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Discovering the Urban Anglo-American Lady in

Post-Colonial English Literature: Considerations

by Judyth Vary Baker

Introducing the Background


Post-Colonial English literature presented a new creature – the Anglo-
American woman as “lady” -- in a manner reflecting the outcome of a
conflict of traditions and the breakaway of American Anglos from their
Puritan and English colonial roots. Post-colonial literature today tends to
focus on events and experiences in other countries; early American post-
colonial literature tends to be analyzed in the context of socioeconomic and
political viewpoints that may have been "ineluctable" (ref. James Joyce's
Ulysses--"the ineluctable modality of the visible.") when they were
originally written. When we look back, through modern lenses, at what was
then considered a modern Anglo-American ‘lady,’ we must not forget where
we now stand, compared to the writers of the past who formulated their
vision of that lady – perhaps better described today as the ‘urbane’ Anglo-
American lady. Paul Brians defines today’s stance well when he writes:
“It should be acknowledged that postcolonial theory functions as a
subdivision within the even more misleadingly named field of "cultural
studies": the whole body of generally leftist radical literary theory and
criticism which includes Marxist, Gramscian, Foucauldian, and various
feminist schools of thought, among others. What all of these schools of
thought have in common is a determination to analyze unjust power
relationships as manifested in cultural products like literature (and film, art,
etc.). “

Brians not only succinctly describes the modern position of post-colonial


literature’s most prominent features of mentality and morality, but he also
reminds us that when this genre of literature was being created, contributions
to the genre via American literature were “usually denied”:

“Practitioners generally consider themselves politically engaged and


committed to some variety or other of liberation process…the label is
usually denied to U.S. literature, though America's identity was
formed in contradistinction to that of England, because the U.S. is
usually viewed as the very epitome of a modern neo-colonial nation,
imposing its values, economic pressures, and political interests on a
wide range of weaker countries…We continue to use the term
"postcolonial" as a pis aller, and to argue about it until something
better comes along.”
.

The American colonial era produced its own compendium of literature,


including contributions not only by Puritan women, but also a few by native
American and African-American women. Largely, these women’s works
were edited, published and sometimes even stolen by males.

For a long time, the most popular American post-colonial literature depicted
the Anglo-American woman, generally ignoring non-Anglo women. These
women, themselves, had relatively few opportunities to express themselves
in literature without resorting to male-dominated conventions. In 1650,
Anne Bradstreet’s book of poems, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in
America, was published in England, without her knowledge or permission: it
was the first work written by an Anglo-American woman to be published.
She, herself, was forced into a wilderness exile by her fellow Puritans for her
liberal religious beliefs. Ivy Schweitzer tells us that the first edition of her
poetry is in
“contrast (to) the frequent apologies and self-deprecation
of the poems collected in the 1650 edition of The Tenth Muse, Lately
Sprung up in America (compared) with the self-confident, un-
apologetic voice of the later poems and revisions published in the
post- humous second edition of 1678.”
Schweitzer goes on to say that
“As Timothy Sweet has recently pointed out, in the elegiac and epic
traditions…a fundamental convention for the production of voice is
the "specification of gender": the speaking and writing subject is
always male… Bradstreet, as female, was self-conscious of the effects
of sex and gender on her ability to speak and write in public, and her
early poetry discloses what Sweet calls "certain effects of power"
produced byconventional Renaissance assumptions of masculine
subjectivity and feminine objectivity…The daughter of a powerful
public figure in Puritan New England, well-educated and steeped in
the Elizabethan poetic tradition, Bradstreet was limited to imitating
the poetic conventions of the literary tradition she inherited.” (290-291)

Even when the woman’s experience is uniquely her own, in early examples,
permission by the husband to publish was standard. The Narrative of the
Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (Massachusetts,
1682) was the first book (and it was a best-seller) published by an Anglo-
American woman. She considered herself a Puritan gentlewoman, the wife
of a clergyman, and her book was published by permission of her husband.
Rowlandson’s narrative is important because she considers herself a native
American. However, she is captured by Wamponoag Indians, who of course
inhabited the same territory for centuries before any Rowlandson arrived on
the scene.

