Historical Context

When piecing together the American historical narrative surrounding Rosa, it is essential to dive into a rather nebulous area: how gender and sexuality shaped the writer’s experience. The text was published in 1810, so women still faced major challenges when it came to the very act of putting pen to paper and then, if they were fortunate enough to move forward in the thorny and oftentimes discouraging process, the act of negotiating with publishers. For many females, the choice to publish anonymously was not so much a thrilling, liberating experiment as it was a dutiful, polite deed. The situation was related to both writing and simply being a member of society: “Since the sign of a woman’s virtue in early America was anonymity, any attempt to gain public recognition seemed morally suspect” (Brekus). There is more complexity, to be sure, considering the subtle, but unmistakable ferocity beneath many “Christian motherhood” texts, but the main idea is that women needed to remain in the shadows and stick to moralizing works of literature lest they shock society and question the authority of men.

The following truth raises some important questions about the differences between men and women, specifically in the writerly sense: “Being being less literate than men, women were discouraged from ‘meddling’ in the the masculine world of theology, politics, and law” (Brekus). What about men who did not fit into that masculine world, but still yearned to write? How did queer writers approach the daunting gates of the realm of authorship? The spectrum of gender identities that is growing increasingly prevalent today was not a part of life in the nineteenth century; people oftentimes hid their true identities so as to gain society’s acceptance. The concept of sin is interesting lens through which to contemplate the differences: “Although men also emphasized their sinfulness, this language was strongly gendered. When the famous evangelist George Whitefield looked back at his childhood, he remembered ‘such early Stirrings of Corruption in my Heart, as abundantly convince me that I was conceived and born in Sin’ … Yet when Whitefield’s narrative of his religious experience is placed next to women’s accounts, his humility sounds comparatively mild … It is hard to imagine him apologizing for his writings in the same that women apologized for theirs” (Brekus). Women oftentimes felt ashamed as well enslaved to their womanhood; men oftentimes felt empowered as well as prideful in their own manhood. Yet perhaps some men experienced imprisonment and wanted only, particularly in matters concerning composition, to invent new categories or to do away with categories altogether. After all, what was the goal of literature at the time? Should be the goal of literature change depending on the era, or should it be timeless?

The explosion of print culture served as the perfect backdrop for a writer of any identity and background to gain inspiration and experience liberation. “Yet the early republic was not merely a way station en route to a modern, consolidated system of commercial publishing, as the conventional account suggests … Print culture was multifarious, embracing a great variety of enterprises and agents on local, state, and national levels, serving diverse purposes by many means, and running on separate tracks of development that only occasionally overlapped. The book trades—notably, printing, publishing, retailing, and binding—consisted of small local businesses that were run by single proprietors or family partnerships … From these operations issues all sorts of publications designed for local needs—typically, newspapers, pamphlets written and financed by aspiring authors in the vicinity, advertisements, and commercial forms, along with a selection of books for sale from publishers back East” (Gross and Kelley). Finally, citizens could break free from the popular philosophy that novels are the root of all evil. Language was all around, inescapable.

The odd twists and turns of this plot, the existence and flourishing of independent characters, the satirical approaches to certain types of people in society and certain modes of communication, the intertextuality, the empowerment of minorities, the efforts to rewrite the history of American even: these elements worked together to form a rather dizzying metanarrative. Whereas Susanna Rowson, in her novel Charlotte Temple, worked within a constraint of overt moralizing, this anonymous writer went all out in a different, eerily postmodern style: that of absurdity. However, the brilliance of the absurdity is that it is simply the jumbling together of all that is familiar. Living in the New World has always required courage and creativity. By writing in a way that at once reflected on the external circumstances, which included the exploding print culture and lingering signs of British influence, and introducing characters with rather peculiar traits and background stories---Mrs. Charmion and Richard both enjoy much independence after rather difficult journeys in the New World---the author was able to make some predictions as to the future of this country.

Radical change was not necessarily the vision for this author. After all, “Cultural history to date indicates strongly that radical change does not follow upon the ‘un-fixing’ of identity, that effective challenges to old configuration do not lead to dramatically different ones. When identities become or threaten to become unfixed, numerous forces rally to fix them once again, working both to repair them and set them more firmly in place" (Hall). At the time of this novel’s publication, writers with controversial identities were seldom given a voice. However, the publication of Rosa represents a glimmer of hope in the country’s history for a vast, quiet, but articulate community of published queer writers.

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