Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Late Night Vindication: Annis Boudinot Stockton's Reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's a Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

A Late Night Vindication: Annis Boudinot Stockton's Reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's a Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Article excerpt

Annis Boudinot Stockton, an elite early American poet and patriot, ends a letter to her daughter with a declaration:

I am frightened at the length of my letter--and more when I look at the watch and see the hour of the night--it is past one oclock, and not a creature upon in the house but my self--but you will say, it is my custon [sic] to keep the vigils of the night.

Adieu my love, may heaven bless you and yours and protect you this night, prays your ever affectionate

mother A Stockton--(307)

According to Carla Mulford, the editor of Only for the Eye of a Friend: The Poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton, Stockton most likely wrote the letter on 22 March 1793 (304). In writing this letter, Stockton "mus[es]" over her "solitary fire" at her elegant home in Princeton, New Jersey (304, 305). She must have had ink and pen at her side as well as sheets of paper, prepared for her script. But what was so urgent that Stockton needed to continue her day's labor into the early hours of the morning? Was it news of sickness or a neighborhood festivity? No, Stockton was writing to her daughter, Julia Stockton Rush, about her opinions of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

What follows is a study of this American reading of an English text. I begin with background about Stockton and her subject, Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman. Next, I provide an overview of the literary and feminist scholarship that underpins my reading. Finally, I analyze the letter and argue that it demonstrates the limitations of private and public sphere terminology in describing the reception of early American women's letters. In contemplating women's rights, the letter operates in an expanded sphere of intimacy that Stockton characterizes as "the neighbourhood" (304). Building upon her term, I propose that a woman author writing within an epistolary neighborhood can directly engage with political and domestic concerns. Blurring the line between public and private, and private, an epistolary neighborhood allows a woman author to gain an audience beyond her home and family while also avoiding the cultural ridiclue often directed at vocal women. Although other women, especially elite whites such as Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams, also wrote in neighborhoods, Stockton's status as a widow gives us an opportunity to examine her text without the specter of a politician husband hovering over our interpretations. Her writing, in short, offers a new lens through which to reconsider her contemporaries.

According to Mulford's introduction to Stockton's letters, the author was born in 1736 to Catherine Williams and Elias Boudinot, a well-to-do couple who provided her with an education "alongside her brother Elais." She was born in Darby, Pennsylvania, but spent most of her youth in Philadelphia where her family's home and father's silversmith shop were "next door to Benjamin Franklin's Post Office." After two moves, the first within Philadelphia and the second to New Brunswick, New Jersey, the family finally settled in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1752 or 1753 (12). There, Annis Boudinot met and married the successful Richard Stockton and they established their home across from the College of New Jersey (15, 17). She romantically named their property Morven, after Fingal's Kingdom in James Macpherson's Ossianic poems. At Morven, the couple cultivated an elite status by not only entertaining numerous guests, but also modeling their gardens to mirror those to Alexander Pope at Twickenham (17). As an elite man, Richard was drawn into New Jersey politics and worked on behalf of the British government until 1774 (19). Though initially taking a moderate stance toward the American Revolution, Richard converted to the patriotic cause in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence, and became a member of the First Continental Congress (20). During the British occupation of New Jersey, Richard was "seized by Tory leaders and taken captive by the British" who incarcerated him until 1777 (21). …

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