“As a captive,” Burnham writes, “Mary Rowlandson occupies a hinge that


divides one cultural subjectivity from another, for during her captivity she
belongs wholly neither to the Puritan nor to the Indian cultural system…
Rowlandson is constantly in conflict with the pronoun usage; identifying
herself with the Indians one minute, then when they do something against
her Puritan culture, objectifying them.…" (66)

Mary’s dichotomous position gives us a glimpse of the kind of thinking that


such an Anglo-American Puritan lady, educated, literate and devout, may
also have exercised regarding her distance from her English cousins, now
long left behind. She encounters aboriginal resistance and understands that
she is not quite a full citizen of the New World, but concurrently, she does
not belong in the European world, either.
The urban Anglo-American lady (the typical white female with Puritan roots
with a British (or western European) genetic component), as she emerged in
post-colonial English literature, would frequently be described as a woman
of consequence and rank – sometimes representing the very embodiment of
the emancipated female – and as such, the literature created a distinct niche
for her, among her countrywomen, that persists to the present.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

Such a fine distinction did not include native American or African-American


women. The first Native American writer’s work to be published occurred
later than Puritan times, and was never seen under her own name. Jane
Johnston Schoolcraft was the daughter of Oshauguscodawaqua, an Ojibwa.
Her father, John, was of Scotch-Irish decent and a successful fur trader. Born
in 1800, Jane was the third of seven children. Her writings were
appropriated by her husband, Henry, in such volumes as Algic Researches:
these writings eventually fell into the hands of Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, who polished them to make the Song of Hiawatha.
The earliest surviving work of literature in America created by an
African-American writer was written by a female – the slave-woman, Lucy
Terry -- who was purchased and set free by her husband-to-be, Abijah
Prince, in 1756. Her poem, “Bars Fight,” was a ballad about an August 25,
1746 attack upon two white families by Native Americans. “Bars Fight”
was transmitted orally until 1855, when it was finally published. Jean Fagin
Yellin, in an online review of Frances Smith Foster’s book, Written By
Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, tells
us that “African American women, like all the marginalized who chose to
participate in public discourse,” according to Foster "appropriated the
English literary tradition to reveal, to interpret, to challenge, and to change
perceptions of themselves and the world in which they found themselves."
We can generalize the fact that the mainstream literature of post-colonial
American writers, written largely by males, included few portraits of non-
Anglo-American women. And those Anglo-American women who raised a
pen to write about themselves felt no real kinship with Native American or
African-American women. In general, social status, location, and prejudices
precluded much intermingling.
And further, though we must avoid a mere survey, ignoring some literary
efforts that might have helped forge the image of the post-colonial urban
Anglo-American lady of concern, we can nevertheless make an assay of her
emergence from transplanted Puritan “huswife” to the more sophisticated,
worldly Anglo-American female, daring to hazard suggestions as to why and
how she thus emerged. The post-colonial world is full of “contradictions, of
half-finished processes, of confusions, of hybridity, and liminalities” not
restricted to literature alone, but also involving social structure and the
progression of human rights, including women’s rights.
An examination of post-colonial English literature reveals aspects of the
rising status of this kind of American woman as she is released from her
traditional confines. In Post-Colonial Drama: theory, practice, politics,
Gilbert and Tompkins tell us that "the term postcolonialism – according to a
too-rigid etymology – is frequently misunderstood as a temporal concept,
meaning the time after colonialism has ceased… [but, rather than] a naïve
teleological sequence which supersedes colonialism, postcolonialism is…an
engagement with and contestation of colonialism's discourses, power
structures, and social hierarchies.”

