Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rough Draft of Conference Paper

Republican Visions of Undermining Patriarchy in Isaac Mitchell’s The Asylum

Often a subject of discourse in early American literature, the prominent theme of patriarchy as an oppressive force has not been overlooked by prominent scholars. Shirley Samuels writes in her text Romances of the Republic that “the main feminist treatments of the period…see women variously as victims of the ideology of domesticity,” and she reinforces the prevalence of such literature in the early Republic. However, not all texts of the Republic containing discussion on patriarchy were in favor of its practice. Republican authors, Isaac Mitchell particularly, were able to covertly unlace the binds of patriarchy while seemingly upholding the patriarchal canon. Mitchell honors the patriarchal code of eighteenth century literature in his sentimental, gothic novel, The Asylum, by promoting patriarchy as an oppressive force on female characters and a force of masculinity for the male characters with the communication of such themes as American nationalism, medical practice, education, reason and duty, religion, marriage, family structure, gender roles, and nature. Yet, the text undermines itself in showing the not-so dire results of resisting patriarchal force, thus proving the text a true novel of the Republican Republic. Mitchell condemns the patriarchal force, “the unfeeling father,” for his domineering presence over his daughter . Through the backdrop of the American Revolution, the Jeffersonian Republican portrayal of patriarchy and the unfeeling father, the happily ever after ending for the undutiful daughters, and his own history of political publishing condemning Federalist principles, Mitchell undermines the traditional code. Analyzing Mitchell’s non-traditional text is vital in determining how, in the early nineteenth century, the patriarchal institution operated and was challenged, how feminist thought was addressed, and how the rise of feminist novels came about. As females of the 1800s were transforming the traditional gender roles set before them so too did Mitchell’s characters confront and damage masculine expectations. As Joseph Fichtelberg states, “Mitchell's text…was able to articulate a new set of ideological problems in comforting and familiar terms. It used the language of sentiment in an attempt to understand an emerging liberal world.”

As a Republican—a Democratic-Republican, or Jeffersonian —Mitchell was largely involved in the writing, editing, publishing, and distribution of Republican texts. His name appears in the New England publications American Farmer and Dutchess County Advertiser, The Guardian, which was renamed the Political Barometer, Republican Crisis, and Republican Herald . The names alone of each publication are telling enough to show Mitchell’s political perspectives as a Republican. The Republican Party (1792-1824) was popular with farmers who favored state-run government, agriculture over trade, and distrusted British patriarchy. During the time of Mitchell’s revision of the serialized publication of Alonso and Melissa, “Republicans were still firmly in control of Congress, [yet] there was a nagging sense that they were not in control of national destiny” (Fichtelberg).

Not by accident is the story of Alonzo and Melissa set against the background of the American Revolution. As their wedding day approaches and preparations are beginning, so is the American Revolution firing up. Alonzo expects his services to be needed and hastens the nuptial day, yet because of the British impounding of his father’s ships he does not enlist in the Revolution. He does, however, play out a revolution of his own against Melissa’s tyrannical, unfeeling father. In the text, Colonel Bloomsfield and the Baron represent the patriarchy of the British Empire attempting to control the welfare of the independent United States, Melissa and Selina. He is the “king” who fights for his own preservation and the command of his troops and kingdom (1:154). He embodies the ideals of the new nation, and the Federalist, when he states that “by prudence and perseverance any man in this country may become independent. It is the idle and the dissipated only, who are poor” (1:30). Mitchell’s early depiction of Colonel Bloomsfield also represents what Cynthia Jordan would term “a new form of patriarchy” (509). This “newly defined patriarchy” was not the old, British patriarch that used oppression to gain respect, but a middle-class Republican patriarch who gained submission from his offspring through his fatherly role. Jordan is right and wrong on this point. Mitchell does portray Colonel Bloomfield and the Baron as loving father figures who through conscious rearing achieve the respect of their children. Yet, upon their daughter’s revolt, they revert back to the traditional, authoritative patriarch. Like the new nation, they have yet to gain control of their subjects, and like Britain, they end up losing their subjects because of their cruelty.

Alonzo and Bergher, in assuming the patriarchal role of their lover’s fathers, as husbands, become a true rendering of the “new form patriarchy” Jordan describes. Eleanor Wikborg expresses this definition as patriarchy’s ability “to replace crass authoritarianism with a tenderness that subtly vindicated their continuing authority over women” (10). When Selina is kidnapped by her father’s preferred suitor, Count Hubert, the old definition of patriarchy is still in play with Hubert’s coercion. Yet, with Bergher’s rescue of Selina, he becomes the patriarchal figure now in charge of her being. He fights and wounds Count Hubert to avenge her, assert his masculinity, and claim her, and, on his and her behalf, moves them across the Atlantic Ocean to America in order to escape the Baron and Count’s chase. Upon Alonzo’s discovery of Melissa at the mansion he implores her to let him remove her from her “solitary confinement” and “the unusual severity with which [she is] oppressed” by censuring her father and assuming his role as advisor to her well-being (2:103-104).

