Readex Report

Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences

In the autumn of 1801, Susan Edwards Johnson of New Haven, Connecticut read several novels while visiting her cousin in New Bern, North Carolina. On November 27, Johnson recorded in her journal1: "Began to read the maid of the Hamlet an indifferent novel, by the author of the Children of the Abbey." She made this entry on December 2: "Passed our time principally in reading the beggar Girl; we got so much interested, that we sat up untill near one oclock, (reading) Saturday night—." In a December 6, 1801 letter, she wrote: "We ride, walk & read novels; last night we sat up until near one oclock & were then quite unwilling, to leave the interesting history of the beggar Girl—."

In mentioning these works, Johnson provides valuable insight into her contemporary literary world. In the summer of 1825, Olivia Caroline Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina who was visiting family in Pendleton also noted literary activities in her journal2, as on July 18: "Miss Hugers called to see us in the morning and promised to lend me 'Patronage', a tale by Maria Edgeworth" (222); and again, on August 25: "This morning I commenced reading Griscom's 'Year in Europe' find it extremely entertaining, it is in two thick octavo volumes 500 pages each" (226). In each instance, these allusions lend insight as to what women were reading and how they interacted with literature, thereby expanding our understanding of women's intellectual worlds and their contemporary literary tastes.

Locating these works, however, poses another set of issues. Johnson, for example, refers to works that are either difficult to find or have fallen out of print. Regina Maria Dalton Roche's The Maid of the Hamlet (1793?) was last published in 1833, and Children of the Abbey (1796), a four-volume gothic romance, was last published in 1900. Johnson's repeated allusion to the Beggar Girl is another example of a work that enjoyed a contemporary audience, but is rarely read today. The Beggar Girl and Her Benefactors: in seven volumes, by Mrs. Bennett, which traces the transformation of a "beggar girl" into a genteel lady, was printed first in London in 1797, appeared in three volumes in Philadelphia in 1801, and was last printed in London as five volumes in 1813.

Although Laurens references the more familiar title, Patronage (1814), by Maria Edgeworth, which was reprinted throughout the 19th century and once more in 1924, it was not reprinted again until 1967, raising issues of availability and taste. The least accessible title still is A Year in Europe: Comprising a Journal of Observations, in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Switzerland, the North of Italy, and Holland. In 1818 and 1819 (1823), by John Griscom, which was last reprinted in 1824. Though Beggar Girl and A Year in Europe are available in a few research libraries across the country, access to many early works by women remains limited for many scholars and students.

In this regard, the recently digitized Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 and Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819 provide enhanced access to materials written by women, including many seemingly obscure titles. With astonishing ease, the works alluded to in Johnson and Lauren's letters and journals—for example, Bennetts' The Beggar Girl, Roche's The Children of the Abbey and Edgeworth's Patronage—are available for study and reading in these databases.

Well organized by genre, subject, author, place of publication and language, and with each major category listing many subtopics, Early American Imprints, Series I and II offer pleasantly overwhelming possibilities. Browsing through these databases provides a keen sense of the contemporary cultural and publishing worlds in which writings, and women's writings in particular, were generated. In many instances, the initial experience was actually more physical than bibliographical, as viewing the images reinforces the direct and immediate relationship between printed materials and audience. The small size of many volumes, for example, reminds one of the dimension and portability of these earliest novels and other printings. Original fonts enhance one's sense of reading the text as it first appeared. Unlike reading a reproduced text set on larger pages and with normalized spelling and fonts, viewing and reading a digital facsimile makes even more apparent the relationships among author, reader and printer.

Repeatedly, in fact, when searching for items written by women in Early American Imprints, Series I and Series II, the market aspects of writings and literature were made clear. The helpful "History of Printing" category further highlights the relationships between printer, publisher, author and audience—connections that serve as key research and teaching tools for undergraduate and graduate alike.

Though setting a specific research objective seems most prudent, the opportunity to browse within categories is enlightening. From the genres category in Early American Imprints, Series I, opening "women as authors" yielded an impressive 535 items. Many treasures of women's writings are covered, including Anne Bradstreet's The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650); Mary Rowlandson's Soveraignty & goodness of God (1682) and Esther de Berdt Reed's The Sentiments of an American Woman (1780). The ease with which these items are located and the ability to view them instantly are exciting from both research and teaching perspectives.

Searching for "women as authors" in Early American Imprints, Series II produced 877 results, including advice and conduct books, spiritual autobiographies, sentimental novels, poetry, letters and other genres. Some key titles uncovered are Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixoticism (1801); Hannah More's Sacred Dramas (1801); Ann Eliza Bleecker's The History of Maria Kettle (1802); Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1802); Phillis Wheatley's Poems of Various Subjects (1802); Anne MacVicar Grant's Memoirs of an American Lady (1809) and Lucy Brewer's The Adventurers of Lucy Brewer . . . (1815).

Consistently, this search yielded more new names than canonical ones, which then prompted even more searches and discoveries, such as Hester Ann Rogers' A Short Account of the Experiences of Mrs. Hester Ann Rogers . . . (1806); Mary Hays' Female Biography . . . (1807) and Mrs. Sarah Allen's A Narrative of a Shipwreck (1816). Once again, the results revealed contemporary tastes and how the contemporary audience would have approached these materials and expected them to be presented, while also uncovering many new avenues for research.

Both series of Early American Imprints offer extensive assistance as we continue to search for women's writings and understand the context in which they were written, published, and read. By using these databases, researchers at all levels can help uncover seemingly obscure allusions and more fully appreciate the intellectual influences of women and their readers.

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