A Poor Review

Caroline Wigginton

The University of Mississippi

I taught Deborah Sampson Gannett’s The Female Review this past fall as part of a senior research seminar for English majors. My students didn’t understand it, didn’t like it, and didn’t write on it: only two students featured it in their capstone papers. The only text they liked less was J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), and they lobbied (pretty persuasively) for me to replace these two texts with full-length versions of the anonymous Narrative of Lucy Brewer (ca. 1815) and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), both of which they had read excerpts from, in future iterations of the course.

I typically organize my upper-division seminars around a theme and then choose six major texts to focus on, adding supplementary primary and secondary readings for context. This particular course’s theme was “Transatlantic Bodies in the Long Eighteenth Century.”  After briefly introducing them to ideas of the body found in such sources as John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Carl Linné’s Systema Naturae (1735, 1758), and William Blackstone’s Commentaries (his explanation of coverture in particular; 1765–1769), we began a sustained engagement with our core six texts. We read The Female Review fourth, and by then students had already explored eighteenth-century bodies in terms of colonization, religion, race, class, and sex in our discussions of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (1682), Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (1724). Unlike with other texts, which had inspired students to offer their own enthusiastic readings and analyses, just as one would hope from confident, soon-to-be-graduating majors, The Female Review returned them to callow uncertainty. Rather than making statements or offering opinions, they asked me basic questions. What is going on? Where is Sampson? Why did Sampson do that? What is real and what is fiction? Did early Americans think this was good writing? The primary and secondary pairings I gave them for our third day of discussion didn’t enliven their approaches, though they did all agree that everyone must read Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes, Revisited.” Admittedly, their opinion of The Female Review was somewhat buoyed once they read their fifth book, the loathed Crèvecoeur, but it was all but forgotten by the time they had read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). As mentioned above, only two students even mentioned The Female Review in their final papers, one (unpersuasively) understanding it to signal women’s empowerment through writing (Sampson didn’t write it) and the other using it to launch a comparative paper of other cross-dressing narratives. This last student identified a conservative message about gender in these tales of adventure that end in domesticity, and did offer a unique interpretation of Mann’s convoluted prose and plot. Such complete opacity makes gender transgression seem complicated. Why not adhere to the clarity and simplicity of patriarchal expectations.

The question becomes, then, would I recommend teaching The Female Review. Perhaps. Its biggest issue, at least in my classroom, is that suffers by comparison to other texts. Rowlandson’s wilderness images and biblical allusions provided more fodder for close reading. Oroonoko’s characters were more clearly drawn. The sex in Fantomina was easier to spot. Frankenstein is, well, Frankenstein. The way to teach The Female Review and to have students explore with more interest and discovery its themes of early American adventure, transgression, revolution, and performance might be to foreground comparison. The sole student in my class who had an interesting insight was the one who read other cross-dressing narratives. If I teach it again, that’s the kind of course I will assign it in: one where we can think about its prose and plot and confusions alongside other cross-dressing narratives, early American or otherwise.