Although Mitchell was commenting on the American Revolution in Alonso and Melissa, he was also remarking on the economic and political turmoil of his day. Contextually during its writing and publication, Colonel Bloomsfield represents the patriarchal Federalists who were steadily loosing control to the patriarchal-opposing Republicans. Fichtelberg agrees that “although The Asylum is set during the Revolutionary period, there is ample evidence that it is very much of its own time.” (So, throughout the text the reader can analyze the events not only in relation to the American Revolution but also to the fight between the parties of the Republican and Federalist.) As Mitchell was busy penning commentary on the Federalists' signal failures in congress, he was also composing a novel sentimental to the plight of the liberal-minded American. Not unlike the Republicans opposing large, central government and advocating a strict interpretation of the freedom granting constitution and the right to state government, Mitchell’s characters opposed the dictating, imposing patriarchal figure and advocated for the liberty to govern themselves. The patriarchal government of the Bloomsfield family is summed up with this description of Colonel Bloomsfield’s familial dictatorship:

“his advice was to be taken as law, his injunctions were not to be disputed, the line of conduct marked out by him was to be undeviatingly pursued. His will need only to be known, to be strictly obeyed” (1:35).

Akin to the Federalists and British monarchy, Colonel Bloomsfield was a proponent of a strong, central government, himself. Like the governing of states beneath his federal righteousness, Melissa’s “choice [in marriage and other aspects of life], he had ever trusted and believed, would comport with his own” (1:45). Melissa, the lowly colony, could only petition her kingly father through her brother (1:88), who, however another figure of patriarchy, can not alter that Colonel Bloomsfield commands obedience to his will (2:40-43). Eventually, the “barbarity” of Colonel Bloomsfield leads to his daughter’s excessive distress, deceit, and fake death (2:176). She, like the runaways of the colonies, was suffering under a tyrannical rule, deceived her ruler to escape oppression, yet eventually made amends in being recognized as sovereign.

Examples of patriarchal females in the text are not to be overshadowed by the patriarchal males though. Where Selina could stand up to no male patriarch, she could sass her tongue to her female patriarch, Lady Du Ruyter, by such retorts as, “when you married the baron did you consult your own interests and feelings, or leave others to do it for you” (87). Readers also see Lady Du Ruyter’s extent of power in shaping the Baron’s choice of Selina’s suitor, whom not even her brother-patriarch could change, and in her ability to gain Doria’s allegiance against Selina’s . This female patriarch is undermined in her untimely death after her descent from familial rule. Aunt Martha’s medicinal herbs failing to alleviate Melissa undermine the influence of the Colonel as she is his assistant in locking Melissa in the mansion. When Melissa assumes a powerful role in being able to choose between her two suitors, she is doomed when in due course she is restricted from making that choice by her father. Yet, Melissa’s female rule eventually overpowers that of her father when she is able to fake her death, fool her father, and, in ultimate payback, reveal her trick to him and gain his blessing. She undermines patriarchy by these actions, but by still desiring her father’s approval by calling out to him moments before the nuptial ceremony concluded, she, and Alonzo by way of asking his permission, yields to his authority. Jordan sums up this failed revolt by saying

“the father-lover’s willingness to curb his power for the sake of this beloved is so often depicted as one of the his most valuable demonstrations of love…it implies a recognition on the part of male authority of the desirability of the heroine as an autonomous person and hence of her right to a measure of self-determination” (10-11).

Yet, it is still the male authority giving the right of independence to the female. Mitchell is showing that yes, the female can be somewhat independent, but the patriarch is subtly morphing his rule to keeping his daughter, or bride, in her place. He reinforces Jordan’s assertion that “in a situation where patriarchal rulers in both the public and the private sphere were confronted by revolutionary beliefs in the rights of the individual, a daughter figure’s deeply felt devotion served to allay anxieties over the legitimacy of their power”(9). The message Mitchell sends his readers is that it is not so much that the daughter complies with her father, nay she can revolt if so inclined, but that she wants to comply with him.

Still, with the stories of Selina and Melissa, the happily ever after ending greatly undermines the fate of the traditional, undutiful daughter. After Selina resists her aristocrat father’s wishes she lives out her middle-class life with husband, of her choice, and children, not ending up the stereotypical fallen woman destined to die, such as are depicted in representations of fallen women in other early American novels, namely, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794), and Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette (1797) . Although Selina was tested by hardships, pursued for years by an unwanted suitor, and ultimately lived a life far from family and friends, she recollects “we were not unhappy” (173). She reminisces she had “experienced severe distress, encountered formidable calamities and suffered deep afflictions” but providence gave her a haven of rest and crowned her day with comfort, serenity, and peace (205). For Melissa, after being denounced by her father, locked away in a mansion, frightened by fake ghosts, subject to fainting, sent farther away, and propelled to fake her death, she was at last able to marry her choice of suitor with her patriarch’s approval. The text culminates with Melissa and Alonzo setting up house and the narrator stating, “here [at the asylum] did they realize all the happiness which the sublunary hand of time apportions to mortals. The happy termination of the war soon removed all cause of inquietudes.” The couple was “frequently visited by their parents…all rejoiced in their felicity, after such a diversity of troubles” (2:276).