Confining our efforts to a few representative examples that mark the


emergence of the urban Anglo-American lady, we’ll keep this paradigm in
mind.
We do not intend, then, to discourse on the writings of William Bradford,
move through to the era of Kate Chopin, and then top the sundae with a
cherry picked from Post Colonial and African American Women’s Writing
(Wisker, 2000), but instead, we will focus on the portraiture of the Anglo-
American woman, particularly in post-colonial literature after she emerges
from Puritan “huswifery” -- not because we are fraught with prejudice -- but
because the condition and status of the Anglo-American woman was
generally better than that of non-Anglo women in their own country, and
better than that of most women under/emerging from under colonial systems
elsewhere, in regard to the pressures of patriarchy, tradition, and male
dominance. In fact, such pressures, even today, continue to influence the
condition and status of Woman worldwide.
That any women, anywhere in today’s world, might still be denied
opportunities available to men to acquire literacy, exercise the vote, enjoy
the right to drive an automobile, or to walk outside their homes without the
permission of a relative of the opposite sex –that a woman might be required
to cover her head because a dominant religion insists that she do so – though
she has other beliefs -- all such demands and constraints tell us how far we
must yet travel as we dare view the urban Anglo-American lady as a logical
product of a more enlightened society, despite the flaws, weaknesses and
shortcomings of that society, whose roots are manifestly colonial.
Those who insist that certain rights must continue to be denied to women,
such as the right to reject arranged marriages, childhood marriages, female
circumcision, and even sequestering, may, through sheer force of numbers,
yet prevail in forbidding true liberation to half the human race, but we will
do our best here to tread against the pull of that tide. One strategy is to note
the emergence of the post-colonial urban Anglo-American woman who
attained a distinct identity as a relatively free woman, as reported in post-
colonial literature.

Identifying the Urban, Postcolonial Anglo-American Lady

We are cognizant of the existence of the independent post-colonial Anglo-


American Lady in English literature by the time Henry James writes his
famed novels comparing and contrasting Americans with Europeans. James
was fascinated with the American persona, which included the Anglo-
American woman, and, in particular, her position as an enlightened and
relatively liberated urban American lady. He evidenced special interest in
her cultural and psychological makeup: in Daisy Miller (1879) , James
explored the question of how a quintessential American young lady of “new
money” --Daisy Miller -- should be classified. Was she a ‘real’ lady, or did
she merely exhibit the veneer of one, assisted by the advantages of wealth?
Daisy does not achieve any distinction as a true “Lady”: “She’s completely
uneducated…but she’s wonderfully pretty, and in short she’s very nice…
(21).”
Daisy, in fact, does not satisfy the requirements expected of her by her
patronizing aristocratic critics to fill the role of a true “American Lady.”
Her rejection by the elite, chic English and American upper-class represents
their general attitude toward non-aristocratic American “ladies.” In Daisy
Miller, James presents the post-colonial, urban American girl of class as a
new creature threatening the stereotypes already indelibly set in stone in
European society. She is an upstart –a social rebel:
“From this seed of rebellion, feminist readers draw out a counter-narrative of
American womanhood defined by freedom despite social constraints. Within
James criticism feminist critics consistently emphasize the liberatory
dimension of Daisy's story, placing the evidence of patriarchal control --
Daisy's death -- in brackets.” (Johnson 41)
By the time James wrote Wings of the Dove (1902) , he had already decided
that the urban American Lady was a significant and well-developed entity
that he could present as falling victim to the decaying maw of Venice’s high
society. (James 400-475)

“Henry James's views...the city as ....splendid in her decay. The cold-


blooded deception plot in Wings is characterized by a setting of
wintry coldness, splashing rain, and even a touch of "high water."
Sinking Venice is a mirror of sinking Milly Theale; a sense of
coldness and despairing death prevails in the end.” (Perosa 290)

Edith Wharton, a little later than James, presents readers with a wider range
of female personalities, many of them also ‘Ladies’ and all of them Anglo.
Her urban women are fully developed in character, albeit bona-fide denizens
of the New World now largely severed from their primeval colonial roots,
though trappings of modesty, tradition and ‘ladylike behavior’ persist as
vestigial remnants of their heritage. We also must note that Wharton’s
women are all trapped, one way or another, by the expectations of their
society. In fact, the more “lady” they appear to be, the fewer their options.
Escape occurs only through suicide – physical or social. Ranji Kapoor tells
us that Wharton sees no escape for the Anglo-American Lady from the
demands made upon her by society:

“Charity Royalls and Lily Barts all suffer the indignity of economic,
social and political subjugation. They have no freedom to shape their
destinies or to realize their aspirations in the temporal world. They are
reduced to decorative ornaments and sex objects and most dangerous
of all, their natures reveal the psychologically debilitating effects of
their situations. Wharton does vaguely imply the need for growth by
showing how painful and frustrating this process can be for a woman.
But it is only in her non-fiction French Ways and Their Meaning that
Wharton comes closest to what the feminists might cherish: "No
nation can have grown up ideas till it has a ruling caste of grown up
men and women and it is possible to have a ruling caste of grown up
men and women only in a civilization where the power of each sex is
balanced by that of the other."

