Introduction to Judith Sargent Murray's The Gleaner, by
DURING the first decade after George Washington's election in 1788, scattered groups of Americans began to think about creating a literature that would demonstrate the new nation’s cultural vitality to its own citizens and to Europe. A considerable amount of their writing had been published by 1798, but it had appeared mostly in magazines with short life spans and minuscule budgets. There were, as yet, very few original American books. For Judith Sargent Murray to gather her published and unpublished magazine pieces into a book was daring, especially for a woman. The Gleaner, like most publishing ventures of the time, was financed by subscription. Among those supporting it were such prominent persons as George and Martha Washington, and the current President John Adams and his wife Abigail. These names testified to Murray’s reputation; the appearance of The Gleaner was no ordinary literary event. Yet the book had no second edition and was never reissued until now. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Murray had completely dropped from sight.
In recent years historians of the post-Revolutionary era and of women have rediscovered her work. Some of these scholars describe her as an early feminist, perhaps even the first feminist in United States history. This offers a useful approach to her work in some ways, but could Murray have understood our contemporary feminism, she almost certainly would not have applied the label to herself. Her truly radical ideas about women were constrained by a world view whose key values—"virtue" and "subordination"—are substantially irrelevant to or in conflict with feminism as we know it today.
In eighteenth-century political thought, virtue referred to the supposedly highest state of individual development, in which moral rectitude combined with civic responsibility; subordination, to the supposedly highest condition of social development, in which respect for others functioned within a hierarchy that ranked individuals by such measures as class, property, occupation, age, and gender. Joined, virtue in the individual and subordination in the society led to a stable, harmonious commonwealth. To produce and maintain such a commonwealth was posited as the proper goal of all nations, but it was deemed [end iii] particularly crucial to the formation of a republic, whose foundations could be constantly threatened by selfishness or social faction.
For many centuries, Western thought had associated the concept of virtue with public activities forbidden to subordinated women. Such "virtue" as a woman might have was held to consist of utter passivity and compliance. From this perspective, an active woman could only be seen as a harmful woman. Judith Sargent Murray’s writings articulated a competing vision, designed to show how women might, without challenging the concept of social subordination, develop and demonstrate an active virtue that would contribute to the public good.
To the extent that she tried to forge a literary career for herself, however, she operated at the margins of the vision she so forcefully expressed. Even as her essays described female virtues that were respectably sex-typed and focused on home duties, their writings were self-consciously public documents. But she was not being hypocritical. Rather, she was taking part—importantly so—in a growing effort to redefine writing and publishing as socially acceptable activities for women. If Murray’s ideas about women are important to understanding the history of feminism, her work as a woman writer is equally important to understanding the history of American literature.
Many poems and essays appeared in American magazines of the 1790’s with feminine pen names. Attributing their work to Eudora, Flora, Phyllis, or Serafina, women writers disclosed their gender even as they concealed their identities. Men did the same: the literary scene displayed and emphasized gender-bifurcation. Murray, however, subverted this demarcation. Although she frequently wrote as Constantia and used this name on the title page of The Gleaner, her essays mainly address the public in the voice of a man, thereby suggesting that the disembodied realm of print makes it impossible to tell the sexes apart. Moreover, she diversifies her writing by adopting numerous additional personae, until not only gender identity but identity itself becomes unstable behind the screen of the printed word. In this respect, her writing takes up questions about women and connects them with questions about writing, authorship, and authority.
"My desires," she boldly announces in the preface to The Gleaner, "are aspiring—perhaps presumptuously so. I would be distinguished and respected by my contemporaries; I would be continued in grateful [end iv] remembrance when I make my exit; and I would descend with celebrity to posterity." Murray does not rationalize publishing her writings by references to financial need, or to the urging of friends, or even to the promptings of patriotism: she frankly acknowledges ambition as her motive. These would be brave words for a woman to utter even today; for a woman writing at the end of the eighteenth century, they are remarkable. Judith Sargent Murray thus presents us with the fascinating spectacle of a woman at once very much of her time and very much ahead of it.
Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on May 1, 1751, she was the first child of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders. Both parents came from prosperous and prominent local families in this old seacoast town. Winthrop, a wealthy ship owner and merchant, pursued liberal, broadranging political, religious, and cultural interests; this active engagement would have an enduring effect on his daughter. Before the American Revolution there was virtually no formal education for women in the colonies: a few years in a so-called "dame school" to learn reading and writing was the most that even a wealthy girl could hope for. But talented girls from elite families frequently made use of their fathers’ libraries and were allowed to share study at home alongside college-bound brothers. Winthrop Sargent encouraged and supported his daughter's thirst for learning. She also benefitted from the education of her brother Winthrop, Jr., as he prepared for and then attended Harvard.
In 1769, when she was eighteen, Judith Sargent married John Stevens, ten years older than she and, like her father, a well-off Gloucester ship-owning merchant. The couple had no children. When, as the Revolution approached, her parents, brothers, and husband rallied to the patriot cause, Judith began to think about how women, including herself, might contribute. Perhaps spurred by the example of Mercy Otis Warren—the leading woman writer of the Revolutionary era, whom Judith admired all her life—she began to write.
Her first published essay, however, did not appear until 1784, when the Revolution was over and she was in her mid-thirties. The end of the war with England brought serious economic and political challenges to the former colonies, challenges that might well engage the pen of a serious writer. Many communities were suffering extreme economic hardship; by 1781, it is estimated, fully a sixth of Gloucester's population was impoverished. Here is the source for the recurrent themes of poverty and charity [end v] in Judith’s essays. But it was not only the indigent who drew her attention. Many wealthy families were affected by the general downturn as well as by restrictions on shipping. The Sargents lost a great deal of money, and John Stevens was especially hard hit. He had to leave the country secretly in 1786 to avoid imprisonment for debt, and he died later that year in the West Indies without having seen his wife again. The many Gleaner essays that focus on what might seem to us purely conventional topics—sudden loss of fortune, the imprisonment of debtors, the sufferings of lonely wives, the unexpected deaths of spouses—were based in the realities of Judith’s own life.
About two years after she had been widowed, Judith Sargent Stevens, now thirty-seven years old, married her pastor, John Murray; like her first husband, he was ten years her senior. Himself a widower, Murray, at age twenty-three, had emigrated from England in 1774 and rose to prominence as a Universalist—indeed, he became the foremost exponent of Universalist doctrine in America. An Enlightenment-influenced form of Protestantism, Universalism was far milder than the Calvinism that, at the close of the eighteenth century, still dominated most of New England. Four tenets in particular distinguished it from its other contemporary Protestant sects: (1) God was rational in a sense that human beings could understand; (2) a rational God would never doom most of his creatures to eternal damnation; (3) all human beings constituted a single family under God's loving fatherhood; (4) Christian Salvation, the enjoyment of a paradisiacal afterlife, was available to all members of the human family: one needed only to believe in a general way that Christ was the redeemer and to commit one's life to acts of benevolence and virtue. Judith and John Stevens, as well as all their relations, had been strongly attracted to Murray's doctrines and helped him establish a Universalist congregation in Gloucester early in the 1880s. Although few of Judith Murray's essays in The Gleaner are overtly doctrinal, Universalist principles permeate the work.
In her new husband, she found a friend who treated her as an equal, admired her intellect, and strongly supported her literary efforts. Woven through The Gleaner is an idealization of friendship in marriage—as opposed to transient passion—that almost certainly pays tribute to what Judith Murray found in her own life with John. But her life was far from untroubled, for her husband was neither practical nor independently [end vi] wealthy. Except in some elite Boston parishes, the ministry was not a well-paying profession. Even after leaving Gloucester for a Boston congregation in 1793, John Murray was not able to support his household comfortably. Judith had to be the manager, and she began to think about being a wage-earner as well. Especially after a daughter, Julia, was born in 1791 (a son born in 1789 lived only a few days), she began to consider writing as a potential source of additional income. Interestingly, however, although Murray often insists in her essays that all women be trained to support themselves, she never mentions authorship as a possible profession— probably because she quickly recognized that almost nobody could earn a living at it.
Certainly, she could not. Murray’s initial main outlet, the monthly Massachusetts Magazine, started publication in January 1789, depending, like many new journals, on free contributions for its original material. At some date in the not-too-distant future, the editors hoped, the enterprise might be profitable enough to pay its authors. Instead it ran into financial difficulties at the end of 1794, and it suspended publication for the first three months of 1795. Only one contributor held fast during that period, and among those lost was Judith Murray.
