religion, tradition, and culture. Mary Conant is the "youngest little blooming fairy" of fictionalized Puritan Roger Conant (8), a rigid Calvinist and pioneering settler of Salem in 1629. Stern authoritarianism characterizes Conant's relationship with his daughter, who grows ever more defiant of his rule. Mary's continued allegiance to the Church of England, that "whorish woman of Babylon" as Roger Conant calls it (95), forms the basis of his daughter's filial disobedience. Mary also allies herself with her debonair suitor Charles Brown, himself a loyalist for whom "the crown and the mitre [are] interwoven with every association of his heart" (46). With an eye toward forestalling their marriage, Roger Conant forbids his daughter to see the young Anglican and is instrumental in having Brown expelled from the colony for his efforts to establish the Anglican Church in its midst.
Pining with homesickness for the "lordly palaces and blooming gardens of good old England" (48), Mary is an envoy of conservatism in the New World. "I'm weary of this wilderness life," she declares; "My heart yearns for England" (19). With her "high birth and delicate education" as the granddaughter of a moneyed earl (36), Mary longs for all that Europe offers: art, grandeur, gentility, aestheticism, social order--in short, civilization itself. Mary mourns not merely luxury, but the intellectual stimulation that high culture affords. "During her stay at her grandfather's," Child writes of Mary's English days, "she had become familiar with much that was beautiful in painting, and lovely in sculpture, as well as all that was elegant in the poetry of that early period; and their rich outline was deeply impressed upon her young heart" (47). In the delicacy of her manners, Mary epitomizes gracious civility amid the uncouthness of Salem. One can sense Child's admiration for the erudition of the Old World, as well as her discontent with the enduring cultural coarseness of America, a roughness embodied by her own father. Child, who was relocated from coastal Massachusetts to the frontiers of Maine at the age of twelve following the death of her mother, had herself experienced the loneliness of being well-read and culturally ambitious in a land with little use for literary women. Her novel seeks to render high culture as rightly American while also adapting it, in the character of Mary, to the rugged exigencies of American life.
Mary Conant's aristocratic stature both amplifies her sense of filial obligation and endows her with a moral authority that serves as the basis for her independence. Universally accepted among the novel's characters is the moral superiority afforded by Mary's gentility: "[E]ven the rough sailors ... softened their rude tones of voice, and paid to gentleness and beauty the involuntary tribute of respect" (9). Mary inherits this gentility from her mother and thus occupies a socially difficult position above her own father, whose rude manners attest to his lack of breeding--the outward sign of his underlying lack of virtue. Mary's ongoing devotion to the Church of England also demonstrates her allegiance to high culture. Her defiance of her father's Calvinism is, in this light, not rebellion at all, but a form of conservatism that would preserve the religious and cultural traditions that her father has so bitterly denounced.
In Hobomok, Child demonstrates both a progressive view of history and a nostalgia for better times. Symbolizing this ambivalence is the Church of England itself; as the "first-born daughter of [the church of] Rome" (70), it can lay claim to both independent progress and apostolic tradition. It is a church, as Mary's suitor Charles Brown declares, "descended in a direct line from Jesus Christ and his Apostles, a church at the feet of which the most sacred and virtuous Elizabeth bowed down her majestic head" (70). Figured as a righteous dissenting daughter, the Church of England boasts continuity with the primitive church and generational advancement away from the "long, long ages of gloom and corruption" presided over by the Church of Rome (6). The descended and dissenting daughter in this formulation is both a force of conservatism, preserving the heart of the Church in its apostolic purity, and a force of progress and reform.
Mary Conant carries this dual symbolic weight of tradition and reform as the heroine of Child's American genesis myth. Her Anglican piety and erudition ill equip her for life on the rugged shores of America. Despite Child's admiration for Old World values and her hostility to the moral and cultural coarseness of Puritanism, the novel rejects Anglicanism and aristocracy as suitable to America. Symbolic of the shortcomings of Anglicanism in Child's vision is an ornate volume of the Book of Common Prayer that Mary receives from Charles Brown. The prayer book is "bound in the utmost elegance of the times ... ornamented with gold clasps, richly chased; the one representing the head of king Charles, the other the handsome features of his French queen; and the inside of both adorned with the arms of England" (103). In its garishness and idolatry, Mary's ornate book of prayer suggests the incongruity of English high culture in a rustic American setting where the beauty of nature is a more fitting standard of aestheticism. Child winks at her reader by placing the "heads" of the doomed royals on the clasps. The dead monarchy that the clasps represent attests to the obsolescence of English social order in the flow of progress that Hobomok as a historical romance purports to represent.