In Ethan Frome, Wharton portrays even rural/village women as straitened


ladies: they inhabit a civilized setting almost fit for those European ladies of
rank who spent an occasional summer far from the madding crowd in
country mansions. (Rae, 66-67). In The Age of Innocence, Wharton
describes a world analogous to a Jane Austen universe of manners and
mores. But this is not Europe: it is wholly an American vista, to which a
New York urban Lady is similarly subscribed.
These are lives led in gilded cages under clan control, and Wharton sees no
escape: all such attempts make things only worse. And Wharton removes
any question that the Anglo-American urban Lady is a true peer of her
European counterparts : Countess Oleska, though American-born, marries
and lives in Europe for an extended period, becoming so thoroughly
Europeanized by her marriage to the Count that her elite New York clan
refuses to allow her both the luxury of divorce, and any permanent return to
America, which would reduce the clan to a ‘lower rank.’ The Countess is
sent back to Europe after an elegant dinner verifying the importance of her
status, which must be retained at all costs. No American-born lover can
equal the social rank of the Count, so Archer is subtly warned never to
approach the Countess again. (Wharton, 220)
Indeed, it was after reading Wharton’s The Age of Innocence concurrently
with Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales that I suddenly realized how
Wharton’s use of terms such as ‘ clan,” “tribe,” “ritual,” and “primitive”
were actually the clues for which I had been searching in my quest to
understand the mechanics of emergence of the urban post-colonial Anglo-
America woman. The creation of this socially-structured American Lady
occurred despite the dynamics inherent in a coarse, pioneer setting where
survival meant that the woman’s place was both flexible and free to adapt.
Wharton wrote her books while women’s suffrage movements were in full
swing – and she ignored them, spending much of her time in France.

Kate Chopin is a different kind of writer. She is a southern-born (1850)


woman who also uses the same terminology – rites, rituals, clan expectations
– as Wharton. Published in 1899, The Awakening was scandalous because
of its portrayal of a strong, unconventional woman whose adulterous affair
forced her to commit suicide. In her novella, her protagonist is trapped in a
clan-supported marriage to a man she doesn’t love. Edna must obey the
conventions that embody the fundamental values of her “tribe” in an elitist
Cajun setting – or make her exit as gracefully as possible, by submerging her
existence literally and symbolically by suicide via drowning (Chopin, 150-
163). In "The Story of an Hour," Chopin describes the reaction of a woman
who learns of her husband's death and dreams of her future, free of his
gentle but endless dominance. Suddenly seeing him appear – his death
having been reported mistakenly, she dies due to a rush of horror that her
relatives interpret as a shock to her weak heart.
From the examples of Chopin, Wharton and James, then, at the end of the
Romantics and within the era of the Realists as a literary movement, the
urban Anglo-American post-colonial lady has already emerged as a fully-
developed and recognizable type distinct from a European model, yet
inextricably bound by the same kind of cultural chains.
Yet, while it is certain that the break with European stereotypic models, and
the establishment of the American female persona occurred earlier than the
end of the 19th century, the dating of the event itself, if we may so term it,
can be approximated. We sought in vain for the urban Anglo-American
Lady, in colonial times, since William Bradford could write : “(our children)
ought...rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this
great ocean, and were ready to perish in this great wilderness; but they cried
unto the Lord, and he heard their voice and looked on their adversity...”
(American Literature Survey 14, emphasis mine). The Puritan forefathers
were Englishmen, but what would their descendants be called? For a long
time, they were known as colonists, attached by an ever-lengthening
umbilical cord to Europe, to Kings, and to European ways, however homely
and different their frontier life.
Their colonies were founded on death, famine, and massacres. When the
newly-arrived colonists settled, their need for food was paramount and
immediate. Wrote Bradford: “[we found]a good quantity of clear ground
where the Indians had formerly set corn, and some of their graves.” (16)
Bradford’s men, upon inspection, discover the Indians’ winter food hoards
and carry off the corn and beans for themselves, rejoicing that “here they got
seeds to plant themselves corn the next year, or else they might have
starved...” – which might well have then been the fate of the Indians thus
cruelly misused.
In “Women's Place on the American Frontier” (1995) Margaret Walsh writes
that “Traditionally, women have been either ignored by frontier history or
described in male-defined ways, a pattern established by Frederick Jackson
Turner.”
We find this pattern threaded through the earliest American literature, from
Colonial and Federal to 1800 (Survey: subtitle) all the way to James
Fenimore Cooper, without discovering that truly “American” Lady – though
she might be labeled as such.
Cooper, for example, presents Judith in The Deerslayer as basically an
English hothouse transplant languishing in neglect -- a clone of the typical
Englishwoman. And where he described the occasional rural-dwelling
American woman, she will speak in her own native, rude dialect, wear
pioneer attire, and be engaged in hard daily chores, unless she is an outright
savage. Such are the women in Cooper’s American frontier world. And why
not? The early American pioneer woman is rarely dressed or addressed as a
“gentlewoman,” though in 18th century Williamsburg and other English
colonial outposts they often saw themselves as well-bred ladies who could
play a pianoforte and dance with finesse.
Generally, if the author displays an American woman in wilderness mode,
her roots, as her petticoats, are bemired and low. When we understand that
Cooper’s “American” women are either savages or wilderness lasses –
convenient caricatures, actually, against which fully-developed masculine
super-heroes shine brightly—and that we are approaching within a few
decades of the Civil War, we are still seeking that line of demarcation. It
did not begin with Rowlandson.
“Mary Rowlandson,” writes Deborah Madsen,
“and other women like her – Hannah Swarton and Hannah Dustan, for
example – who were otherwise denied a public voice found a voice in
the genre of the captivity narrative. It was a compromised voice, and
Mrs. Rowlandson’s narrative included in the first editions a sermon by
her husband as if to legitimate her story, but still allegory provided a
means by which the otherwise silenced and marginalized subject
could articulate her sense of her role within the exceptional destiny of
the New World.”

