Delia Bacon, History's Odd Woman Out*
by Nina Baym

FEMINIST literary scholars in search of neglected antebellum women writers have made it impossible to consider fiction without Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionism without Lydia Maria Child, transcendentalism without Margaret Fuller. Stowe, Child, and Fuller were powerful intellectual forces in their own time, and their literary achievements are central to our understanding of antebellum culture now. Delia Bacon's is a different story. Her repeated attempts to forge a literary career were just as repeatedly rebuffed during her lifetime, and her magnum opus, The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded, was indeed, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of it, a "ponderous octavo volume, which fell with a dead thump at the feet of the public and has never been picked up"--unreadable then, and unreadable now. [1]

Yet despite his reservations, Hawthorne subvented publication of the book, and Bacon somehow managed to attract New England luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Elizabeth Peabody to her cause. Her argument that the man "Shakespeare" did not write "Shakespeare's" plays was eccentric, to be sure, but eccentric in ways that resonated culturally. The woman who entered history as originator of the "Baconian" theory of Shakespearean authorship was no garden variety crank. Mad or no (and Bacon did suffer an irreversible mental breakdown soon after the book appeared), her thesis was tellingly inflammatory, for it rose within the framework of, yet in agonistic relation to, a particular New England local culture. [2]

The local culture in question is that of antebellum Hartford and New Haven, conservative centers of a Calvinism in transition, theologically inflected science, and Federalist-Whig politics. Bacon (1811-59) imbibed from this milieu an ambition to excel in literature that it was bound to frustrate and an eventual belief in her own divine mission that it was certain to repudiate. The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded can be read as the attempt of an aspiring, displaced intellectual--displaced because female and declassed--to stage herself once and for all for the approval of people whose applause she coveted but whose rules she could never fully comprehend or follow. Culture enters at every point of such a reading, controlling what it means to aspire, to be intellectual, to be displaced, to be female, to be declassed, to be applauded, to stage oneself. Bacon's lifelong work of inventing and reinventing herself as a female intellectual celebrity, though a marginal episode in literary and cultural history, deserves attention for the ways in which it defines the center through the very forms of its marginality.

In his Shakespeare's Lives, Samuel Schoenbaum, the eminent scholar of Shakespeare biography, interprets all the anti-Stratfordians as rebels against cultural and professional expertise whose invariable substitution of some high-ranking personage for the supposedly unlettered Shakespeare paradoxically indexes "the heretic's revulsion against the provincial and lowly." [3] Schoenbaum's use of "heretic" is metaphorical, but Nathaniel Hawthorne thought Bacon understood herself quite literally as a heretic. When she realized that her readings of the plays ran counter to the "religious doctrines in which she had been educated," he says, Bacon was horrified at first; but she chose her readings over her religion--indeed, she made her readings into her religion. Shakespeare's plays as she read them were nothing less than a new gospel, which she had been appointed to make known; "she had faith that special interpositions of Providence were forwarding her human efforts." To Bacon, Hawthorne noted elsewhere, "every leaf and line" of her work "was sacred, for all had been written under so deep a conviction of truth as to assume, in her eyes, the aspect of inspiration." [4]

It is not surprising that Bacon fell into such a theological mode of self-understanding; this was the psychological terminology her culture deployed. The motif of heresy was omnipresent in the Calvinist historiography that had trained her, and her writings from the start luxuriated in metaphors of martyrdom. Nor, in Bacon's case, was rejecting authority along with the provincial and lowly a true paradox. It was precisely because authority was provincial and lowly that she rejected it.

Although of impeccable New England lineage on both sides, Delia's family had slid far down the social scale. [5] David, her father, was a visionary Calvinist minister who failed first in a series of frontier ministries in Michigan and then as founding patriarch of a utopian theocracy in Tallmadge, Ohio. Returning with his large family to Hartford in 1812 when Delia--the fifth of seven children--was a year old, he died in poverty five years later. The family turned to the Hartford elite for patronage; the children went to work as soon as possible. The oldest, Leonard, nine years Delia's senior, was sponsored through Yale and rose to prominence as a leading clergyman in New Haven.

Of course Delia did not have Leonard's opportunities. For some years she shuttled between a wealthy foster family in Hartford and her mother's home in eastern New York State. She had only a year of secondary schooling (in 1825, at Catharine Beecher's Evangelical academy) and began to teach for a living at fifteen. Even as she followed the obscure route of innumerable, minimally trained New England girls, Delia Bacon was driven by compensatory dreams of becoming a dazzling performer who combined great social respectability with great personal distinction. These dreams were significantly underwritten by her conviction that she was a genius, a conviction that had been fostered by those around her.

It was by no means aberrant for an antebellum woman to view herself as a genius. On the contrary, the association of genius with unworldliness, excitable intelligence, and expressive emotionality linked it closely with the feminine in cultural discourse. Rufus Griswold, for example, remarked in the preface to his anthology of American women poets that "the moral nature of women, in its finest and richest development, partakes of some of the qualities of genius" and that "the most essential genius in men is marked by qualities which we may call feminine." [6] The notion was so widely circulated via Germaine de Stael's beloved 1807 novel, Corinne, that schoolgirls and their teachers in the northeast searched for genius in their midst almost as a matter of course. In The Female Student, Almira Hart Phelps of the Troy Female Seminary gave physical form to the quality in her description of the youthful poet Lucretia Davidson: "so vivid in my mind is the recollection of her animated and enthusiastic manner at that time, the bright flashing of her dark eye, and the glow of her brilliant complexion, that . . . it seems as if she now stood before me, the living image of youthful genius and sensibility." Catharine Beecher, Delia's former teacher, recalled her pupil in similar terms: "Possessing an agreeable person, a pleasing and intelligent countenance, an eye of deep and earnest expression, a melodious voice, a fervid imagination, and the embryo of rare gifts of eloquence in thought and expression, she was pre-eminently one who would be pointed out as a genius." [7]

The girl genius, at once admired and isolated, stood in complex relation to her classmates. Often she came from a lower social class than they. Since it was typical of genius to exceed boundaries, those ignorant of the boundaries were most likely to transgress; moreover, those outside the genteel circle had an obvious need, which the well-positioned did not, to insist upon themselves. Paradoxically and painfully for women in a sexually asymmetric society, female excess, even when inspired, was subject to discipline and censure. Ultimately, as the tragic plot of Corinne so clearly demonstrated, the world preferred ordinary women and aristocrats preferred their own kind. The plot of many an antebellum women's novel chronicles this poignant taming and normalizing of a genius who must subside (or grow) into conventional womanhood if she is to gain the approbation of society.