Although some critics have sought to identify nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism as the sentimental offspring of a more rigorously intellectual seventeenth-century Puritan tradition (Douglas; Welter), Hobomok, like A New England Tale before it, critiques Calvinism for its perceived lack of logic, hypocrisy, and intellectual dishonesty. (4) Itself a religion of rebellion in Child's formulation, Calvinism promotes a variety of anti-social behaviors, including filial impiety, disputatiousness, and intolerance. Theological debate, a "wild war of words" (57), becomes a perpetual source of conflict for Child's Puritans. For Roger Conant, even conversion is a matter of rebelliousness:</p> <pre> Frustrated in his plans, thwarted by his rivals, misanthropy and gloom sunk deep down into the soul of the disappointed man. It was then the spirit of God moved on the dark, troubled waters of his mind. The stream of life gushed from the fountain within him; but it received
the tinge of the dark, turbid soil, through which it passed; and its clear, silent course became noisy amid the eddies of human pride. One by one all the associations connected with the religion of his
fathers, were rent away, till kneeling became an abomination, and the prayers of his church a loathing. (8) </pre> <p>In rejecting the "abomination" of kneeling, Conant spurns deference to the tradition, religion, and hierarchical order of English society.
Child casts the origins of New England Puritanism as a family narrative; the Puritans arrive at their disgust for Anglican practices not through reasoned examination of the faults of Anglicanism but through personal adversity exercised through religious dissent. Hypocrisy, disputatiousness, a refusal to engage in reasoned discourse, and a predilection for seeking revenge via the church are fundamental behaviors for the Puritans of Hobomok. For all their theological arguments, these Puritans act in ways that a nineteenth-century New England audience would understand as un-Christian, irrational, and unenlightened.
The rejection of authority and tradition intrinsic to Conant's abomination of kneeling signifies less a righteous defiance of arbitrary power than a self-indulgent rending of the social order. Child rejects the perspective of earlier generations of Americans who lionized the Puritan founders, often perceiving their separation from England as a type of the American Revolution. John Adams exemplifies such filial piety in his writing of the Puritan founders that "it was a love of universal Liberty and an hatred, a dread, an horror, of the infernal confederacy [of temporal and spiritual tyranny] that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America" (113-14). For Child, America's forefathers tend not toward progress, but degeneration, as illustrated in her description of the physical appearance of the settlers: "[T]here were but one or two who seemed like Englishmen. The remainder, sickly and half starved, presented a pitiful contrast to the vigorous and wondering savages who stood among them" (8). The contrast is all the more evocative in light of perceptions that the "savages" were themselves a degenerated race. (5) Even Mary's mother, who had once "sparkled awhile in the Court of king James" (8), is now reduced to "decaying elegance" (16). The thriving villages of present-day New England with which Child opens her novel cannot attribute their prosperity to the efforts of such sickly, half-starved, disputatious settlers. Child's historical romance debunks the traditional myth of origins in which patriarchal religious leaders plant the seeds of American can-do willingness, independence, and prosperity.
Americanization thus far in the novel means degeneration, and the survival of reason, order, and justice in the colony rests in doubt. The fate of Mary's refined and enlightened mother, who dies of consumption along with the elegant Lady Arabella, portends the death of moral grace in the colony. Mary, too, senses her own impending doom, telling Hobomok, "I shall soon be in my own grave" (121). Instead of yielding to such a fate, though, Mary strikes an alternative course by proposing marriage to her Wampanoag friend (121). In her marriage to Hobomok, Mary is haunted by thoughts of her lost love Charles Brown, but she finds her life as Hobomok's bride a liberating contrast to the cold repressiveness of her father's household. Child even notes that a "romantic fervor" joins Mary's "increasing affection" for Hobomok (136), who proves an exemplary husband and father when Mary bears him a son, "Little Hobomok." Defying her father's directives to consider the marriage extralegal and thereby not binding, Mary undergoes a transformation through marriage and motherhood that finally reconciles and fits her for life in America. With the birth of Little Hobomok, Mary's homesickness for England disappears. "[L]ost and degraded" as far as white society is concerned (135), Mary finds that England, Anglicanism, and aristocratic gentility all lose their centrality to her life, replaced by the emotional and spiritual fulfillment of familial affection.