The conclusion to The Gleaner states that she would gladly continue with the magazine when it resumed operation—indeed, she had written several more essays in anticipation. But a "serious accusation" of unknown nature against her made it impossible, in her judgment, to publish in that magazine again. Vena Bernadette Field, Murray's only biographer, speculates that some of her columns were doctrinally offensive, but Murray’s statement that the problem arose while the magazine's publication was suspended suggests otherwise. The question became moot when the magazine went out of business for good at the end of 1796. She did not find another periodical in which to place her essays; in fact, no major literary journal would again be published in Boston until early in the nineteenth century.
The powerful didactic impulse in Murray’s essays found another form of expression in her next public project, play writing. Boston's first theater had opened in 1793, and she was attracted to the idea of creating a moral, useful, and specifically American drama. She wrote two comedies in 1795, The Medium (later retitled Virtue Triumphant) and The Traveller Returned, neither of which attained critical or popular success. The plots [end vii] draw on well-worn dramatic conventions of intergenerational strife. In each, a pair of virtuous lovers, one of whom lacks family connections and wealth, are forbidden to marry by mercenary elders. They suffer nobly until long-lost fathers arrive to endow the problematic son or daughter with name and inheritance. The plays obviously sought to adapt the mode of eighteenth-century English social comedy (as exemplified by such popular fare as Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal or Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer) to an American setting: American locales and character types abound. Yet she retains the static, hierarchical view of society basic to the British practice of this type of comedy, and the political implications may well have contributed to the failure of either play to last beyond a few performances.
Turning back to print in 1796, Murray started assembling her published and unpublished writings for the book that became The Gleaner. 759 persons subscribed for 825 sets of the book at one dollar per volume, for a gross of $2475; even after deduction of costs, the profit, by 1798 standards, was substantial. Murray's share must have been most welcome, and the preface suggests that she wanted to stir an audience to demand more of her writings: "I would secure for myself, and for my infant daughter, (should our future exigencies require it), thy amity and thy patronage." But these hopes were not realized: The Gleaner had neither a second edition nor a sequel.
The burden of that disappointment would grow heavier. After John Murray became an invalid, his care fell to his wife, and as the severity of his invalidism worsened during the first decade of the nineteenth century, her time and energy for writing shrank. Moreover, his needs absorbed an ever larger fraction of scarce family resources. Not until 1812, when her daughter Julia married Adam Louis Bingamon, a young man from a wealthy Southern planter family whom she met when he was a student at Harvard, could Judith cease to worry about money. All too obviously, Judith’s claims for the self-sufficiency of virtue notwithstanding, a woman's wisest move for herself and her family was still to marry a rich man.
At the time of Julia’s marriage, Judith Murray was working on a book of John's letters and sermons, issued in 1812-13; her next (and last) project, preparation of her husband’s autobiography, she completed after his death in 1815 and published in 1816. Now sixty-five years old, Judith Murray had had a hard life. If the theme of the young person born [end viii] affluent and subject to misfortune seems gratuitously obsessive in The Gleaner, one might see that preoccupation in the light of her experiences; when the author urges women to surmount life’s trials and find happiness in their own virtue, she is in a sense writing to herself. In addition, the centrality of the upbringing of daughters as a motif in the series acquires a personal aspect once one realizes that the essays began to come out when Julia was six months old; much of this writing probably flowed from Judith Murray’s communing with herself about her responsibilities as a mother.
The same year John’s autobiography was posthumously issued, Murray moved to Natchez, Mississippi to live with Julia and her family. There she remained, for the next four years, until her death in 1820; burial was in the Bingamon family graveyard. Thereafter, she and her accomplishment steadily faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, that disappearance has deprived generations of scholars of insights into one of the more intriguing figures in the American past. The manuscripts and documents the author had brought with her to Natchez were stored away, presumably upon her death, and forgotten; when Vena Field undertook research for her biography of this remarkable ancestor, she learned that the Murray papers had deteriorated beyond recovery. Her works, though not unrecoverable, certainly slipped from the mind of the literary nation she helped promote.
The three volumes of the original Gleaner –attributed to "Constantia," the pen name by which Murray was locally well known—contain one hundred numbered essays, along with a dedication to President John Adams, a preface to the reader, and a conclusion. The volumes are roughly equal in length, with thirty-four, thirty-four, and thirty-two essays. For the most part, they reflect the eighteenth-century essay developed by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Like the familiar essayist of The Tatler and The Spectator, who typically represents himself as a sophisticated gentleman charged to observe and write amusingly and instructively, but without pedantry, on social topics[,]Murray's persona aims his commentaries at members of that ever-growing audience with the time and education to appreciate so-called "light" or "polite" literature. The name Gleaner must have been chosen to reinforce that impression of studied, gentlemanly casualness, for to glean is to go through a field after harvest, collecting remnants of the crop. [end ix]
The essays, varying in length but usually between three and four thousand words, often have a pronounced didactic or moral theme, beginning with some generalization about virtuous human behavior and its relation to happiness, and then exemplifying the generalization through a character sketch, a pair of contrasting character sketches, or a short narrative. A host of quickly-drawn characters—many with such quasi-allegorical names as Ernestus, Crastinatus, Placidius, Amiticus, Penelope Airy, Zephaniah Doubtfull, Clarinda Meanwell, or Charles Candour—figure in brief stories illustrating the value of Murray’s favorite virtues and the dire consequences of neglecting them. Each essay is preceded by a segment of original poetry ranging from a single couplet to several lines; occasionally, poems enter within essays. Many essays contain epistolary interpolations.
Some essays purport to be a gathering of correspondence to the Gleaner. A few are overtly political essays; a few focus on specific doctrinal questions; still others contain literary or dramatic criticism. These belong to the conventions of the periodicals, but there are also marked departures. Eleven numbers in Volume III consist of her two stage comedies. Ten numbers in Volume II are historical biographies presented in the form of letters written by the Gleaner's wife, Mary Vigillius, to their adopted daughter Margaretta (nos. 44-53); additionally, four important essays in Volume III—nos. 88-91—argue for the mental equality of women and men with support from historical examples, making a total of fourteen letters that contain narrative history or biography. Most arresting of all, Margaretta, besides being the recipient of her mother’s letters, figures in a lengthy, complicated narrative, a serialized sentimental novella occupying twelve numbers of Volume I nos. 2, 7-13, 20-21, and 28-29. Margaretta reappears in Volume II, nos. 3738 and 40-53, and again in Volume III, no. 98. Thus, The Gleaner exhibits a striking variety of literary types: poetry, short and long fiction of various sorts, comic drama, moral and political essay, criticism, narrative history, biography. A miscellany is, of course, miscellaneous by definition; yet, rather than see Murray as throwing together everything she had on hand to make one big book, we can suppose her carefully demonstrating her ability to perform across the spectrum of recognized literary genres, and to speak through a variety of voices. She was showing the world she was truly a writer. [end x]
All but two of the essays in Volume I had already appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine from February 1792 through December 1794. They reappeared in The Gleaner much as they had first been printed: in addition to inserting two new essays in this sequence, Murray corrected a mistake in the original numbering and restored one later-interpolated number to its initially-intended place. The original thirty-two essays in the Massachusetts Magazine had been presented either as correspondence to the magazine from an author calling himself—and it was definitely a man—the Gleaner, or as correspondence to him from others in response to his columns. According to Murray’s conclusion to The Gleaner, her authorship of these essays had become generally known during the course of their publication in the Massachusetts Magazine, but this knowledge had not affected their popularity. She planned to continue the fiction of the masculine Gleaner as the series went on, and she maintained it in the book, even though the title page clearly signaled that the author was a woman. The female pseudonym became one more layer in a narratively complex work whose effect was to blur the categories of personal and gender identity.
In her conclusion, "The Gleaner Unmasked," Murray offers reasons for the gender masquerade. One is purely personal: she hoped to hide her authorship from friends and family, and presenting the writer as a man served this purpose. But there were also less private reasons. She wanted her work read without the typical bias against women writers: observing "the indifference, not to say contempt, with which female productions are regarded, and seeking to arrest attention, at least for a time, I was thus furnished with a very powerful motive." In addition, she wished to insure against the attribution of her work to any specific man who stood in a relation of "friendship or amity" to her. (To show warrant for her concern, she quotes Rousseau: "although a female may ostensibly wield the pen, yet it is certain some man of letters sits behind the curtain to guide its movements.") Paradoxically, assumption of a male persona guarantees the integrity of feminine authorship. To be sure, she adds, now that her sex is known, "Esop's fable of the Ass in the Lion’s skin, will be triumphantly revised; and it will be affirmed, that the effeminacy and tinsel glitter of my style could not fail of betraying me at every sentence which I uttered." Her sarcasm implicitly reminds readers that literary gender is a construction of the perceiver, not an inherent property of the text. [end xi]
Murray’s conviction that, while body obviously is gendered, mind is not, was fundamental to Enlightenment thought. Many late twentieth- century feminists deplore a supposedly masculinist prejudice in the splitting of mind from body, but for Murray as for many other intellectual women of her generation, the split itself justified their entrance into a previously all-male world of discourse. Being identical in nature, women’s and men’s minds call for equal treatment. Correlatively, mind—that form of being separate from body—is virtually the same as spirit. (Gleaner no. 62, where Murray states her religious views, calls mind the immortal part of the human being.) And because writing is immaterial, it exactly represents disembodied mind in allowing escape from the body’s accidental state. In this "pure" form, women's literary expressions do not challenge the socially subordinate position to which their sexual, bodily differences from men have rightly assigned them.
"The Gleaner Unmasked" also sheds indirect light on the issue of authorial gender. The essays for Volumes II and III, Murray explains, had already been prepared for Massachusetts Magazine—i.e., written as installments in a series—before she severed her connection with the journal. As one would expect, they are consistent with their predecessors in perspective. Yet, given that some of these essays are dated 1795 and even 1796, she clearly adhered to the strategy even after she no longer anticipated publishing in the Massachusetts Magazine. Regardless of the specific compositional history of the work in the latter two volumes, the result of Murray’s strategy is a collection that creates and sustains the unifying fiction of a continuing magazine series throughout. This strategy is carried so far as to incorporate, in Volume III, the texts of her two plays by means of letters from one "Philo Americanus" urging the Gleaner to publish them—which the Gleaner then does in two sets of discrete packages, devoting nos. 70-75 to Virtue Triumphant and nos. 80-84 to The Traveller Returned.
How the mode of presentation bears on the question of gender becomes clear when one considers the historical context. The essay tradition in which Murray was working certainly accepted—indeed, perhaps depended on—the presence of women in the audience. The gender-specific character of the persona, however, would seem to preclude women from becoming essayists themselves. It would also seem that women lacked access to the public spaces where the typical essayist [end xii] picked up his tattle and did his spectating. Conversely, the domestic routine of women's lives did not seem to present the same opportunities for topicality and breadth that the form demanded. This is not to say that women were not described and discussed by the Tatler or Spectator, but that, insofar as they appeared, they were assessed in terms of their conformity to traditional expectations of female passivity and compliance.
Determined to ignore or explode these expectations with respect to both women writers and representations of women, Judith Murray simply adopted the male persona to opine on any topic that struck her fancy, whether the United States Constitution, the regrettable effects of party faction, the tenets of true religion, or the importance of paying debts promptly and of giving money to the poor. At the same time, she moved the topic of women farther toward the center of the Gleaner’s speculations than was customary in the mode. But, in so using a man's voice, she was not ceding the territory of significant discourse to men or to male impersonators. Rather, as has already been suggested, she was effectively distancing print discourse from a clearly assignable gender through successive convolutions. Most evidently, this creator of a male persona is writing as a woman on women’s issues using a male voice as medium. Then, the device of quoting at length letters exchanged between the Gleaner’s wife Mary and their adopted daughter Margaretta transforms The Gleaner into the production of a woman writing in the voice of a man appropriating the writings of women about women for "his" own columns. Nor is this all, for the Gleaner also diversifies the columns with much correspondence from supposed letter-writers, male and female from every walk of society, who employ a range of dictions and a variety of vernaculars. Often a single essay will contain several layers of different narration, presenting voices within voices, enclosing letters within letters, mediating one discourse by another discourse, until the question of who is writing or speaking becomes untraceably labyrinthine.
Perhaps Murray was even going so far as to insinuate that all identity, once it was no longer fixed by material signs visible to an observer, was insubstantial and provisional. Ultimately, such fluidity of voice puts in question the very principle of fixed distinctions on which a hierarchical system of social subordination depends. This consequence raises a crucial question: Could Murray insist on social hierarchy even as [end xiii] her narrative practices undermined the foundations of social gradation? Her writings have, in this regard, a certain self-canceling quality, oscillating between the sense of liberation produced by experiments with differently gendered narratives and the sense of confinement produced by her commitment to social hierarchy.