The double bind of the girl genius in a culture dominated by a female pedagogy like Catharine Beecher's is cruelly obvious in the teacher's recollection. Success in composition became "the highest object" of Delia Bacon's ambition, Beecher reports, even as success continually eluded her:

Her young companions had enjoyed opportunities for discipline that had been denied to her, while the judges of these productions were persons of cultivated and classic tastes.... Few can realize the feelings of this young aspirant, as these exuberant and cherished buds of aspirant imagination were so ruthlessly cut off and thrown aside. Again and again she composed and recomposed, and yet it was all in vain. She could neither satisfy her teacher nor gain the wished-for-prize. [8]

For Beecher the genius is one who, by definition, cannot win the prize; had she more discipline--i.e., more class--she might win but would be, then, less a genius. Given such a context, one can easily imagine Bacon attempting throughout her life to combine incompatibles: to operate in the social center while remaining the genius on the margins. These goals were further inflected by the theocentric vocabulary of a milieu where orthodoxy was inseparable from social practice--as Catharine Beecher's recollections of her pupil's eager ambition make so clear: "the fear was generated in the mind of her teacher," she wrote, "that the desire of human estimation especially in the form of literary ambition, might prove a snare fatal to her spiritual well-being." [9]

Bacon's first published work was a book of three historical stories written in the manner of James Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Titled Tales of the Puritans, it appeared anonymously in 1831 when the author was just twenty years old. The book was not a success; but derivative as it is, one can discern in it the layered political and religious tendencies that the anti-Shakespeare project would make manifest. All three stories are about superior women displaced in the New World. Featuring a heroine who exemplifies the fairy-tale "princess in disguise" motif, each plot spins a fantasy wherein a politics of class (upper) and gender (female) merges with the Protestant Reformation conviction, that one's religious sect comprises all the good in an otherwise evil world. Many antebellum women's novels about early New England use this motif, often centering on dependent and marginalized orphans who discover lineages of wealth and high breeding, thus confounding those who have snubbed them. These novels, like Bacon's stories, convey an uneasy tension between filiopietistic celebration of the yeoman Puritans and an anglophilia that celebrates aristocracy in the person of the misfit heroine. Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok is the best-known example of this type. [10]

"The Regicides," the longest story in Bacon's book, invents a fictional daughter for the regicide Goffe, who, according to a favorite Connecticut legend, hid out in Hadley with his father-in-law Whalley for two decades. Bacon's word-portrait of Alice, the daughter who knows nothing of her parentage, unmistakably limns the girl genius:

Alice Weldon had indeed exhibited on many occasions, what had seemed wildness and eccentricity of character, to those who had no clue to the secret springs of her noble nature. A romantic imagination, a set of ardent and enthusiastic feelings, and a certain pure and fearless independence of soul, together formed a character which all might not love, and which only the few with spirits like hers, could truly appreciate. Alice Weldon had never exhibited to her companions, or even cherished in her secret heart, any selfish emotions of pride; on the contrary, a peculiar sweetness of deportment on her part, had ever marked their intercourse. But there was a kind of unconscious superiority in the curl of her rosy lip; she seemed to live in a world of fancy and feeling, to them inaccessible; she was more beautiful, more graceful, more intellectual than her companions; and though not in fact haughty or capricious, it was not strange that as the character of the child became gradually merged in that of the elegant, high spirited and romantic young lady, these epithets began freely to attach themselves to her name. [11]

In "The Fair Puritan" the young and beautiful Lady Eveline, motivated entirely by religious concerns, leaves her luxurious surroundings and loving siblings to emigrate to the New World. Class and breeding isolate her from the other Puritans, whom she nevertheless serves with pious ardor, and in the end she dies of a disease contracted while nursing the sick. Finally, in "Castine," the Puritan heroine frankly turns her back on the little commonwealth, linking up with a young Catholic nobleman in exciting circumstances of Indian capture and rescue and going back to France as his wife.

Though fiction-writing was not to earn her a reputation, over time Delia Bacon achieved a kind of intellectual celebrity as a history teacher in Hartford, New Haven, and New York City. As early as 1833 she began lecturing, not in a common school or even a girls' academy but to elite girls who had completed formal schooling--offering them a form of post-graduate instruction; later she added classes for adult women. [12] According to Beecher, more than a hundred "ladies" in New Haven, "including the wives of the governor, judges, professors, and other dignitaries of society, were assembled to learn wisdom from her lips, devoting an unusual amount of time, and paying a liberal ticket for the opportunity." Thereby Bacon received, according to Beecher, "one of the highest compliments ever paid to an American lady. [13]

But even as she collected compliments, Bacon was developing a critique of her culture centered on its failure to reward genius and live up to its responsibilities. Her 1839 closet drama, The Bride of Fort Edward, expanded a prize-winning newspaper story she had published eight years earlier. In the interval Bacon had begun to think about the theater, in particular to conceive of it as a pedagogical space with much more potential than the classroom. Suggesting that she thought of plays as illustrated lectures composed by the teacher-playwright for an audience of students, she wrote her brother Leonard that she meant "to display a grand and awful truth not in the abstract but in a form better fitted to strike the common mind-the living breathing reality. [14] Later, in the essay inaugurating her attack on Shakespeare--"William Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them," published in Putnam's in 1856--she would similarly refer to drama as a "mighty instrument of popular sway," a "mechanism for moving and moulding the multitude." [15] Vivian Hopkins, one of Bacon's biographers, claims that Leonard Bacon criticized a draft of The Bride for lack of dramatic action and theorizes that Bacon recast the full-scale performance play into a closet drama in response . [16] But in revising to take her brother's strictures into account, Bacon attacked the commercial idea of drama on which they were based, thereby also attacking the elite he represented.

The Bride of Fort Edward centers on Jane McCrea, murdered in 1777 by Indian allies of General Burgoyne when she was en route to Fort Edward to meet her tory fiance. The story, expertly sensationalized by the American side, became part of the iconography of the Revolutionary War. Burgoyne himself had much to do with circulating the legend, since he credited it with inspiring the demoralized patriot army that caused his defeat. In the many retellings of the saga, Jane--often dressed in bridal costume as she made her way through the dark woods--functioned as the most banal and blatant kind of sentimentalized object. Bacon's play carefully orchestrates a dramatic conflict between unstoppable world history and frustrated individual desire, alternating blank verse scenes dominated by Helen, the fictionalized McCrea, with scenes in colloquial prose involving the American army. The preface asserts that the play means to exhibit the abstract truth of "the apparent sacrifice of the individual in the grand movements for the race." The sacrifice is only apparent because Helen is at once crushed by history and immortalized through her usefulness to its just purposes. Even Helen knows the patriot cause is just: "Let the high cause of right and freedom ... prevail", she muses, "though I, with all this sensitive, warm, shrinking life; with all this new-found wealth of love, and hope, he on its iron way. [17]

Bacon frames Helen's story with another, which depicts how patriot officers convert the massacred life into propaganda for the Revolutionary cause. These wise and good men realize that ordinary folk, unschooled in the nuances of political theory and impervious to abstract debate, will respond immediately to the sentimental spectacle of Jane's death. No matter he political affiliation: she was lolled by a savage enemy. The Burgoyne character says as much himself. "A young and innocent girl, seeking the protection of our camp, is inhumanly murdered by Indians in our pay. A single tale like this is enough to undo at a blow all that we have accomplished here." The play closes when the army of foot soldiers, previously "melting away like a snow-wreath, views the spectacle and storms off predictably to avenge it: "To the death! Freedom for ever!" [18]

The triangulated script, then, contains two plots: the framed drama shows how a spectacle might operate on the populace; the frame shows how this spectacle was created by wise and astute men acting on behalf of history. Only those with the power to make propaganda can appreciate this frame, and since The Bridge of Fort Edward was published as a closet drama, not a stage play, one can assume that it was ultimately designed for such readers. The Bridge of Fort Edward dramatizes the political and didactic work drama ought to do, if only the authorities knew how to use it properly.

As the author of this drama, Bacon has transformed Helen's victimization into her own mastery. She presents the lovelorn Helen sympathetically but affiliates with those who understand the divine course of history and the providential destiny of the United States. Addressing an elite audience, Bacon reminds it of the traditional republican responsibility to instruct the people in the arts of self-government in a manner suited to their less developed understanding. If theater in the United States was not fulfilling this task, the fault to Bacon lay with those in charge who were running the theater for profit instead of principle. This would be precisely the criticism of Shakespeare the man, as opposed to Shakespeare the plays, she would later develop.

The Bride of Fort Edward showed that Delia Bacon was not satisfied with her role of purveying history to well-off women. But the play sold poorly and the wider field of action she sought eluded her. Her local reputation as a teacher continued to grow until 1847, when Alexander MacWhorter, a young divine whom she had been seeing chastely but too often and too publicly, accused her of indecorous behavior. (He seems to have been trying to escape rumors that the two were engaged.) To support his charge, he circulated some effusive letters Bacon had written him, including a few in which she pleaded with him to return her correspondence. Leonard Bacon acted to have MacWhorter formally censured by the church. The public hearing on the issue devolved into a veritable media circus. Nathaniel Taylor, Yale's most prominent theologian, supported MacWhorter; Bacon was required to testify publicly on extremely short notice, and MacWhorter received nothing more than a mild reproof for imprudence. Both wings of the Calvinist church-the town represented by her brother, and Yale College represented by the tribunal-had failed Delia Bacon who, if by no means a fallen woman, had nonetheless completely lost control of her own public image. Her reputation as a "lady"-on which her career so vitally depended and to which she was so centrally committed-was smashed.

The debacle might have caused Bacon to reject the God of her church, but it did not. Nor did she attack the church hierarchy, as Catharine Beecher soon would. Beecher claimed that she wrote Truth Stranger Than Fiction (1850) to expose the clerical hypocrisy and corruption so obvious in the case, and she was confident (wrongly) that, the church could not withstand her demonstration. "The female sex are accustomed to look upon the ministers of Jesus Christ as their special guardians and protectors. The preservation of this grateful respect and confidence is one of the most sacred trusts committed to the ministry," she insisted. Although she did not accept Beecher's designation that she was a chosen agent of God's cleansing wrath against the fallen church, Bacon certainly employed providential thinking as she attempted to understand what had happened to her. And, when she began to discern that Shakespeare had not written the plays attributed to him, she could only interpret such remarkably unexpected ideas as a divine influx. She writes to Beecher, a year after the public hearing, of newfound work for which she has been prepared by "all that I have suffered," a "true and only vocation" making "the prospect of my future life not endurable merely, but more precious than it had ever been before." "I have something to do yet before I die," she continues, "and I would gladly suffer all that I have suffered, and think it little, if that were the cost of its accomplishment-l have work to do which is not my own,-'day labor,' and the night is at hand! I am tired of this mere suffering." [19]

In elaborating and promulgating her anti-Stratford theory, Bacon was ultimately far less concerned to attack Shakespeare the impostor than to promulgate the message she found in the plays. Her incendiary essay attacking the bard, she told Hawthorne, was meant merely "to send the old Player about his business, to make way for this graver performance." [20] in this graver performance, Bacon boldly theorized that the plays were republican polemics produced from within Elizabeth's and James's court by a secret society founded by Walter Ralegh and headed in the next generation by Francis Bacon, who was chief if not sole author of the plays. Extending the thesis, she argued that if the plays were not what they had been taken to be, then neither the Elizabethan age nor history itself was what it had been taken to be. The heart of Bacon's re-reading involved rewriting history itself. This fundamentally historicist approach to the plays developed from an intellectual . self-presentation that had always been grounded in a supposed mastery of history. But now, as she thoroughly revised a period of English history that was also foundational to United States history, Bacon made herself an agent in history as well as a recounter of it.

The influence of Shakespeare had been obvious throughout in the construction and rhythms of The Bride of Fort Edwards; when Bacon ventured into drama she worked from her culture's most revered model without seeming to question his authorship. But in composing a closet drama rather than a performance play, she worked with one of several possible Shakespeares available to her. Writing at length about the circulation of Shakespeare's performed plays among all social levels in the antebellum United States, Lawrence Levine has argued that the bard's popularity reflects a scene where high and low culture were not yet differentiated. The Astor Place riots of 1849, for example, testified to the passionate involvement of working-class audiences in Shakespeare's works, a phenomenon that had all but vanished by the end of the century. [21]

But Levine tells only part of the story. Long before mid century there also existed a Shakespeare of the literati, a Shakespeare of the scholar, and a Shakespeare of schoolroom recitation, which together mapped out clear demarcations between cultural levels. Well-known interpretive essays by Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among others, had already turned the plays into sites for complicated, subtle literary criticism. Charles Lamb argued in an 1811 essay, "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation," that Shakespeare was far too deep for mere performance. Increasingly weighty annotated scholarly editions were appearing, including Edmund Malone's ten-volume Variorum in 1790 and its substantial expansion by James Boswell, Jr., in 1821, the so-called Third Variorum. All this English material was widely available in the antebellum United States, and American critics and scholars also wrote and lectured about the bard. Delia Bacon knew Shakespeare through reading and teaching, not attending performances, and it was these didactic, library Shakespeares whom she could not reconcile with the historically known playwright. The Shakespeare she invented was an intellectual courtier who had elaborated a science of human nature and hoped to prepare the uneducated populace, according to scientific rules, for its destined role in the progress of history. The Shakespeare she invented, in short, was a version of Francis Bacon.

In fusing William Shakespeare with Francis Bacon, Delia brought together two of the most revered cultural icons of her day. It takes a major effort in our time to imagine a historical moment when Francis Bacon was a hero to scientists just as Shakespeare was to practitioners of polite literature. "Bacon" stood for the inductive method: patiently collecting concrete, observable facts; then developing successively broader generalizations from these facts; and, ultimately, constructing a theory that accounted for every single one of them. This theory was called a law of nature; it did not presume to explain how anything had come into being but only how it functioned. Perfect functioning implied the perfection of the deity, who was the cause of it all. The emergence of Baconian empiricism in England just as Catholicism was being disestablished there was thought to be no historical coincidence; rather, it was the express result of Protestant ideology, according to which people looked at the world through their own eyes and saw it as the product of divine benevolence.

The disciplines of science were in the process of organizing themselves throughout the northeastern United States during Delia Bacon's lifetime, and all the Yale professors of chemistry, astronomy, geology, and "natural philosophy' (physics) were advocates of Bacon's system as they knew it through the mediation of Scottish commonsense philosophy. Delia Bacon was well acquainted with these men, especially. Benjamin Silliman, Yale's first professor of chemistry, and his son Benjamin Silliman, Jr., who succeeded him in the same position. [22] It was known that Francis Bacon had not fully carried out his plan of work; Delia Bacon became convinced that some missing parts of the plan had been completed, specifically, the plays of "Shakespeare," a collection of human facts organized to display the laws of a human nature that was ineluctably progressing towards the worldwide institution of republican governments.

These were heady ideas, and for some time Delia Bacon kept them to herself. In the meantime, she found a new field and many new admirers when she reinstituted her history classes in the-hberal precincts of Unitarian Boston and Cambridge. Eliza Farrar, married to Harvard's professor of mathematics and author of a best-selling advice book (The Young Lady's Friend, first published in 1836), provided here, parlor for one such course. She recalled that Bacon "ended with a fine climax that was quite thrilling.... All who saw her then must remember how handsome she was, and how gracefully she used her wand in pointing to the illustrations of her subject. I used to be reminded by her of Raphael's sibyls, and she often spoke like an oracle." "Even now,"; her friend Caroline Dall remembered much later, "it is only necessary to close my eyes, to see once more that graceful form which always suggested the priestess of Apollo, to hear again the vibrant voice which penetrated to one's inmost soul. [23]

Her identity as a lad, v genius firmly reestablished, Bacon took a truly daring next step, transforming her private Classes into public lectures which she delivered in Boston and then in New York. This work required presence behind the stage as well as on it, since she had to line up sponsors and supporters ahead of time. She was "a lady of elegant appearance," according to the New York Herald for I December 1852, "and decidedly pretty," wearing "a black velvet dress which set off her figure to advantage"; she delivered her lecture sitting in a chair, in a quiet and gentle manner, with a voice "musical, earnest, and sympathetic" and an enunciation "clear, distinct, measured." At the time she was probably the first and only woman lecturing publicly on a non-reform topic, and the topic could not have been more ambitious. The Herald reported-perhaps with playful irony-that "She began by saying 'she did not come there as an advocate of what were called woman's rights,' and she then proceeded to lay out and illustrate the proposition that history is a great whole, connected in all its parts." Delia Bacon came on stage in the person of a lady and performed the part of history. Evidently her performance was driven by overdetermined desires for personal vindication and triumph; but it was nothing compared to the triumph she contemplated as discoverer and publicizer of the truth about Shakespeare's plays.

Bacon's theory about Shakespeare's plays was already in formation when she moved to Boston. She seems to have talked extensively about it at least to Elizabeth Peabody, for in later years, when Leonard insisted that his sister's "theory about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, and her views of Lord Bacon were a part of her insanity," Peabody countered that the theory was not only evident long before the insanity but its "criticism of those times is the most profound that has ever been written. [24] Some of the republicanism in the final formulation of the theory may well have come from Peabody, just as some of its insistence on the divinity of human nature may have resulted from her exposure to local transcendentalism. But after a while, according to Peabody, Bacon became quite secretive about her ideas-not because she doubted them but because she was afraid of being scooped. Although she used her attack on Shakespeare to criticize the market mentality, she considered herself the owner as well as trustee of her theory and meant to get credit for it. [25] She had no doubt that publication of the theory would make her world-famous.

When Bacon conceptualized the plays as a series of republican polemics authored chiefly by Francis Bacon, she did not claim kinship with him. Yet the coincidence of names must have played a part in her thinking; here was her unacknowledged forebear, an intellectual if not a blood relation. Having affiliated with Shakespeare in The Bride of Fort Edward, she was now disavowing him for a far more attractive form of authority, replacing an untalented merchandiser of dramatic goods with a courtier and gentleman who was a great thinker and also, in her reading of him, a republican revolutionary.

Bacon's historicist focus, her insistence that no great literature could be merely entertaining or even purely aesthetic, in her mind privileged her reading above all others, a position that oddly adumbrates counter-aesthetic historicist criticism of the present day. She even went a step further to argue that Bacon and his group would not have been content to limit their radical work to mere writing: "there was to have been a change in the government here at one time, very different from the one which afterwards occurred, if the original plans of these men had succeeded. [26] The ciphered language she insisted was deployed in the plays-the discourse awaiting Delia Bacon's unsealing-had been developed originally as a way for the courtiers to communicate with each other without arousing the crown's suspicion. [27]

Because, on the one hand, the crown was too vigilant and, on the other, the people were insufficiently trained in republican principles to be trustworthy citizens in a free state, the courtiers abandoned their planned revolution. Only then did the frustrated Elizabethan man of action become a man of letters, who "invented new letters in his need, letters that would go farther than the sword" (p. xlix). In short, the plays developed a sophisticated republican political theory in a coded language that conveyed it (under the very nose of the queen, whose regime the theory sought to undermine) to an unlettered public via the sensuous immediacy of dramatic performance.

If examined closely, Bacon's argument undermines the religion' political origins of United States history according to which the Puritans were embryonic republican anti-monarchists as well as Protestant martyrs. If she was night, anti-monarchism was a courtly, not a Puritan, credo; providential history as it had long been understood and taught in New England, and was increasingly taught in schools throughout the nation, was wrong. Yet, what New England had been in its founding was far less important to Bacon than what it had become; her reading of the plays attacks a contemporary mercantile and mercenary elite that sought to justify itself through sham appeals to patriotism, religiob, and high culture. Only such a misguided elite could possibly be satisfied with, indeed promote, an idea of the plays as documents created for mere aesthetic pleasure or, worse still, for monetary gain in the artistic marketplace.

For many reasons, and in a most un-Baconian manner, Bacon failed to recognize or even understand the need to corroborate her theory with extrinsic evidence, and it was due to this fundamental flaw that her entire project foundered. Her view of history itself was purely textual; she thought (like many a literary scholar today) that a good, convincing interpretation was the same as a proof. Caroline Dall remembered her saying that "she drew her evidences of Francis Bacon's authorship from two sources, the internal and the external. She found them in the Plays themselves, and outside of the Plays, in history. [28] But for Bacon "history" meant history books, and history books meant the compendium or compilation nearest to hand. For all the scholastic ingenuity she expended on interpretation, she was uninstructed in editorial procedures, naive about the material constitution of documentary evidence. Bravely performative though she was, she lacked the mental furniture to live in a non-textual, material, world. She was completely unscientific. And, of course, this deficit had in part identified her as a genius in the first place. In Phelps's words, "genius is of too fine, too exquisite a nature to bear the rude contact of worldly things." [29]

Yet before one dismisses out of hand the inadequacies of an approach in which the printed word-any printed word-acquires a kind of divine status, it is worth remembering how prevalent such an approach still was in the conservative churches. Although Higher Criticism of the Bible, on which subsequent textual literary analysis was to be modeled, had certainly begun to influence the thinking of liberal religious elites, conservatives by no means generally accepted it, for it challenged the theory of inspired biblical compositions. Moreover, the habit of interpreting texts typologically was still common in 91 New England. Baconianism and the Bible lived side by side.

Indeed, Bacon's success in finding sponsors, at least initially, suggests that her rejection of Shakespeare struck a chord. One might dismiss Elizabeth Peabody's enthusiasm for the cause on the grounds that Peabody loved a losing fight, but what is to be said about Emerson, who joined with Peabody in recommending Bacon's work to George Putnam? Emerson himself, in Representative Men, fretted over the lack of fit between Shakespeare's works and the man known as Shakespeare. And what of George Putnam, who agreed to publish "William Shakespeare and His Plays"? To be sure, as Peabody's cousin and as a publisher soliciting Emerson's contributions, Putnam may have found it politic to do the two a favor. One should not, however, neglect the evidence that his mother-Elizabeth Peabody's aunt-had intellectual habits much like Delia Bacon's.

[She] was a believer in types and symbols, and she found not only in the Scriptures but in many other things a double meaning, the first apparent and direct, the second hidden and indirect or spiritual. For the purpose of expounding these theories in regard to the interpretation of the Scriptures, she began a series of commentaries on the Old Testament.... Two octavo volumes [were] published, with filial respect, by her son George, in 1852 and 1853. [30]

Bacon also garnered financial support from Charles Butler, a New York banker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist she met through her lecture series, who backed her journey to England in 1853. She undertook the trip ostensibly to search out confirming evidence, but once she arrived, she simply wrote ever more pages of interpretation. [31] Early in her sojourn she visited Bacon's tomb once, in the company of Charles Butler; but she avoided Stratford until her treatise had been published. Her notion that papers testifying to the existence of the society were buried in Shakespeare's grave seems to have developed late, in response to iterated demands for ocular proof. Hawthorne was among the few in whom she confided her fresh idea, and he was responsible for circulating it after her death. [32]

Proceeding mainly by ridicule and invective, "William Shakespeare and His Plays" scorned a venerated theory as a means of scorning its Generators. "Oh, stupidity past finding out!" that anybody could "worship this monstrous incongruity," Bacon exclaims ("Inquiry," p. 119). This was unladylike writing to say the least; thirty years later Caroline Dall wrote mournfully of the essay: "as I go back to it, it grieves me bitterly, its coarseness and flippancy seem so unworthy of, and so unlike my friend. [33] Published anonymously, the essay adopts a voice intended to be masculine, to imply a male authority behind the disembodied neutrality of print. In a footnote, the editors sustained the masquerade by referring to the author only as a "learned and eloquent scholar" (p. 98). In contrast to the Cooperian narrative style of Tales of the Puritans and the Shakespearean mimicry of The Bride of Fort Edward, Bacon's anti-Stratfordian prose is orotund and numbingly repetitious-another imitative exercise, this one of the pulpit rhetoric and political oratory she had heard all her life.

Stripped of some of its interesting complexities, "William Shakespeare and His Plays" accomplishes its task through a series of arguments. First: Shakespeare could not have Written the plays attributed to him because they reflect a level of education and cosmopolitan sophistication he lacked. Second: his failure to get them printed, or even to preserve the manuscripts, indicates complete ignorance of their true significance. The Shakespeare known to history was a poorly educated theatrical hack who "exhibited these plays at his theatre in the way of his trade, and cared for them precisely as a tradesman would; cared for them; as he would have cared for tin kettles, or earthen pans and pots, if they had been in his line" (p. 124). Bacon intends her tradesman metaphor to be taken literally. Especially important for the political argument she will develop in The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded, Bacon maintains that such a self-serving commercial mentality could not possibly have conceived of patriotically disinterested lines like these:

Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee....
Let all the ends thou aim'st at, be thy country's,
Thy God's and truth's; then, if thou fall'st, thou fall'st
A blessed martyr! [34]

Third: despite the absurdity of imagining a person like the historical Shakespeare as author of such work, the reverence in which the plays have been held testifies to the world's sense of their value. But over time the name ascribed to them has been partly detached from the man- "It is only the work itself that we now know by that name-the phenomenon and not its beginning' (p. 125). To square the plays' felt experience with the man supposed to have authored them, critics have endorsed a pernicious theory of aberrant genius that obscures the plays' complex historicity and is, as well, irrelevant to the historical Shakespeare. "Condemned to refer the origin of these works to the vulgar, illiterate man who kept the theatre where they were first exhibited," asks Bacon, "how could we, how could any one, dare to see what is really in them?" The only reasonable solution, again, is to dismiss Shakespeare, for the plays are learned and scholarly in a way that genius is not; this is no question of mere "lyric inspiration" or the merely "dramatic genius" of a "Bunyan or a Burns" (pp. 131-32). The historical Shakespeare was neither of the people nor of their rulers; his was the rising spirit of market values, and so to imagine that he could have written the plays only exhibits one's own crass mercantilism. Through this "Shakespeare" she invents, then, Bacon criticizes the prevalence of market values among those who should be instructing the populace in civic virtue.

What the plays need at this juncture, Bacon explains are "historical investigation and criticism" (p. 154), Which she plans to offer in her anticipated major study. Her theory of an authorship by disinterested aristocratic proto-republican patriots working against absolute power and inherited rank obliterates all the crypto-royalist affiliations of her earlier writings, allowing her to embrace the court without embracing its ideology, to have her royals without royalism. "The Fair Puritan" had stated more or less outrightly that the high-ranking woman who abandoned her aristocratic privilege for the Puritan cause was much more admirable than the more ordinary person who had much less to lose, materially and socially, by renouncing monarchist politics. Bacon's theory of Shakespearean authorship locates this self-sacrificing idealism within the heart of the court itself, among a group of worldly and educated men who alone had the privileges requisite for writing the plays. Thus, the theory of coded discourse makes courtiers into patriots willing to face martyrdom for their cause.

At the center of this group of courtiers is Francis Bacon. Identifying Shakespeare's plays as the missing practical applications of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, Delia hits upon a strategy that allows her to use The Advancement of Learning as a gloss on the plays-a substantial revision of Bacon as well as Shakespeare. She admits that her approach demands "a very different kind of study from any that we have naturally thought it worth while to spend on them, so long as we regarded them as works of pastime merely.... It is pastime no longer. It is a study, the most patient, the most profoundly earnest to which these works now invite us" (Philosophy, pp. 175-76). "Of Art as anything in itself, with an independent tribunal, and law with an ethic and ritual of its own, this inventor of the one Art, that has for its end the relief of the human estate and the Creator's glory, knows nothing" (p. 303). In the plays, she insists, we want to find-and we do-"the new method of scientific inquiry applied to the questions in which men are most deeply interested-questions which were then imperiously and instantly urged on the thoughtful mind. We want to see it applied to POLITICS in the reign of James the First" (p. 187).

Bacon's works of scientific intellection analyzed human nature; his imaginative works-the plays-projected his philosophy in concrete examples. The scientific insistence that human nature is entirely lawful, that humans may be perfected by learning and applying the law, is an obvious contradiction of old-style Calvinism, even of those forms of perfectionism involving actions of faith and free grace. A perfectionist credo of sorts was already present in The Bridge of Fort Edward, where it manifests itself as routine patriotic Enlightenment rationalism of a sort that had long since been reconciled with Calvinism in the New England churches. The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded goes far beyond the rational patriotism of The Bride, however, to sketch out a new gnosis of revealed science, through which instructed individuals might align themselves with historical progress. Bypassing the Bible, the Philosophy (which includes some sarcastic references to puerile Semitic achievements) substitutes a hew occult corpus for interpretation. The plays become, literally, Sacred Writ. "Great news for man he [Francis Bacon] brings; the powers which are working in the human life, and not those which are working without it only, are working in obedience to laws.... Good news for the state, good news for man; . . . confirmations from the universal scriptures, of the revelation of the divine in the human" (pp. 486-87). This statement rings with the democratic individualism and the Protestant inventiveness of an age of numerous new breakaway sects, at least one of which (Mormonism) was formed around a wholly new' sacred scripture.

The prominence of textual interpretation along with an intensely anti-individualist utopian ethos differentiate Bacon's theory from the Emersonian transcendentalism that it obviously resembles and at times seems to endorse. "Good news, because that law of the greater whole, which is the worthier-that law of the common-weal, which is the human law-that law which in man is reason and conscience, is in the nature of things, and not in man only' (p. 487). Man's "relation to the common-weal is essential to the perfection of his individual nature"; "The highest good of the particular and private nature ... comprehends necessarily the good of the whole in its intention" (pp. 477-78). Francis Bacon's project aims to realize the highest form of the polity, the perfect, the truly republican, state.

The core of The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded is comprised of extended close readings of King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, in which the languages of New Criticism and New Historicism are anachronistically and startlingly foreshadowed. Framed by historical material in a long reface preface and a shorter conclusion, the three plays are read as coded attacks on the Tudor and Stuart monarchies rooted in Francis Bacon's supposed science of human nature, reflecting republican ideals of government by self-governing individuals. In a sequence on presence and absence, Bacon argues that though King Lear stands for "pure will and tyranny in their most frantic form" (p. 202), his presence on the stage as "insulted trampled outcast majesty' also signifies what is absent-the people-reminding readers "that the State is composed throughout, down to its most loathsome unimaginable depths of neglect and misery, of individual men, social units, clothed of nature with the same faculties and essential human dignities and susceptibilities to good and evil, and crowned of nature with the common sovereignty of reason" (pp. 204, 208). The emperor in Julius Caesar is "the most splendid and magnanimous representative of arbitrary power ... so that here it is the mere abstract question as to the expediency and propriety of permitting any one man to impose his individual will on the nation" (p. 326); the play's outcome, which dramatizes that principled patriots were "no more fit to be trusted with absolute power than he was, nor, in fact, half so fit" (p. 329), proves that neither single-man rule nor junta can produce the perfect state. Only self-governing individuals can do that.

Still more important for Delia Bacon's argument is Coriolanus (which has recently emerged as a key text for New Historicist readings of Shakespeare), wherein "the whole question of government is seized at its source" (p. 350). The argument of this play, as Bacon interprets it, is the familiar nineteenth-century insistence that until the people are instructed in the arts of self-government, they are untrustworthy electors, certain to choose a demagogue to rule over them. She explains: "That which stops short of the weal of the whole for its end, is that which is under criticism here; and whether it exist in 'the one,' or 'the few,' or "the many,--and these are the terms that are employed here,--whether it exist in the civil magistracy, sustained by a popular submission, or in the power of the victorious military chief, at the head of his still extant and resistless armament, it is necessarily rejected as a principle of sovereignty and permanence" (pp.353-541).

An uninstructed people is especially likely to choose a military hero, whom Bacon sees exemplified in Coriolanus as "the pure negation of that heroism which his author conceives of," a man who "knows no common-wealth; the wealth that is wealth in his eyes, is all his own; the weal that he conceives of, is the weal that is warm at his own heart only" (p. 395).

Each play treated by Delia Bacon puts a bad ruler on display to ask what a ruler's responsibility ought to be. As an anti-populist democrat, she envisages a long period of tutelage before the people can safely take government into their own hands; it is the task of rulers to provide the necessary instruction. Among bad rulers, the military hero is perhaps most germane to the 1840s, when the pro-Clay Whigs--the faction to which all the Bacons seem to have adhered--saw their man rejected twice in favor of military men (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor). In depicting Coriolanus, Bacon says, the poet separates "instinctive military heroism, and the principle of so-called heroic greatness, from the true principles of heroism and nobility, the true principle of subjection and sovereignty in the individual human nature and in the commonweal" (p. 427). When the party of the ruling class supports a military man because he can win popular elections, the ruling class has failed its responsibility, and history takes a backward step.

In sum, The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded tried to merge contemporary discourses of religion, science, and politics together in one historical package called "Shakespeare's philosophy"--philosophy, not commercial entertainment. Delia Bacon's history was all wrong, but her historicist reading of "Shakespeare" was virtually unique in her culture and ambitiously self-aware. Restoring Francis Bacon to his imagined place at the forefront of historical progress, Delia Bacon laid claim to a similar place for herself in her own time. Her project failed; once and for all she did not win the prize. A few months after The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded was published in 1857, she had a complete psychological breakdown; she was taken back to the United States by a nephew and died in an asylum less than two years later. Insofar as she figures in cultural discourse at all, it is as a deranged spinster obsessed with digging up Shakespeare's grave. But her assimilation of aesthetics to commerce; her insistence that all intellectually valuable work had to further human progress toward political perfection; her drive to combine religion with science; and finally her refusal to stay in even the best place her local culture could provide for an intellectual woman--all these invite a more generous interpretation.


1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home: A Series of Sketches (1863), vol 5 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970), pp. 114-15.

2 Bacon was probably the second person to argue in print against Shakespeare's authorship of the plays. The first seems to have been another American, Joseph C. Hart, who claimed in his Romance of Yachting: Voyage the First (New York: Harper & Bros., 1848) that the plays were collaboratively authored by diverse hands, the best parts written by Ben Jonson and the stage-manager Shakespeare's occasional contributions identifiable by their vulgarity. Bacon may have known about this book (she was visiting in New York City at the time it appeared), but her argument is completely different. Hart debunks the plays as well as the playwright; for Bacon, the playwright is a demigod, which is why he cannot be Shakespeare. For additional material on Hawthorne's subvention of The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded, see Hawthorne's Letters, 1853-1856 and Letters, 1857-1864, ed. Thomas Woodson et al., vols. 17 and 18 of the Centenary Edition (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987).

3 Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare-'s Lives (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 608.

4 Nathaniel Hawthorne, English Notebooks (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), p. 388, and Our Old Home, pp. 108, 114.

5 For Delia Bacon's life, see: Theodore Bacon, Delia Bacon: A Biographical Sketch (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888); Catharine A. Beecher, Truth Stranger Than Fiction: A Narrative of Recent Transactions, Involving Inquiries in Regard to the Principles of Honor, Truth, and justice, Which Obtain in a Distinguished American University (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1850); Helen R. Deese, "A New England Woman's Network: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Caroline Healey Dall, and Delia S. Bacon," Legacy 8 (1992): 77-91; and Vivian Hopkins, Prodigal Puritan: A Life of Delia Bacon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

6 Rufus W. Griswold, ed., The Female Poets of America (Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1848), p. 7.

7 Almira Hart Phelps, The Female Student: or, Lectures to Young Ladies on Female Education, 2d.ed. (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1836) pp. 293-94: Beecher, Stranger Than Fiction, p. 17.

8 Beecher, Stranger Than Fiction, pp. 18-19.

9 Beecher, Stranger Than Fiction, p. 19

10 For an analysis of several of these historical novels, see my American Women Writers and the Work of History, 1790-1860 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), pp. 152-68.

11 Delia Bacon, Tales of the Puritans (New Haven: A. H. Maltby, 1831), p. 92. For a discussion of the regicide legend, see Douglas C. Wilson, "Web of Secrecy: Goffe, Whalley, and the Legend of Hadley," New England Quarterly 60 (December 1987): 515-48.

12 For the centrality of history in antebellum women's intellectual education and concepts, see my American Women Writers and History.

13 Beecher, Stranger Than Fiction, p. 22.

14 Delia Bacon, quoted by Hopkins, Prodigal Puritan, p. 59.

15 Delia Bacon, "William Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them," reprinted in T. Bacon's Delia Bacon, pp. 98-155, the edition I cite here and later (quotation p. 144).

16 Hopkins, Prodigal Puritan, p. 62.

17 Delia Bacon, The Bride of Fort Edward (New York: Samuel Coleman, 1839), p. 68.

18 Bacon, Bride of Fort Edward, pp. 164-65, 21, 174.

19 Beecher, Stranger Than Fiction, pp. 7, 270, 272.

20 T. Bacon, Delia Bacon, pp. 168-69,

21 Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 11-82.

22 On Bacon's centrality to the scientific ideology of the antebellum era, especially among religious Protestants, see Dirk J. Struick, Yankee Science in the Making, rev. edition (New York: Collier, 1962); George H. Daniels, American Science in the Age of Jackson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968); and Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977). On Delia Bacon's close connections with Yale Scientists, see Hopkins, Prodigal Puritan. Pp. 52-53 and passim.

23 Eliza Farrar, Recollections of Seventy Years (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866), pp. 320-21, and Caroline Healey Dall, What We Really Know About Shakespeare (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886), p. 104.

24 Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, American Renaissance Woman, ed. Bruce Ronda (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), pp. 299,301.

25 Her attitudes were like those of many others who attacked, but could not escape, the market revolution, on which see Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

26 Delia Bacon, The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays Unfolded (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1857), p. xxxix. Cited hereafter in the text.

27 No trace of such a secret society has ever been unearthed, but there were rumors that both Ralegh and Bacon advocated athiestic materialism. Delia Bacon used the term "cipher" to mean a duplicitous discourse, the interpretation of which constituted her own extensive labors. Later anti-Stratfordian Baconians read the term literally to mean a numerical or letter code by which Bacon threaded his name into the plays.

28 Dall, What We Really Know, p. 105.

29 Phelps, The Female Student, p. 291.

30 George Haven Putnam, George Palmer Putnam: A Memoir (New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1912), p. 4.

31 When Bacon neither found evidence nor agreed to return home, Butler terminated his support; she carried on in a poverty so extreme that it may well have debilitated her both mentally and physically. This was her condition when Hawthorne went to see her in 1856, at Elizabeth Peabody's urging. For Butler, whose relation to the market was as conflicted in its way as Bacon's, see John Denis Haeger, The Investment Frontier: New York Businessmen and the Economic Development of the Old Northwest (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), and Francis Hovey Stoddard, The Life and Letters of Charles Butler (New York: C. Scribner, 1901).

32 Hawthorne was completely unpersuaded by Delia Bacon's theory but greatly impressed by her intellect. In memorializing her, he found a way to turn her work into an inadvertent tribute to the bard: "To have based such a system on fancy, and unconsciously elaborated it for herself, was almost as wonderful as really to have found it in the plays. But, in a certain sense, she did actually find it there. Shakespeare has surface beneath surface, to an immeasurable depth, adapted to the plummet-line of every reader" (Our Old Home, p. 106). Having agreed to help Delia Bacon find a publisher for the manuscript, Hawthorne finally wrote a preface for it as well as subsidizing it. For his publicizing of Bacon's visit to Shakespeare's grave, see my "Delia Bacon, Hawthorne's Last Heroine," Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 20 (1994): 1-10.

33 Dall, What We Really Know, p. 104.

34  "Inquiry," p. 129. The lines are from Henry Viii, 3.2.441-59. Other plays named or quoted from are Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and The Tempest.

*Originally published in NEQ 69 (1996): 223-49.