Where did American Women Writers Lurk?

October 1, 2014

Austen eventually eclipsed her American counterparts, partially because of her great talent, partially because dialogues and epistolary fiction were diminishing in popularity, and partially because Columbia underwent a far more radical transformation than Britannia between the 1790s and 1820s. Women gained greater access to subjects for study that had formerly been off limits. British writer Jane Marcet, née Haldimand, (1769-1858) began to write “conversations” on chemistry, botany, religion, and economics in 1806 and they remained popular textbooks in the United States until the 1850s. American-born proponent for women’s education Emma Willard (1787-1870) began writing books about American history and geography in the 1820s that would greatly expand feminine consciousness relative to national and world conversations for generations. Austen would have related to Willard’s educational philosophy in which mothers taught children to think about current events, geography and history personal own knowledge: Each individual is to himself the centre of his own world; and the more

Intimately he connects his knowledge to himself, the better will it be remembered, the more effectual can it be rendered in after life subservient to his purposes. Hence in geography, he should begin with his own place extending from thence to his country, and to the world (Willard 1828, xiv).

The American Sunday-School Union (A.S.S.U.) was established in Carey’s hometown of Philadelphia in 1817 as a coalition of local Protestant Sunday-school groups. Denominational Sunday schools familiar today superseded the ecumenical A.S.S.U. (Reinier 1996: 121). The A.S.S.U.’s goal beyond establishing Sunday-schools was to provide communities with libraries and reading materials for moral instruction. This non-sectarian organization was a pioneering powerhouse in developing book distribution networks throughout America. Indeed, the A.S.S.U. provided the educational materials and training to children and adults on the frontier – carrying on Carey and Weems’ mission to transmit a shared national identity and values into the rural South (Reinier 1996: 178).

The A.S.S.U. deliberately set out to create indigenous popular literature in America. Writers from many denominations in a single generation produced quality literature so widely read that it caused a complete revolution in the reading habits and tastes of Americans. Authors including women contributing to the Union’s publications but were seldom credited unless the work was of a scientific nature. American in spirit and content, millions of books on health, history, travel, biography, science and fiction lessened the need for dialogues in America. Books were modestly priced to be affordable to most families and remained influential until the 1860s when public libraries began to provide easy access to more attractive literature.

Mathew Carey retired in 1824. His son Henry C. Carey (1793-1879) later served as Lincoln’s chief economic advisor along with his brother-in-law Isaac Lea continued the business as Carey & Lea. During the 1830s, the firm reintroduced Austen to a broader audience of American readers by publishing her major works as a series: Elizabeth Benet, or, Pride and Prejudice (1st American edition from the 3rd London edition, 1832), Mansfield Park (1832), Persuasion (1832), Sense and Sensibility (1833), Northanger Abbey (including a brief biography of Austen, 1833); and when the firm expanded as Carey, Lea & Blanchard a second American edition of Emma was published in 1833.



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

Willard, Emma. History of the United States, or Republic of America. New York: White, Gallaher & White, 1829.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: