As you probably know, RECIRC’s scope comprises the entire English-speaking world. Most days, I am thinking about women writing or being read in early modern Britain and Ireland. But because I am American, and yesterday was Thanksgiving, I had thought that it would be interesting to blog about the women in Plymouth Plantation. However, the four women who survived the transatlantic crossing are barely mentioned in the two surviving accounts, Mourt’s Relation (1622) and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630–1651). While no writing by the women of Plymouth is known to have survived, women elsewhere in North America wrote in a wide range of genres, even developing new ones, and their works were read on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, printed books by women were imported and read in the colonies. Because these instances of reception were surprising to me, I thought I’d share a few examples. The writers I discuss below will be likely be familiar, but because British and American literature are often taught and studied separately, these instances of transatlantic reception and circulation are easy to overlook.
Anne Bradstreet’s poems may be the most famous example of women’s writing in English crossing the Atlantic. Bradstreet seems to have prepared a manuscript of poems for her father, only to have her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, snatch it during a visit to Massachusetts. (You kept all of your manuscripts locked up while the relatives were over yesterday, right? Good.) Upon his return to England, Woodbridge added some prefatory material before passing it on to publisher Stephen Bowtell. The collection was published in London as The Tenth Muse in 1650; a second edition, Several Poems, was published in Boston in 1678 and incorporated some changes Bradstreet proposed before her death.
Women also wrote letters to family and friends in other parts of the colonies and back at home, and kept diaries and journals. Sometimes, the death of male relatives put women into new positions of business or governmental responsibility. These experiences were often recorded in manuscript and published later; Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal describing her 1704 travels was printed in 1825.
Particularly sensational stories were liable to be published in London sooner, though. Mary Rowlandson’s account of the eleven weeks she was held captive in 1675 was “Printed first at New-England: And Re-printed at London” in 1682. Elaine Showalter has described the captivity narrative as “the first American literary form dominated by women’s experience” (14).
Readers back in England read about New England with interest, but readers in New England also continued to read imported books from the London presses. Elnathan Chauncy, son of Harvard president and non-conformist minister Charles Chauncy, kept a commonplace book during his undergraduate studies. He inscribed this small book, now Beinecke Library GEN MSS 488, with his name and the date “1661: oct: 5.” The collection includes scriptural and sermon notes, excerpts from scientific and philosophical works, and a copy of the 1662 Harvard Commencement address as well as poetic extracts from a wide range of early modern books—including Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). Chauncy’s selections are generally consistent with what an English reader of comparable class and education might be expected to read on either side of the Atlantic, but this is the only documented case of a man reading Salve Deus that I know of. (I’ve written about this in greater detail elsewhere, so hopefully you’ll be able to read more about it soon!)
It’s important to remember, though, that English women were not the only women in North America participating in literary culture. Other women of European descent lived wrote in their countries’ respective colonies; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is a notable example. But when Europeans arrived in North America, they “discovered” a continent inhabited by more than three hundred Native American cultural groups who spoke at least two hundred different languages, each with their own literary traditions (Ruoff 1). Native American women participated in the creation and transmission of oral literature. Although these practices were omitted from early modern English accounts, they too are part of the transatlantic history of women’s writing.
Chedgzoy, Kate. Women’s Writing in the British Atlantic World: Memory, Place and History, 1550–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Hall, David D. “Readers and Writers in Early New England.” In The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, edited by Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, 117–51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Harris, Sharon M., ed. American Women Writers to 1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography.
Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. London: Hachette UK, 2009.