Marketing a Female Ideal in a New America

September 24, 2014

Female industry would temper the steel of American democracy, which was still considered to be a political experiment; time and its prudent usage would be the means for a young America to steer a safe course. Politically connected and Irish-born, Mathew Carey (1760-1839) immigrated to Philadelphia and established a printing and publishing house with seed-money supplied by the Marquise de Lafayette (Leary 1984: 20). Carey was a founding member of the First Day Society, a secular Sunday school established in Philadelphia in 1790 promoting literacy education (Rainier 1996: 79). Carey hoped to cultivate a broad audience of female readers in the new America and published The Lady’s Pocket Library (1792) offering prescriptive advice on life and comportment. Carey published the first American edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1794 (Green 1985: 24). He published everything from romances to religious tracts, but recognized that the Word was the American bestseller. He earned his fortune and reputation by publishing the first American Catholic Bible and numerous editions of the King James Version of the Bible (Leary 1984: 79).

Carey also published the first bestselling novel in American. American-born Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) wrote Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth in the British style of the novel and it was England in 1790. In her introduction, Rowson wrote “I flatter myself, be of service to some who are so unfortunate as to have neither friends to advise, or understanding to direct them, through the variations and unexpected evils that attend a young and unprotected woman her first entrance into life (Rowson 2009: 7).” This cautionary tale described the seduction, and subsequent betrayal, of an unworldly boardinghouse student by a young British army officer. Betrayed first by a trusted teacher, she was lured across the Atlantic to America where her family could offer no guidance. Abandoned, pregnant, and destitute – Charlotte represented every parent’s worst nightmare – and she presented a warning to young women to avoid rakish men. After giving birth to a girl without assistance, Charlotte lost her senses (what Sarah Fielding referred to as “calm mind”), and tragically died alone.

Columbia was in the midst of her awkward youth. In 1812, Carey wrote Rowson, “Charlotte Temple is by far the most popular & in my opinion the most useful novel ever published in this country & probably not inferior to any published in England (Bradsher 1912: 50).” He continued, “… It may afford you great gratification to know that the sales of Charlotte Temple exceed those of any of the most celebrated novels that ever appeared in England. I think the number disposed of must far exceed 50,000 copies; & the sale still continues. There has lately been published an edition at Hartford, of as Fanning owned 5000 copies, as a chapbook – & I have an edition in press of 3000, which I shall sell at 50 or 62 ½ cents (Bradsher 1912: 50).”

Hannah Webster Foster (1759-1840) anonymously wrote the second best-selling American novel called The Coquette, or, The History of Eliza Wharton: A Novel Founded on Fact (1797), based loosely upon the life of poet Elizabeth Whitman (1752-1788) who rebelled against gender limitations in real life. This story presented an opposite extreme from Charlotte Temple by depicting a thirty-seven year old spinster who sought an egalitarian marriage in her youth. The Coquette, first published in Boston by S. Etheridge, described American locations like those in Charlotte Temple that became popular tourist destinations. Eliza rejects many suitors, only to choose the wrong man as a husband. In a tragic story of self-destruction, Eliza is a strong woman of independent means, who demonstrates undesirable characteristics and dies alone and friendless in childbirth. In the story, Eliza’s virtuous friend Lucy Sumner (happily immersed in a good marriage) advises: We are dependent beings; and while the smallest traces of virtuous sensibility remain, we must feel the force of that dependency in a greater or lesser degree. No female, whose mind is uncorrupted, can be indifferent to reputation. It is an inestimable jewel, the loss of which can never be repaired. While retained it affords conscious peace to our minds, and insures the esteem and respect of all around us (Foster & Locke 2009: 132).”

While Austen was beginning to draft her first novels in epistolary form, Columbia subverted her former mother country England with a natural beauty rather than the more flamboyant beauty established in the European courts. Industry was depicted as the feminine ideal in various religious, social, and political messages in order to develop Columbia’s character. While the United States won economic independence, America remained culturally dependent on England until the conclusion of War of 1812. Cosmopolitan Americans continued to read British books, order British products, and emulate English models of metropolitan behavior. Teaching literacy to the working class children spread throughout American communities shortly after it spread through British communities and expanded markets for literature.

Bibliography

Bradsher, Earl L. Mathew Carey, editor, author, and publisher: A Study in American Literary Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912.

Foster, Hannah Webster, and Jane E. Locke. The Coquette: the history of Eliza Wharton, a novel founded on fact by a lady of Massachusetts. [Charleston, N.C.]: BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Green, James N. Mathew Carey, Publisher and Patriot. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1985.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling parson: An account of the life and works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775-1850. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Rockville MD.: Serenity Publishers, 2009.

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