Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Advertising the Domestic: Anne Bradstreet's Sentimental Poetics

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Advertising the Domestic: Anne Bradstreet's Sentimental Poetics

Article excerpt

In 1650, the New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet published her first book of poetry, The Tenth Muse, under mysterious circumstances. Accord ing to her, the verses had been taken and published without her knowledge or consent, and the resulting volume embarrassed her. She calls it, in "The Author to Her Book," "ill-formed" and in need of revision (1). In 1678, six years after her death, a second edition appeared with thirteen additional poems. These new verses turned the revised edition, titled Several Poems, from political, theological, and historical themes to lyrics about the home. With the publication of such poems, Bradstreet raised putatively private experiences to the level of public consciousness and, in the process, reimagined the public community through a domestic lens. This move, I argue, meant that the poet achieved many of the same goals__in many of the same ways__as did nineteenth-century authors of sentimental fiction.(1)

Reading Bradstreet's poetry as sentimental opens it to new insights and expands our understanding of American literary history. To describe her works as sentimental (or even proto-sentimental) is, of course, anachronistic;(2) yet in doing so, I build on recent scholarship that traces the history of sentimentalism to the seventeenth century. Laura Stevens, for example, argues that English missionary writings, beginning with those of the Puritans, "anticipated many of the ideas and gestures that would constitute the culture of sensibility" (6), and Matthew Brown focuses on "the sentimental portrait of Amerindians" in his chapter on The Eliot Tracts, a series of pamphlets about Puritan missionary activities published between 1643 and 1671 (188). Michelle Burnham, following Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, ties Mary Rowlandson's Puritan captivity narrative of 1682 to the rise of sentimentalism, while Norman Fiering's history of moral philosophy argues more generally for "an inner affinity between sentimentalism and Puritan religious thought" (5). In adding to the work of these scholars, I do not wish to conflate Puritan poetry with sentimental novels but rather to illuminate further "anticipatlions]" and "affinit[ies]." Burnham, for example, links Rowlandson to sentimentalism not through an overt staging of critique but by "putting the material for such critical positions into circulation" (26). Likewise, Fiering pursues his work by "searching seventeenth-century moral thought for evidence of inchoate sentimentalism" (5). In much the same way, I find in Bradstreet's Several Poems evidence of inchoate sentimentalism: the circulation of sentimental material that would take new form and gain greater cultural power in the coming centuries.(3)

Like many women writers in the nineteenth century, Bradstreet used print to publicize the supposedly private experiences of a woman. Moreover, her poetic scenes shaped the public arena in which they appeared: Rather than allow the state to oversee and govern the domestic, she used the domestic to comment on the status of the state. Her poetry thus offers an early example of a woman strategically employing publicly sanctioned private roles to engage in cultural politics. Such activities emerge most clearly if we approach her work as proto-sentimental, one possible opening in the development of a long sentimental tradition.

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIVES

In the seventeenth century, the terms public and private did a great deal of ideological work, distinguishing levels of visibility, vocations, spaces, and gender roles. The variety of meanings and sanctions attached to them can be illustrated through a brief examination of the writings of influential English Puritans William Perkins and William Ames, divines who were read widely by American Puritans throughout the seventeenth century. Perkins wrote the most important preaching manual used by Puritan ministers (Gordis 15-16), and he was still known by Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century as "[t] he famous Mr. …

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