Mary's alliance with Hobomok also plays a critical role in the development of an American religious alternative to Puritanism and Anglicanism. An inkling of such an alternative appears in the philosophy of Mary's mother, who prefigures the break of liberal Protestantism with its Calvinist roots when she declares,</p> <pre> "I have lately thought that a humble heart was more than a strong mind, in perceiving the things appertaining to divine truth. Matters of dispute appear more and more like a vapor which passeth away. I have seldom joined in them; for it appears to me there is little good in being convinced, if we are not humbled; to know every thing about religion, and yet to feel little of its power." (76) </pre> <p>The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker would strike a similar note in 1841 when he proclaimed, "[I]f we are faithful, the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable" (267). (6) In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached to the Unitarian Harvard Divinity School about "the eternal revelation in the heart" and railed against institutional Christianity as an "exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual" (106). Mrs. Conant declares creation to be "God's library--the first Bible he ever wrote" (76), anticipating the Transcendentalist conviction of nature as revelation and pointing to the ideological site of her daughter's salvation.
Mrs. Conant's belief in the power of the individual to perceive the "great truths" through intuition accords with the Unitarian faith in the intrinsic rationality of the soul. In the words of Theodore Parker,</p> <pre> Christianity is a simple thing, very simple. It is absolute, pure morality; absolute pure religion--the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance. The only creed it lays down is the great truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart,--there is a God. Its watchword is, Be perfect as your Father in heaven. The only form it demands is a divine life,--doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives; perfect obedience to the great law of God. Its sanction is the voice of God in your heart. (277) </pre> <p>For antebellum Unitarians, Christianity, "the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God" (267), is the apprehension of "an immutable truth" available to all (270), not just an elect few. For Mrs. Conant, as for Lydia Maria Child, a religion of the heart need not come at the expense of reason.
If Mrs. Conant preaches the liberal Protestant doctrine, Hobomok illustrates its application. While Hobomok outwardly adheres to the native religion of his people, Child also presents him as a man who, as Emerson put it, "learns from nature the lesson of worship" ("Nature" 49). "[U]nwarped by the artifices of civilized life" (121), Hobomok, like Parker and Emerson, finds revelation not in the abstruse theologies of Calvinism nor in the elaborate ritual of Anglicanism, but in nature and unfettered intuition. Hobomok does not literally profess Christianity, but in a description that is remarkable for its anticipation of Parker's words on the voice of God in the heart, Child shows Hobomok to have apprehended the "great truths": "[T]here was within [Hobomok] a voice loud and distinct, which spoke to him of another world where he should think, feel, love, even as he did now. He had never read of God, but he had heard his chariot wheels in the distant thunder, and seen his drapery in the clouds" (34). With his capacity to discern the presence of the divine in nature, Hobomok exhibits far more Christian virtue than the professed Christians around him. He selflessly acts on behalf of others, providing the settlers game and protecting them from attack by hostile natives. When the Governor of the colony declares, "[H]ow wonderfully we have been saved" by Hobomok (42), his words attest to Hobomok's "likeness to God," to borrow the title of William Ellery Channing's essay.
Hobomok evolves into such an exemplar of Christian virtue that for Child's characters--and some readers--he no longer plausibly resembles a Native American. Mary's friend Sally Oldham asserts, "I always thought he was the best Indian I ever knew ... and within these three years he has altered so much, that he seems almost like an Englishman" (137). Critics have likewise declared that Child essentially renders Hobomok a white man (Arch 111; Osborne 50). But the Anglicization of Hobomok is just as essential to the resolution of Child's novel as the Americanization of Mary. In melding the plain, rugged, natureoriented life of an Indian with the Christian virtue of an Englishman, the character of Hobomok proffers an American religious alternative to the conflicting ideologies represented by Puritanism and Anglicanism. As Hobomok's bride, Mary embraces his uniquely American perspective, giving homage to nature and religion while eschewing the pomp of Anglicanism and the disputatiousness of Calvinism.
