Cousins Britannia and Columbia and the Evils of Novel Reading

September 22, 2014

British essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) first coined the term “Columbia” to represent the symbolic female personification of the American colony in a 1738 issue of Gentlemen’s Magazine. Johnson defined active as “that which acts, opposed to passive, or that which suffers (Johnson 1785: 1: ACT),” and he defined passive as, “receiving impression from some external agent (Johnson 1785: 2: PAS).”

In traditional fairy tales the male represented the active side of human nature, while the female represented human nature’s passive more receptive side (Meyer 1988: 73). American publishers during the early Republic were especially sensitive to the semantics of active and passive in promoting a strong new America, and American publications promoted feminine virtue as a tool for building nationalism. However, they remained in accord with earlier British essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele who warned of the deplorable effects of fashionable education on young women: “From this general folly of parents we owe our present numerous race of coquettes (Lasch 1997: 68 and Tise 1998: 362).” They suggested that raising daughters to be “artful” made them fair game for seducers, when parents should rear daughters to make them morally attractive as marriage partners for upwardly mobile young men.

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

While Jane Austen was in sync with the contemporary Anglo-American sensibility that young women should not have any exaggerated sense of self-worth, the dependency of her heroines upon reputation was too akin to the sense of dependency experienced by men in colonial America. The memory of economic and cultural dependency on the mother country lingered undermining national confidence. American women craved British literature during the 1790s because it did not mirror tumultuous conditions of contemporary life. American publishers in literary hubs including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Georgetown, and New Haven, drew upon the British female writers to attract new female readers. However, American publishers were slow to cultivate a sophisticated readership.

In England, as well as in the Colonies, an idle “novel reading” woman was seen not only as a burden to her family but also as a risk for becoming immoral. Reading was not a leisure activity for women in the new America. Within communities where there was very little individual privacy, one frivolous woman in a household could create scandal for the family patriarch resulting in hardship to the entire family since patronage more than inheritance influenced credit. Congregational clergyman Reverend Dr. Enos Hitchcock (1745-1803), in his epistolary novel Memoirs of the Bloomgrove Family, composed a series of letters to Martha Washington explaining how European educational systems were not applicable in the United States: “it is now time to become independent in our maxims, principles of education, dress, and manners, and we are in our laws and government (Hitchcock 1790: 15-7).”

 

Bibliography

Hitchcock, Enos. Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family: In a series of letters to a respectable citizen of Philadelphia. Containing sentiments on a mode of domestic education, suited to the present state of society, government, and manners, in the United States of America, and on the dignity and importance of the female character interspersed with a variety of interesting anecdotes. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1790.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.

Lasch, Christopher, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Women and the common life: love, marriage, and feminism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Meyer, Rudolf. The Wisdom of Fairy Tales. Edinburgh: Floris, 1988.

Tise, Larry E. The American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800. Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 1988.

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