Certainly, Murray never adopted the voice of a rebel who delights in flouting the establishment’s rules. On the contrary, as an advocate of subordination, she deplored rebellion in any form, and probably would have denied that her own experiments in print constituted rebellion. Again and again, she came down firmly on the side of order and good government. "Surely," she wrote in Gleaner no. 27, "that state must be fruitful of calamities, which admitteth not an acknowledged superior; where every person hath, in every respect, an absolute and uncontrollable right to consult his own feelings, submitting himself to no other empire than that of his wayward passions." What she looked for on women’s behalf was not their rebellion against, but their greater involvement in, the processes creating social harmony. Since everybody was subordinate in one sense or another, the social subordination of women did not seem to offend her sense of justice. If the equality of women’s minds with men’s were more widely recognized, she argued, women might assume a larger share of responsibility, thereby playing a more significant role in national life. This alteration, far from disturbing society, would make it more secure.
It was clearly not Murray’s intention to propose that women enter the battlefield, the senate, the counting house, and the professions; she was generally content to leave the arts of diplomacy, war, and moneymaking to men. Nonetheless, as nos. 88-91 demonstrate, she believed women have the capability of doing all these things if necessary. She did not see the domestic realm as external or peripheral to the national life; rather, she saw it as what a nation was supposed to foster and protect. She wanted women to advance a national domestic agenda by taking responsibility for morality, for household economy, for charitable benevolence, for the education of young women as well as children of both sexes, for each other’s welfare, and for themselves.
If women were to be encouraged along these lines, public opinion had to recognize their capabilities, and women themselves had to learn, as she put it over and over again, "to reverence themselves." Women had [end xiv] to stop thinking of themselves as bodies and start thinking of themselves as minds. They had to cherish and develop their minds and strengthen their characters to withstand and learn from hardship. They had to be—as Vigillius, the Gleaner’s other name, indicates—ever vigilant for themselves and for other women. Every republican thinker knew that, while it was not easy to be a free man, only free men could preserve a republic. Murray aimed to extend these ideas to encompass women as well as men.
Frequently, the moral essays merge the qualities of men and women. The character of Mr. Vigillius is often indistinguishable from that of his wife; both function virtually interchangeably as "parent" vis-a-vis their beloved adopted daughter Margaretta. In the non-Margaretta essays, a diverse crowd of characters and life stories tends to exemplify the same set of moral themes. Recurrent terms here, as in the Margaretta essays, are virtue, reason, stability, subordination, sentimentalism (used approvingly in the sense of possessing sympathetic feelings for people whom we don’t know very well), benevolence, philanthropy, rational religion, serenity, equanimity, fortitude, industry, propriety, economy, and the family of man. In most of her moral narratives, virtuous but unfortunate (i. e., poor) people narrate their stories to virtuous fortunate (i. e., rich) people who are moved by these stories to provide material assistance. The next most frequent plot device has fortunate people either conserving or squandering their property by adopting or neglecting principles of economy and propriety.
In the world Murray presents, the individual or the family is the basic unit of production; prosperity or its lack materially determines individual and family life; earthly existence is an endless alternation of economic ups and downs; and virtue and vice are defined by the extent to which they preserve prosperity and buffer misfortune. Consequent to these views, charity, which denotes an active role beyond the family circle, is the highest human behavior. Philanthropy recirculates wealth through the economy and inspires the unfortunate to renewed efforts. Also, more than any other human activity, it brings pleasure to the benefactor because it is the means by which human beings become most like God. As Murray writes in no. 93, "the pleasures of benevolence never create satiety. A repetition of virtuous actions becomes still more productive of the most refined, delightful and elevating sensations; and the reason is obvious, their origin is celestial." [end xv]
Celestial or not, the philanthropic attitude is implicitly recommended as a practical deterrent to social unrest. The debtor released from a financial obligation acquires a far greater obligation than he had before; indeed, it is virtually infinite obligation, which he struggles to express through "the indefatigable zeal with which he will henceforward devote himself to the interest of his next to divine creditor" (no. 93). In no. 60, the narrator affirms the value of Thanksgiving Day, customarily celebrated by the rich inviting the town poor to dinner. "A face of hilarity displaces that anxiety, which naturally clouds the brow of suffering poverty; they return to their now joyful retreats—they smile over the sudden plenty—their hearts overflow with gratitude—their spirits are attuned to praise—their dispositions are in unison with their fellow-citizens—they chant the song of thanksgiving—they join in grateful prostrations to the God of their life; and, the expectations of this Thanksgiving Day frequently serves [sic] to mitigate the calamities, and to soften the penury, of the intervening year."