But then Charles Brockden Brown offers the classic Gothic novel Weiland,
written at the end of the 18th century. Within its pages, Brown allows an
educated woman to speak as narrator: she is an amalgam of both the
traditional well-bred Englishwoman and that new American creature, an
American lady on the cusp of urban and urbane sensibilities. Brown had
“been reared among Philadelphia Quakers...which had always proclaimed
the spiritual equality of women (Deegan 130).” Of Miss Conway, Clara
says, “Her education and manners bespoke her to be of no mean birth,”
(934) in typical European fashion. But Clara’s habit of running freely with
two males of similar age through the countryside, as well as alongside her
friend Catherine, with picnics and leisurely readings of the classics in wild
rural settings, without the presence of chaperones, would hardly have been
tolerated in European society, no matter how idyllic the countryside setting.
In fact, Clara’s rural-based contemporaries in Europe were sometimes
criticized for daring to leave their homesteads and hearths (Aitken 56-57),
though urban ladies of consequence labored under no such conceits. (96-98)
And, of course, there is a price to pay for the household’s failure to keep
Clara and her companions in perfect order.
We should take one more cursory look at the course of early American
literature, much as if we followed the swing of a pendulum, to pin down that
line of demarcation where the Anglo-American urban Lady emerges as a
type, not a mere anomaly. Lippy et al have concisely described the set of
conditions that could produce such a creature—conditions that created a
unity of form among that variegated collection of European hothouse
transplants and crude pioneers, as Europeans continued to emigrate to the
New World, especially into the Colonies, where Puritan-based families were
now beginning to point with pride to their showcase Mayflower origins:

“By...1776, the tensions between all Christian(s)...and the way


colonists regarded the native Indians and the Africans forced to
immigrate as slaves...(caused) concerns in the political sector...(But)
Once the move to independence was under way, nearly all New
England, except for some of the adherents of the Church of England,
set aside their differences to unite behind the American cause.” (333)

Now colonists -- formerly European immigrants – have come to commonly


ascribe to themselves separate identities as citizens of a new nation, no
longer viewing themselves as related to Europeans. Men – and women (this
is important)—now begin to see themselves as distinctly American men and
women. With starts and halts, they revel in their newfound sense of freedom
– a development that did not go unnoticed in Europe. For example,
Coleridge and his friend Southey formed the society of Pantiscrats, in an
attempt to found, despite their own European status, a ‘free’ American
colony of their very own:

“The Pantisocrats...as denizens of a vast modern nation-state, (decided


they) had no alterbativer but to remove themselves from it, and found
their own Republic on the banks of the Susquehanna...(with) twelve
gentlemen of good education and liberal principles...(along with)
twelve ladies....(to) fix their abode in a delightful part of the back
settlements...the women were not only to look after the infants, but
also to cultivate their own minds.” (Willey 6-7)

Only a few years later, Charles Lamb refused to promote a book about a
“typical” “purse-proud wretched American Farmer with no virtue but
industry...calling Ladies young women & praising them for decent mirth and
needle-work...” (Woodring 270) For though the new American was strong
and prosperous, that did not make him or his women gentlemen and gentle
ladies, nor could they produce their own worthwhile literature: Foerster
comments that “When political independence came, they could not create an
independent literary culture.” (46) And since the “proud wretched American
Farmer” and his “young ladies’ could be looked down upon by Lamb, others
in high literary circles, if not already convinced, now followed Lamb’s lead.
Henry James found ample fuel to elaborate on the lingering obligation that
Puritan-based, aristocratic American families still felt regarding their
European roots, even into the 19th century. Thus James describes a matron’s
concern that her three daughters must replenish their heritage by visiting
their ‘roots’ in his short story “Europe”:

“There’s a duty that calls them to these wonderful countries, just as it


called, at the right time, their father and myself – if it only be the
laying up for the years to come the same store of remarkable
impressions...(to which Jane asked) “Do you know everything...in
Europe?” (37)

But you can’t go home again. This story, written only two decades after the
Civil War, acknowledges the widening gap between American and European
ladies of means, and it would never close, no matter how many visits
American girls might make to obtain “remarkable impressions.” By now,
the American urban Lady was truly post-colonial, a distinct entity in her own
right. It might have taken the exigencies of the Civil War to ultimately force
the nation to forge its unique identity – as America. The bitter hostilities of
the 1860’s ended with threads of hope weaving itself into a new pattern.
Stephen Crane (1895) wrote:

“(The young soldier)...had rid himself of the red sickness of battle.


The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered
and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He now turned with a
lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks
—“ (The Red Badge of Courage 212)

Edgar Allan Poe—that literary iconoclast and great literary critic – surely
should have been in the vanguard in depicting the distinctive urban Anglo-
American Lady of post-colonial times, but one searches in vain. Poe’s
“Ligeia” is a lady all of European cloth; “Morella” is merely another such
stereotyped female; Eugenie LaLande is Parisian (696). Poe’s American
women remain largely sketchy and undeveloped, though he, himself,
secretly married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia – surely a Lady who broke
the mold!
Susannah Rowson, Hannah Foster, and a Mrs. Southworth all wrote novels
about women before the Civil War, but none of these are considered major
works, which we wish to inspect for that major event of demarcation. Jane
G. Austin wrote two collections of popular fairytales introducing young girls
to their own American brand of whimsy, and the characterization of both
boys and girls, or male and female animals, playing out their roles fearlessly
and cheerfully, might have impressed young readers of both sexes. “(In
Moonfolk)...a child...goes to the moon and meets Little red Riding Hood and
other characters from traditional fairy tales.” (West 27)
Nathaniel Hawthorne dubbed such enterprising female writers a “damned
mob of scribbling women,” (1854,Baym 64) and Baym comments that “The
earliest American literary critics began to talk about the “most American”
work rather than the “best” work because they knew no way to find out the
best, other than by comparing American with British writing.” (65)
The work of American writers was interpreted in the light of British writers
—itself a burden—considering that only British publishers provided truly
significant income for English language writers at this time. (54) The
pressure to conform to British literary standards would hinder American
literary evolution in its own right.