Mary is restored to white society when Brown returns three years later, not drowned at sea as had been reported, to claim her as his bride. Despite the love shared by Mary, Hobomok, and their son, the Wampanoag chief sacrificially sets out for the West to make way for his white rival--a resolution that indicates Child's inability to incorporate a Native American presence in the white society the ending of her novel constructs. As a disobedient daughter, Mary's redemption and restoration are inextricably bound with the martyrdom of the Native American; "almost an Englishman" as he may be, Hobomok represents the wild and untamable in America, and Child banishes him to make way for the erudite, enlightened, and European-like society that Mary and Charles Brown together establish in the New World.
Mary's father, in his joy at being reunited with his daughter, repents of his former disputatiousness and lives out his days in peace with the married couple. The radical racial heterodoxy of Mary's former marriage drives home for Roger Conant his racial commonality with Charles Brown. While Child may be able to envision Hobomok as a Christian in the purest sense, racial difference exposes theological difference for its comparative insignificance in the novel. With the convenient disappearance of Hobomok and the fortuitous return of Brown, the intractable religious disputes of the earlier part of the novel fade away. No further mention is made of Brown's earlier uncompromising Anglicanism, but the novel suggests that Brown's three-year exile--in which he has been held captive off the coast of Africa--has a transformative effect upon him similar to that of Mary's interracial marriage. Mary and Charles have both been exiled from their familial communities into a world dominated by a racial other. In the shared experience of suffering and deprivation, Mary and Charles find the seeds of a new bond that, while diminishing their erudition, prompts them to value toleration and family affection above all else.
Child pins the final redemption of her disobedient daughter-heroine on the transfiguration of Little Hobomok into an educated English heir. The interracial child represents the synthesis of his English, Native, and Puritan heritages, as the composition of his full name, Charles Hobomok Conant, suggests. Yet the racial distinctiveness of the child eventually disappears, a point made clear in the gradual evolution of his name into Charles Conant. With the benefit of the legacy of the now-deceased Earl of Rivers, Little Hobomok/Charles Conant journeys to England, where he becomes a distinguished Cambridge scholar. Child breezes over the taboo of his interracial parentage by whitening the half-Indian child. This erasure of Little Hobomok's Indian identity attests even more strongly than his father's exile to Child's inability at the age of twenty-two to envision an America of racial heterogeneity.
Mary's interracial marriage has been a primary focus of critical evaluation of the novel since its publication. While one reviewer in 1824 described this aspect of the novel as "revolting ... to every feeling of delicacy in man or woman" ("Hobomok"), some twentieth-century critics have professed the marriage to be an early feminist challenge to racial homogeny and hegemony (Derounian-Stodola 111-12; Karcher, Introduction; Petitjean). (7) In this analysis, Carolyn L. Karcher argues, "Child's radical revision of patriarchal script" culminates in the "overthrow" of patriarchal authority (Introduction xxxi). (8) Such paeans have now largely given way to a critique that, in the words of Judith Fetterley, "implicates [antebellum women] writers and their texts in a variety of nineteenth-century racist, classist, and imperialist projects" (492). The works of Child, Sedgwick, and other early nineteenth-century American women writers are now routinely charged with reinforcing white male privilege (Harris; Arch; Tawil).
This recent criticism has offered important corrective to the sometimes overly exuberant analyses of earlier scholars, yet this insistent focus on the power--or failure--of the antebellum novel to resist patriarchal hegemony obscures the meaning and function of the rebellious heroine as rendered by Sedgwick and Child. Critical attention to Hobomok has overlooked the more fundamental questions the novel raises about the virtue of any manner of dissent, a discussion necessarily antecedent to the propriety of dissenting against white, patriarchal authority in particular. Child casts rebellion per se as an irrational and indecorous failure to exercise self-restraint. What exonerates Mary's defiance of her father in her earlier devotion to Anglicanism is both its conservatism and its recourse to the early nineteenth-century American regard for freedom of conscience.
By marrying an Indian, however, Mary defies not only her father's rule but also traditional standards of white feminine propriety--a transgression that requires the intervention of Brown and the eradication of her nonwhite husband in order for Mary and the future of the nation she represents to be restored. Mary's rebelliousness in wedding Hobomok replicates the rebelliousness of her father; only in a "bewilderment of despair that almost amounted to insanity" does Mary offer her hand to the Wampanoag (120). But Child chooses not to eliminate Mary in the end as Rowson and Foster do their heroines. Mary's transgression, radical as it is, contrasts with that of seduced daughters in its adherence to standard law. Although she thinks of herself as "lost and degraded" (135), Mary never truly forfeits her honor; she weds Hobomok according to the laws and customs of his society. Like Jane, Mary is no antinomian, which she proves in the traditional domestic role she assumes as Hobomok's wife. Child's trepidations for the propriety of rebellion render her unwilling to laud Mary's flouting of racial prejudices or to uphold Mary as the model that Sedgwick makes of Jane Elton, yet neither is Child willing to punish her bold heroine.
