I feel like I need to begin my methodological introduction with graffiti. Graffiti that says: "Bercovitch Bites," or "Foster Rules," or even "Stop Elitist Historicists." Nothing particularly original -- just a few key phrases that capture the frustration I have felt while researching New Historicism and more particularly, its application to texts. Somehow, graffiti -- the unscholarly domain of angry teenagers armed with cans of spray paint -- echoes my reaction to the scholars in this field who seem to be writing only for other scholars, thus excluding those of us who, fascinated with the ideas expressed, would like to learn about the method and topic by simply picking up a book or article. As I understand it, the whole idea of New Historicist criticism is to enlighten the readers of a text further about that text. Enlighten, educate, teach or inform -- however you put it -- this kind of criticism should be inclusive, not exclusive. The heavy use of jargon and obscure references by these critics serves as a "locked gate" that only allows those with the proper credentials a "key" to get in.
Within the context of the text I have chosen (A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, by Nancy Prince) this elitist approach seems incongruous simply because of the facts surrounding its author and publication. This is a text written by a primarily self-educated woman who felt very strongly about using her knowledge and abilities in a "hands-on" manner to help and "enlighten" others. Ultimately, she wrote about her experiences to put food on her table, not to impress her colleagues. In any case, for the purposes of this paper, I will attempt to explain what I think New Historicism is and how I intend to use the theories behind it to examine Nancy Prince's book.
New Historicism seeks to place a text in a culturally relative context by looking at the cultural and historical influences of the time and the biographical circumstances of the author from a variety of perspectives. As Hunter Cadzow says in The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory:
From Greenblatt's perspective, New Historicism never was and never should be a theory; it is an array of reading practices that investigate a series of issues that emerge when critics seek to chart the ways texts, in dialectical fashion, both represent a society's behavior patterns and perpetuate, shape or alter that culture's dominant codes (2).
In seeking to create a context for this narrative, the biggest problem I encountered was how to categorize Prince in order to research the historical background that lies behind her book. As an African-American, free woman in the 1800's, Prince falls under several different subject headings, none of which pertain directly to her. In order to resolve this dilemma, I have pieced together various sources of information and applied them specifically to various parts of her life in the hopes of creating a coherent, "enlightening" dialogue about a little known, yet fascinating author and woman.
As I noted in the methodological introduction, the biggest challenge when analyzing A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince is classifying it. Yet this contextual placement is vital to a New Historicist analysis. How can I learn about Prince's time and place if I don't know what time and place to look into? So, in this paper I will examine the text in terms of the Evangelical movement's impact on Nancy Prince's life and work. Yet, when we address Prince's life through Evangelicalism, we must acknowledge the persistent gap between Prince's hopes and aspirations for her work and life and the reality of it. This gap is another facet of a New Historicist reading, one that reaches back to early feminist criticism. As Judith Newton says, "One early focus in the 'New Women's History,' for example, was on the gap between role prescription and women's actual behavior, which might register 'role anxiety' or 'role resistance' " (155). At times in the narrative, Prince speaks openly of her disillusionment and frustration over this gap, but at other times, she remains surprisingly quiet about the effect that these feelings have on her behavior -- it is during these times that the idea of "role anxiety" or "role resistance" might be most effectively applied. Here, we will look at Prince's narrative in two stages, first, her conversion, and, second, her mission, both set against the backdrop of 19th century Christian Evangelicalism; addressing both the ideal and Prince's real experiences.
"Evangelical Christians were and are people who have consciously decided to take charge of their own lives and identities. The Christian discipline they embrace is both liberating and restrictive" (1220). This statement by Daniel Howe describes the appeal that this type of faith had for Nancy Prince and many others during this time. Baptized at the age of 20 into the Baptist church, Prince was experiencing a difficult period in her life (Prince 12). She was struggling to help her mother financially and to find homes for her younger sisters and brothers, as they became old enough to work. Prince had been placed in various homes from the time she was eight, earning her own room and board. As she says, "Care after care oppressed me -- my mother wandered about like a Jew -- the young children who were in families were dissatisfied; all hope but in God was lost" (12). Feeling overwhelmed by all that she faced, Prince sought a better way to cope, turning to Christianity like many of the other young women in her day. In The Politics of Domesticity, Barbara Epstein describes the emotional benefits that young women often found in conversion:
In contrast to eighteenth-century patterns of conversion, in the nineteenth-century revivals men's and women's accounts of their experiences were sharply dissimilar. Among women, the desire to rebel against God's authority often became the paramount issue. Yet they feared the consequences of such desires and longed to receive the security that submission and salvation would bringÖ For women, salvation also brought assurance about the future, but just as importantly it brought surcease of self-condemnation and new self-confidence (47).
Clearly Prince was seeking something like this when she placed her hopes in God and was immersed in the baptismal waters.
Prince expresses her frustration and sense of helplessness about family events, yet she remains fairly reticent about her subsequent epiphany and the personal efforts it must have taken for her to reach her decision. Following an incident involving her mother and sister, she says:
ÖI hired a horse and chaise and took them both back to Salem, and returned to my place in 1822, with a determination to do something for myself; I left my place after 3 months, and went to learn a trade; and after 7 years of anxiety and toil, I made up my mind to leave my country. September 1, 1823, Mr. Prince arrived from Russia. February 15, 1824, we were married. April 14th, we embarked on board the RomulusÖbound for Russia (15).
