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Volume 1, May 1996

American Women Writers to 1800 (1996)

Sharon M. Harris, American Women Writers to 1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

In her introduction, Sharon Harris recalls having asked a professor in 1983 why there were only three women writers included in the Masters course on Early American Literature in which she was enrolled. His reply, she says, was that "very few women in colonial America were literate and thus we had only these rare literary works by women." She received the same response two years later when she asked another professor why there was only one woman writer in his Early American Literature course for doctoral students. American Women Writers to 1800 triumphantly confounds the assumption of the two professors.

It took Harris eight years to research, compile and edit the volume, during which time she studied the lives and works of nearly four hundred women. The result is an engaging and educative anthology of writing by women and girls - writing which in the majority of cases either has not been previously reprinted since its original publication, or has never been published before now.

When I began to read American Women Writers to 1800, I braced myself for a reading experience that would be worthy but dull. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the voices and concerns of these long-dead women still have a certain immediacy.

In 1635, the adolescent Mary Downinge writes from Boston to her father in England, to defend herself against her stepmother's accusation that she is frivolous and extravagant:

I writt to my mother for lace not out of any prodigall or proud mind but only for some crosscloathes, which is the most allowable and commendable dressinge here.

The journal of the 'spinster' Rebecca Dickinson, written in Massachusetts towards the end of the eighteenth century, reveals the conflict between her desire to achieve a state of Christian gratitude and her feelings of isolation and depression:

about Dusk on the Edge of the evining Set out to Come home to this lonely hous where I have lived forty nine years lonesome as Death.

In an essay first published in 1794, Judith Sargent Murray contemplates what we would now call the problem of low self: esteem, and the effects upon women's 'reverence for self' of an overvaluing of humility in female children:

I am, from observation, persuaded, that many have suffered materially all their life long, from a depression of soul, early inculcated, in compliance to a false maxim, which hath supposed pride would thereby be eradicated.

One of the earliest extant pieces of writing by an African-American slave is the letter which Judith Cocks writes to her master in Connecticut in 1795, begging him to release her from her indenture to a Georgia slaveholder who has mistreated her and her young son, Jupiter:

I have not ronged her nor her family the nabours advised me to rite you for the childs sake.

The anthology presents a diverse variety of genres: transcriptions of Native American stories, personal letters, petitions, poetry, drama, prose fiction, business correspondence, travel writing, captivity narratives, spiritual autobiography, historiography and essays. The editor's introductions to each section and each piece of writing reveal the depth and breadth of her historical and political knowledge, helpfully contextualising the works and acquainting the reader with facts of interest to any Americanist or feminist.

I had not known, for example, of the newspaper publisher Mary Katherine Goddard, who was the printer appointed by the Continental Congress to publish the first official printing of the Declaration of Independence and the first woman appointed to federal office, as the Baltimore postmistress. Harris has included Goddard's unsuccessful petition to the United States Senate, requesting assistance after she had been abruptly removed from the post office in 1789, in favour of a man. Nor was I familiar with the formidable Coosaponakessa ('Mary Musgrove'), a respected interpreter and intermediary for her own Creek people and the Georgia colonists in thc first halt of the eighteenth century.

Harris indicates that she resisted the temptation to include only strong feminist voices in the book, because she decided that both early American studies and feminist studies would be better served by a selection of texts which represented a range of ideological positions and circumstances. Her choice was judicious. American Writers to 1800 is a valuable contribution to the wider, ongoing feminist project of rediscovering lost or discounted female lives and voices.

 

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