In writing Hobomok as a historical romance, Child seeks both to delineate the American character and to illustrate the consequences of proscribing religious dissent and personal autonomy to the daughter-figure. Because Mary at the outset is permitted neither the religious choice of Anglicanism nor the self-direction implicit to selection of a husband, she resorts first to clandestine dissent and then to interracial marriage, each choice more radical and dangerous than the last. Without the legitimization of self-agency, the daughter possesses the power to disobey societal and parental stricture in a manner potentially deleterious to herself and the larger community. By wedding a Native American, Mary, as a symbol of the nation, puts in jeopardy the future of a white Anglo-America possessing the refinement and liberal values that Mary's marriage to Brown installs as prototype of American destiny. The denouement rests on Brown's capacity to accept Mary's history as an Indian bride, just as Child would have her reader accept the former presence of the Indian as an integral element of American legacy. In Hobomok, daughterly disobedience, when exercised for the conservative agenda of establishing polite culture, serves as a model for virtuous dissent, much as it does in A New England Tale. When Mary's disobedience extends into the more radical behavior of marrying a Native American, this rebellion differs significantly from her father's in its recourse to love, not antipathy for others. Still, Child's skepticism for rebellion leaves her wary of fully sanctioning Mary's actions and the racial integration they symbolize. Child hinges the progressive outcome of her historical romance upon the daughter's more radical rebellion, presenting it not as a prescription for individual or national comportment, but as a re-alignment of the narrative of female filial rebellion. Mary's renewal coincides with a national narrative also featuring transgression and rebellion and in need of a denouement of reconciliation and restoration.
Whether disobedience can be justified by the wayward application of authority or by the virtue and self-discipline of the rebel are central questions of the novels of Sedgwick and Child--indeed of many early nineteenth-century American novels. The disobedient daughters of Hobomok and A New England Tale find sanction for their dissent in their moral, religious, and intellectual refinement. Educated and rational, Jane Elton and Mary Conant symbolize national progressiveness over the elders whose tyranny, zealotry, superstition, and coarseness signal the obsolescence of their ideologies. Through the disobedient daughter, both Sedgwick and Child seek to establish the ascendancy of Enlightenment values and polite culture as endemic to the American character. The wariness that both writers exhibit toward rebellion and antinomianism render the disobedient daughter the perfect symbol for dissent performed under the constraints of religion and reason. Skeptical of unbounded filial obligation, yet steadfast in their belief in the individual's duty to society, Sedgwick and Child establish a new paradigm in which the pious daughter strikes a delicate balance between reckless rebellion and passivity to tradition.
1. Hudson argues that the voluntary principle in religion had become the "axiom of all Americans" by 1830 (27-41).
2. Harris remarks that Jane "is the image of the good woman, able to discriminate between just and unjust authorities and willing to follow the rule of righteousness"; nevertheless, "obedience to external authority is still that rule" (58).
3. Child to Lucy Osgood, quoted in Karcher, First Woman (8).
4. Dissenters from the Douglas perspective include Philip Gould, whose essay, "Revisiting the 'Feminization' of American Culture," reviews Douglas's argument and its detractors.
5. Thomas Jefferson spends many pages in his Notes on the State of Virginia refuting this notion.
6. Parker and Child became acquainted in the 1830s through Child's brother Convers Francis (Clifford 185).
7. Other critics have taken Child to task for the perceived implausibility of the marriage. Osborne calls the union "incredible," adding, "Nor does any trait in Mary's character suggest the possibility of such a marriage" (49).
8. Petitjean similarly writes, "Despite her use of the supernatural and preordination to soften the basis for the mixed marriage of a strong female character to a member of another race and religion, Child anticipates feminism and the multicultural notion of society that America would slowly, but eventually, begin to accept" (146).
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NANCY F. SWEET
California State University, Sacramento
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|Author:||Sweet, Nancy F.|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2005|
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