Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America. By Susan Stabile. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 284. Illustrations. Cloth, $34.95.)

Reviewed by Sarah Purcell

Susan Stabile opens her book on a prominent group of Philadelphia women's practices of writing and remembering with an epigraph from Canto 3 of Byron's Don Juan: "But words are things, and a small drop of ink/Falling like dew upon a thought" (v). Much like the women she discusses, Stabile chose her epigraph carefully, for her insightful book seeks to treat words as "things" in order to unite the study of social and cultural history, literature, material culture, the history of the body, and the history of the book. Stabile uses diverse interdisciplinary methods to create a "poetics of female memory" to explain how her subjects created personal and collective memories in print and in practice in the latter part of the eighteenth century (12). In a study of the literary commonplace books exchanged by Elizabeth Fergusson, Hannah Griffitts, Deborah Logan, Annis Stockton, and Susanna Wright, she explores a whole host of ideas about memory, death, emotion, and philosophy, connecting them to material practices and conventions of architecture, mourning, penmanship, medicine, and collecting.

Commonplace books, as Stabile argues, functioned as archives that were informally "published" by being exchanged, at the same time as they "could be constantly revised, supplemented, annotated, and indexed" (13). She relates the act of writing in the commonplace books to women's other "modes of collecting" in the "domestic arts of shellwork, penmanship, souvenir collecting, and mourning" in order to analyze a whole web of female memory created in and around the home (13). Stabile divides the book into halves, each consisting of two chapters. Part One, "Memory," relates the ways in which women's personal memories were inscribed in their houses, in their shellwork handicrafts, and in the daily practice of writing. Part Two, "Collective Reminiscence," relates personal memory to social relationships as it analyzes women's collections and their mourning and memorial practices.

Although historically minded, Stabile is a literary scholar whose work relies on literary theory to a degree that will be uncomfortable for some historians, and tantalizing to others. She ranges loosely from topic to topic across the book, openly announcing in her introduction that she "abandons chronology and mimics the way remembrance actually works . . . personal memory is associative, recursive, and utterly incomplete" (13-14). Any historian looking for a solid analysis of the social position of these women and their relationship to one another or of the exact causes and effects of women's memory practices will be disappointed. Stabile also sternly refuses to relate her findings to the burgeoning historiography on public memory, claiming explicitly that women's private memory did not fit into the pattern of collective memory that helped to create national identity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. …

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