Philanthropy, the link of love that binds the entire community and reconciles the less fortunate to their situation, is well within the purview of women. Women frequently have access to, if not charge of, family finances; accordingly, they may claim the responsibility as well as the pleasure of carrying out some of the family's philanthropic activities. No. 12 announces the primary design of Mr. and Mrs. Vigillius: to "produce our daughter, in that career on which she was entering, both theoretically and practically, a philanthropic moralist." In subsequent numbers, she develops to perfection under Mary Vigillius’s tutelage, evades the designs of a nefarious suitor, marries happily, and undergoes a reversal of fortune. When the reader has a last glimpse of Margaretta, in no. 98, her foster parents’ plan has succeeded. A long-lost father arrives on the scene: in a marvelous integration of the fantasy world of the narrative with the real world of the print medium, it is revealed that he recognized the description of the daughter he thought dead while fortuitously reading an issue of the Massachusetts Magazine in the apartment of someone he was philanthropically aiding. What an immediate recompense for a philanthropic deed! the Gleaner exults (no. 32). Extracted from her improbable comic novel, Margaretta at the end of the book reemerges in a sentimental cameo of the true woman as a public benefactress.
Every morning, in this representation, she walks in a section of her [end xvi] extensive grounds, laid out as a park, where "free egress and regress is allowed to the decent villager." She "appropriates a stated period in every fine day to this enchanting walk; she is generally accompanied by her children; and those among her humble or necessitous friends, who have any petition to offer, frequently meet her there." After carefully examination—no aid is given indiscriminately—the claims of honest folk are invariably satisfied. Here is Woman at her noblest.
Of course this highest form of feminine development is not always within grasp—most obviously, she may really be poor. Yet the role is more available to women than they commonly may think. Even as a little child, Margaretta was supplied with pin money to expend for charitable purposes; learning to set aside some of her money to help the unfortunate, Margaretta also absorbed the values of economy and plain living that would see her through periods of adversity that lay ahead. Preparing her to become a benefactress involved teaching her to develop herself to the fullest and to take responsibility for her own life as well as for those around her.
The fundamental educational program for women set out in no. 7, the best known of Murray’s essays today, proceeds from this vision of a harmoniously integrated yet hierarchical community in which private philanthropy balances private misfortune and the principle of private property holds sway. Helping preserve this community is an important part of women's mission—indeed, their most important contribution to the national life. And woman's mission is emphatically public, despite its presumption that the private family is the basic social unit. Only once in The Gleaner does Murray refer to a consort of women: in this single instance, a female club meets regularly to sew and read together, foreshadowing, or anticipating, the benevolent societies that would proliferate in the antebellum era and, gradually, make manifest a female group consciousness that Murray was not yet prepared to imagine.
Murray grants, of course, that women do pursue less exalted duties and pleasures than those of universal philanthropy. If Margaretta's education addresses the full range of womanly possibilities, it is only as Murray can realistically conceive them. Under the loving surveillance of her parents (which, to a modem reader, seems disturbingly constant), and more especially under the guidance of her mother, who has designed the girl’s education (Mr. Vigillius is merely an approving onlooker), Marga- [end xvii] retta becomes "a beautiful and accomplished girl" by the time she is sixteen. Her studies begin with basic instruction in "the fundamental points of the philanthropic religion of Jesus," and move on to needlework (including embroidery and pattem-making), French, English, arithmetic, astronomy, penmanship, geography, chronology, natural philosophy, history, poetry, biography, drawing, dancing, music, and composition.
History and composition are especially important. Margaretta spends three hours a day on history: the first in reading, the second in conversing with her mother on a set topic, and the third in composing an essay on the matter covered in the previous two hours. In addition, Margaretta is encouraged to submit daily letters to her mother on every subject. The Gleaner opines that "persons when holding the pen, generally express themselves more freely than when engaged in conversation"; the absence of the recipient motivates a fuller representation (a point also taken up in no. 41).
To be sure, cultivation of expression was not to advance ideas of rebellion against a feminine role, and Murray, speaking as the male Gleaner, takes care to reassure the reader. "No, Mr. Pedant, she was not unfitted for her proper sphere"—she could make a pudding as well as anybody. "Mrs. Vigillius was early taught the science of economy, and she took care to teach it to her daughter; and being more especially economical of time, she so arrangeth matters as never to appear embarrassed, or in a hurry, having always her hours of leisure." Margaretta learns to appreciate propriety but dispense with mere ceremony, to dress tastefully yet simply, and—despite being a paragon, frequently pressed to the bosoms of her doting parents with cries of rapture—to remain modest. Reminded daily "that every thing in future depends upon her own exertions," she acquires qualities that will serve her in any life eventuality. "While the goods of fortune may be whelmed beneath the contingencies of revolving time, intellectual property still remains, and the mental funds can never be exhausted .... Should she, in her career of life, be arrested by adverse fortune, many resources of relief, or pleasure, and of emolument, open themselves before her; and she is not necessarily condemned to laborious efforts, or to the drudgery of that unremitted sameness, which the routine of the needle presents."
If the stress on history in Margaretta's studies appears curious, it was actually typical in the discourse of early American women educators. [end xviii] Reading history seemed the best alternative to reading novels—apparently young women's favorite activity. Like fiction, history (and biography, its close associate) had the appeal of narrative, yet its claim of truth endowed it with an obvious superiority to the patently false pictures of life in novels. Moreover, the limited scope of women’s experience could be somewhat ameliorated by compensatory exposure to a range of historical experiences. The fact that history was not about ordinary men or women was, from this perspective, precisely its advantage. As letters from Mary Vigillius to Margaretta show, a knowledge of history could give a woman practice in forming judgments and expressing opinions on any event that had ever happened in the world. She might, for example, assess the relative merits of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1, or compare the achievements of King Alfred and King Charles V, or ruminate on the careers of Peter and Catherine of Russia. All creation could be the domain of a woman’s instructed mind.
From her own reading in history, Murray compiled hundreds of examples to document her claim for the mental equality of the sexes (nos. 88-91). This sequence, not the letters on Margaretta’s education, constitutes the most ideologically modem section of The Gleaner. Its admirable academic complexity aside, Margaretta's education, privately conducted in the home by her ever-supervising mother, is finally a conservative program, designed to strengthen family ties and prepare Margaretta for a domestic future. In contrast, nos. 88-91 call for a striking expansion of women’s sphere; they envisage more public roles for women and connect women's progress with the future of America itself. "In this younger world, ‘the Rights of Women’ begin to be understood; we seem, at length, determined to do justice to THE SEX; and, improving on the opinions of a Wollstonecraft, we are ready to contend for the quantity, as well as quality, of mind." What is initiating this change is the proliferation of female academies—a development with which Murray herself had nothing to do, and whose benefits were either unavailable to Margaretta [or] deemed unsuitable. Thanks to them, the Gleaner expects "to see our young women forming a new era in female history."
To advance the cause of younger American women, The Gleaner argues both conservatively and radically. Conservatively, it insists education will by no means unfit women for "those necessary occupations, that must ever be considered as proper to the department and comprised [end xix] in the duties of a judiciously instructed and elegant woman"—a point established through Margaretta's example. But far more significantly, the Gleaner advances ten radical propositions about women's equality and supports them with a montage of historical facts. Women, the Gleaner holds, match men in their capacity for hardships, and in their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Their "fortitude and heroism cannot be surpassed"; they are equally brave, patriotic, influential energetic, eloquent, faithful, loyal, "as capable of supporting, with honour, the toils of government," and "equally susceptible of every literary acquirement." In scouring the historical record to confirm these uncompromising claims, Murray becomes, in these numbers of The Gleaner, a true historian of women—probably the first such historian in America. And she implicitly looks to a more egalitarian future society that will benefit from the deployment of women’s talents beyond domestic obligations.
Conservative, radical; visionary, pragmatist; personally ambitious, profoundly hierarchical; emotional, rational; nationalist, believer in the family of humankind; feminist, traditionalist—Judith Sargent Murray is a woman whose paradoxes and complexities multiply the more her work is read. Even as The Gleaner elaborates narratives within narratives in a constant play of disassembling and reconstituting the writer’s identity, this surprising book testifies to the force of its author’s personality and the strength of her desire to "descend with celebrity to posterity."