“Early American Lit is really fun, though. There’s a lot of cross-dressing and crazy stuff going on with sexuality. Really.”
My friend Jay Jay said something like this to me about a year ago. Since then, she has remained adamant, and I have remained skeptical. Early American literature, with its devout religion and morality, has not been something I would describe as “fun.” I can appreciate it for what it is, but “fun” it is not—nor my cup of tea. However, with our last few readings, I have begun to see Jay Jay’s side a bit more clearly, although “fun” is still a word I am weary about using.
In particular, Mary Ann Talbot’s cross-dressing adventures in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, in the Name of John Taylor were extremely interesting. I enjoyed reading about transgressions of gender roles, but I hardly think Talbot’s life could be described as fun with experiences such as being “threatened to have me conveyed up the country, and sold as a slave” if she objected to enlisting as a drummer boy. The story does contain quite a bit of adventure and action, though, that is certainly more appealing to me as a reader than, say, a sermon. For example, Talbot describes one instance in which “[o]n reaching the jib-boom, I was under the necessity of lashing myself fast to it; for the ship every minute making a fresh lunge, without such a precaution I should inevitably have been washed away.” This reminded me a bit of some sections within Sarah Kemble Knight’s diary of her journey.
While Knight does not dress as a man or get shot in The Journal of Madam Knight, she does partake of adventure and eschews some of the stereotypes that we (or I) might think of early American women. For example, Knight writes about gathering her courage and “[k]nowing that I must either Venture my fate of drowning, or be left like ye Children in the wood.” I thought Knight’s journal contrasted nicely with the religious story of Elizabeth Ashbridge in Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge. While Ashbridge does tell a spiritual narrative of her salvation, she is also claiming the right to speak as a woman. As such, from these three readings, we can begin to see not only the deep religious convictions of most women (and men) of the period, but also the other nuances of their life. We are able to see how some women really set out to make life their own, encountering danger and adventure. While Knight and Talbot share adventure, Ashbridge and Knight share the all too common experience of being taken advantage of by those with more worldly knowledge and power. Ashbridge signs herself into indentured servitude, but this is in part out of ignorance, while Talbot is orphaned and taken advantage of by those who are supposed to be taking care of her as guardians. So, while these texts illustrate women fighting against gender roles in some ways, they also illustrate women whose experiences are very much shaped by their gender roles and other’s exploitation of them.
As I searched the internet briefly for information on Talbot, I was interested to see that her story has been highly contested. Some believe that much of the story was embellished or completely falsified. This reminded me of the fact that someone in class had asked whether we could corroborate the facts of Elizabeth Ashbridge’s story. This led me to one burning question: Does it matter? It certainly matters for historians, and I think, of course, it matters, to some extent, if we present a text as true when it is not. However, does it matter if Talbot’s story is largely fictional? If her writing is fiction, a novel of sorts, do we dismiss it? As literary scholars, I think not. But how does it change our reading of the text if we view it in this light? We may not be able to consider Talbot as an example of something a woman did at the time, but is it not still important that she even imagined it? Furthermore, if she told this story (and it was fake), doesn’t that imply that she had some reason to believe people would find it plausible? In other words, had Talbot heard similar stories? Were stories like hers circulating at the time? If not, and if was a lie, what made people desirous to read the story and willing to believe it? Because it was audience demand that allowed Talbot’s story to be published in this longer form. It’s important not to take a text like this at face value, but these questions, and their possible answers, are more interesting, I think, than a simple judgment of fiction or nonfiction.
As we ended our readings of the women and moved on to On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, I was in more familiar territory. I had some experience with William Apess last semester, but I had not read “The Indians: Ten Lost Tribes,” and frankly, do not recall knowing anything about the concept and belief behind the writing, which suggests that Native Americans are connected to the Israelites. Apess writes “[th]at the Indians are indeed no other than the descendants of the ten lost tribes, the subscriber has no doubt.” I found this fascinating, and it further illustrated the complexity of the time and the writers. Just as the women writers illustrate multiple sides and facets to female life at the time, and just as the African American writers did, too, Apess illustrates the complexities of his life and position as an educated, Christianized Native American. Much like Jupiter Hammon, Apess has suffered from being ignored due to his Christianity in the past. However, he is a complex and interesting person, whose writing helps to demonstrate this. The idea of the lost Indian tribes is particularly fascinating to me not only because it is new to me, but because it illustrates how Apess reconciles and blends his Native inheritance with his Christian convictions.
I recently attended a meeting in which we discussed, among other things, the tendency to read for resistance, why we do this, and how it can be problematic. Apess has suffered some neglect in the past due to the tendency to read for resistance. However problematic focusing on resistance may be, it does make the literature more…fun. (There’s that word again.) It is fun to root for the underdog; it’s fun to see the loser win, the dominant be overthrown, etc. However, it can erase much of the other nuances of the writing. I think one of the things I like so much about the ten Indians theory is that viewing Apess’s sermon “The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ” along with the companion essay about the ten tribes allows one to see the “fun” resistance, but also to see the other nuances of the writing. Apess is a complicated character in that he embraces Christianity while still criticizing the white man and attempting to hold onto some remnants of his Native American culture.
I fear as I come to the end of my blog post that the big takeaway lesson is similar to that of my first post. However, I think this speaks to importance of this recurring theme as I see it being shaped within the readings and the course. There is a complexity to these writers—these human beings—and to this period that cannot be encapsulated in one reading, on theme, or one identity. Rather, the majority of the historical characters whose writing we are reading are wrestling with their forming and shifting identity, sometimes trying on several, in order to make their way in a changing world. Sometimes, these complex identity troubles are not fun at all. Sometimes, they are painful and difficult. However, they are elucidating and exciting, and occasionally, every once in a while, even a bit fun.