British “class consciousness” was in broad conflict with the emerging


American “classless society”—a situation affecting emerging American
writers. (Davidson 212) “The country versus the city, the American versus
the European dichotomies comes under scrutiny,” writes Davidson.
The European was becoming ‘the bad guy” as Tyler’s popular American
play “The Contrast” demonstrated: “The Contrast” Davidson reminds us,
“was the most popular play in early America,” satirizing, as it did, the
uncomfortable difficulties between European gentlemen and decent
American fellows in 1790: “(In)...the early American novel...the modern
world radically differs from the traditional...and democracy may (be seen to)
permit new groups of people to reach the top...” (91) This included women,
however uncomfortable in their gilded cages.
Women now found themselves “welcomed into the republic of letters (and
became) citizens who had previously been invited to stay out.” (79)
The Anglo-American Lady was becoming an educated American lady,
identifying herself as nearly the equal of her male American compatriots.
Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette focuses on ‘the negation of the
female self—her freedoms, her possibilities---....(as) the basis of the
sentimental plot.” (146) But there is no doubt that the heroine is an
American lady. “The ideals of the new American nation” argue “that women
must join men in articulating the ...concerns of the nation.” (146)
In doing so, American women could finally identify themselves as
independent of former ancestors, and higher-ranking American women now
gained a place in European high society. She might visit Europe, no longer
considered automatically inferior, and only tolerated because of her wealth.
“(A) new republican freedom” enhanced her character. (Parrington 191)
”America’s wealthiest citizens (now) became a ‘kind of nobility’” (Davidson
226) of which the urban, post-colonial Anglo-American Lady was one
visible result.

The coalescence began due to “...two quite different feminist camps in the
early 1850’s,” Stoehr explains: “...the women’s rights proponents and the
free-love enthusiasts.” (194) Such is the very meat of the novelist, of
course. Horace Greely had his opinion of writer Margaret Fuller, who wrote
material helping to define the role of the urban Anglo-American Lady.
Greely sneered that “...a good husband and two or three bouncing babies
would have emancipated her from a great deal of cant and nonsense.” (195)
But this “cant and nonsense” was now being read by an educated, high class
of urban American women who wanted to be recognized as emancipated
Ladies in their own right. (195)

The Gilded Age, with its brief bloom of sophisticated manners and
tribal/clan relationships among America’s urban elite, was about to dawn,
and the newly emerging Anglo-American urban Lady was being socially
fitted and filtered to play her part. Europe still offered the ‘better’ role
models: “England had already...experienced many...social transitions” yet to
reach America, due to its earlier entry into industrialization. (Lee, 9) But
though the same afflictions came thundering down upon the heads of the
working classes in both America and Europe, Lee wrote that

“...there remains in American thought a strain of blatant optimism and


expectation...(so that) the (various) debates about Darwinism, science,
religion, pragmatism, and socialism took interestingly different forms
in America, and these forms were necessarily reflected in fiction....
(American writers) were not Europeans any more: they were
Americans, who had just witnessed the bloody carving out of their
nation.”

Whitman’s self-examination, after using up his health nursing a multitude of


wounded soldiers, is a good example. It was described by Asselinneau (30)
this way: “...he was impelled by a restless urge to explore the frontiers of his
self and to explore its patent possibilities in imagination.” War had created a
tribe of male and female intellectuals who dared expressed their new identity
through literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe – an American woman—wrote
the most popular book of the 19th century—Uncle Tom’s Cabin
---articulating principles of freedom applicable to females as well as males.
And then Kate Chopin, not long after, herself emerges from a long inquiry
into her inner self, confessing in “Confidences” that “I had been...groping
around, looking for something big, satisfying, convincing, and finding
nothing but –myself, a something neither big nor satisfying.” (Chopin, 2
68) Nevertheless, she “emerge(d) from the vast solitude” in which she
“had been making (her) own acquaintance.”

Self-definition was a task that the post-colonial urban Anglo-American


woman faced in order to establish her own identity. Susan B. Anthony, at
age 80, began to establish suffrage headquarters in various cities and towns,
and was seen marching at the head of parades for women’s rights. Her
power emanated from a mass of urban-based women who now formed a true
middle class. From their ranks would rise “a class of wealthy merchants and
manufacturers who could afford the luxuries previously afforded only by
nobility, and thus begin to challenge the aristocratic traditions in England.”
(Brewer, et al 1)

In 1865, many American writers not unnaturally believed that the New
World could avoid the errors of the Old, “But by 1900 the general mood had
darkened and disillusionment was widespread...” ( 9-11) But also by then,
the Anglo-American post-colonial urban Lady -- most often portrayed as a
creature surrounded by tragedies and sorrows caused by her repressive
culture, itself a vestige of her European heritage-- was firmly established in
the annals of American literature.

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