Academic journal article Early American Literature

Constituting the End of Feeling: Interiority in the Seduction Fiction of the Ratification Era

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Constituting the End of Feeling: Interiority in the Seduction Fiction of the Ratification Era

Article excerpt

In the months between the Constitution's drafting and its final ratification, Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike warned against the political consequences of "seduction." Attempts to raise doubts about the proposed Constitution, one essayist claimed, were designed to "seduce the people; as the devil is painted in his temptation of Saint Anthony, in the modest habit of a fair face" ("Nestor" 149). A poster denouncing nineteen antiratification state assembly members cautioned, "They are now at large, and with the poison of their tongues (if not speedily prevented) will taint the minds of their late constituents," influencing voters with their "endeavor to seduce" ("Pennsylvania" 178). Alongside these fears about the seductiveness of dissent, Anti-Federalists portrayed constitutional advocates as a corrupt "aristocratical junto," working covertly to "seduce printers to stifle and obstruct free discussion" ("An Address" 663; "A Dangerous Plan" 1).

For literary scholars, it has been tempting to understand early American novels' preoccupation with seduction as a figure for political anxiety, evidence of narrative's role in absorbing and working through a variety of uncertainties that accompanied the formation of the new republic. And certainly the presence of seduction in the ratification debates of the 1780s offers further contextual reason to read for its political resonance in novels of the 1790s such as The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette, American variations on the form that Samuel Richardson and other British authors had made popular on both sides of the Atlantic decades before. As is often noted, the analogy between seduction tales and the "seductions" of politics was not lost on at least one prominent contemporary reader. John Adams, referring to Richardson's famous novel after the Jeffersonian "revolution of 1800" ousted the Federalists from power, put it plainly: "Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa. The artful villain will pursue the innocent lovely girl to her ruin and her death" (Correspondence 19).

But as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argues in The Gender of Freedom, the persistence of this allegorical mode of interpretation is worth questioning. What Dillon calls "the people are Clarissa" readings, in her view, too easily collapse the distance between the complexities of political history and the unique social roles of early American novels, in particular their agency in defining a gendered zone of privacy imagined to lie outside politics (157). I suggest the tendency to treat seduction as an allegory also downplays its ability to signify multiple positions within the political sphere. The earliest critical study to cite "the people are Clarissa," Jay Fliegelman's Prodigals and Pilgrims, omitted the first half of Adams's sentence with good reason: the Federalist's image of "Democracy" as a seducer of a naive populace does not fit cleanly with Fliegelman's argument that seduction fiction helped articulate an ideological "revolution against patriarchal authority" (86). Indeed, Adams's figure of a nation in desperate need of patriarchal guidance stands at odds with a range of very compelling political readings of seduction novels, including claims that they promoted agendas of women's rights (Davidson), sympathy for the disenfranchised (Stern), and an ideal of familiarity as the foundation for democratic government (Barnes). (1)

The open-endedness of the seduction plot became especially notable in the periodicals that circulated through ratification-era Philadelphia--The American Museum and the Columbian Magazine--two variety journals that have gone underexplored as both sites of political polarization and sources of early American seduction fiction. Beneath the rhetoric of republican consensus that both magazines employed, their ideological perspectives grew increasingly distinct as the ratification debates intensified throughout 1787 and '88. And they expressed this difference, in part, by the variations on seduction plots they featured alongside more directly political articles. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.