Certainly, this statement echoes the "surcease of self condemnation and new self confidence" that Epstein speaks of. More interesting than what Prince does say in this passage is what she does not. What is her relationship with Prince? Why doesn't she tell us more about her startling decision to leave the country? By marrying, she is living up to society's expectations of her, yet she tells us of her intention to leave the country before she meets Prince. One gets the impression that Prince would have found a way to leave the country whether or not she had found a husband to take her, but by choosing an accepted role, she is actually rebelling against what is expected of a young woman in her position.
This determination to do for herself has its roots in Prince's evangelical belief, as Daniel Howe explains: "The essence of evangelical commitment to Christ is that it is undertaken voluntarily, consciously, and responsibly, by the individual for himself or herself. (That, after all, is why evangelicals, in any century, are not content to let a person's Christianity rest on baptism in infancy.)" (1220). The logical outgrowth of determination to do for oneself is an urge to help others do the same. Howe also says:
These evangelists had on their agenda a reformation of life and habits, both individual and communal. They continued the historic concern for church discipline characteristic of the early Protestant Reformers. Voluntary discipline represented Protestantism's alternative to the authoritarianism of traditional society (1218).
For Prince, the urge to reform had an immediate impact on her life as one of the 6500 free, black residents of Massachusetts. Everywhere she looked in her community, people like her faced oppression, suffering, and a lack of freedom -- freedom to do for themselves. As Prince tells it, her years in Russia were a respite from racism, but upon her return "the weight of prejudice" again oppressed her (Prince 47). She cast about for a way to help others, but found her former congregation in disarray, her minister and family dead, and a lack of commitment for the much needed reforms she sought to undertake. Once again, Prince finds her at loose ends, unable to bridge the gap between how she wants things to be and how they really are. Once again, she turns to God for help and for the practical means to meet her goals.
In All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century America, Frances Cogan explains:
Missionary work combined a number of skills -- teacher, nurse, evangelical church worker, and pamphleteer -- while serving the greater glory of the Lord. The Illustrated Christian Weekly calls it 'this important form of woman's work' and lauds the appearance of good Christian women among the heathen, noting that in distant lands 'the Christian woman finds an open door for her when she labors to spread the truths of the common salvation' (246).
Inspired by the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, Prince becomes interested in going to Jamaica. After attending a lecture given by an American missionary from Jamaica, Prince is recruited by him to work in the islands. Frustrated by the disappointing reality of domestic reform efforts, Prince again attempts to achieve the ideal by leaving the country and putting her hopes in God. Once again, Prince achieves this move out of the country through an accepted social role -- lady missionary -- thus attaining her independence by subverting a prescribed gender role.
Upon her arrival, however, Prince is immediately thrust into another disappointing situation -- learning that even in Jamaica there is a gap between the reality and the spiritual ideal. She finds that although they have been freed, Jamaica's black residents were now subject to a kind of "pay-for-pray" system. In her travels, Prince learns:
I told him I was sent for by one of the missionaries to help him in his school; Indeed, said he, our color need the instruction our colored people did not hire for themselves? We would be very glad to, he replied, but our money is taken from us so fast we cannot. Sometimes they say we must all bring 1l.; to raise this, we have to sell at a loss or to borrow, so that we have nothing left for ourselves; the Macroon hunters take all -- this is a nickname they give the missionaries and the class-leaders -- a cutting sarcasm this! (57-58).
Despite her best efforts, Prince is unable to effect any kind of lasting change through her work. Like the institution of slavery in America, the institution of religion for profit practiced by missionaries in Jamaica is intractable while even the proper authorities collaborate in its existence. Once again, Prince attempts to help the local children by establishing a vocational school with the verbal support of the Jamaican missionaries, yet upon her return from a fund-raising trip to the US, they try to defraud her of the money she has raised and what she has contributed from her personal funds. She attributes their behavior to the system of slavery which has taught them trickery and violence as way of life, saying, "It is not surprising that this people are full of deceit and lies, this is the fruits of slavery, it makes master and slaves knaves" (65).
When a reformer sets out on a mission, they have a vision of the work ahead that often includes willing students, and opportunities to effect substantial change. If the subjects of the missionary's work cannot learn to do for themselves, then it is the reformer's job to do for them (as is the case in evangelical reforms for children and the mentally ill) (Howe 1220). Prince, therefore, was unable to meet her own expectations and was unable to combat the complacent attitudes of her superiors -- leaving her, upon her final return to the US, nearly destitute and suffering from ill health. Prince herself addresses this disparity between her idealistic plans and actual achievements by looking to the systems that created the problems, not by questioning her faith or her God. What she gained as an evangelical reformer was not so much in the results of the work she did for other people, but in the changes she was able to make in herself. As Daniel Howe explains, "The evangelical emphasis on conscious, voluntary decision and action represents a conjunction of Christianity with modernity. The evangelical attained a new personal identity as both follower of Christ and rational, autonomous individual -- paradoxical as that might seem to some historians today" (1222). Prince forged her identity within her faith, which in turn gave her the means to be an independent world traveler -- something completely unacceptable for 19th century young women (black or white) under any other guise. Thus, it was her evangelism that enabled her to subvert her designated gender role, an unexpected result from a conservative, traditional, Christian movement.
Images of African-Americans from the 19th Century -- view this fascinating collection
John Hopkins University Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism -- read more here
Literary Theory Primer -- decode the critics' jargon here
Voices from the Gaps -- read about more interesting women writers here
Cadzow, Hunter. "New Historicism." John Hopkins University Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Online. 5 April, 1998. Available: http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/entries/new_historicism.html
Cogan, Frances. All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.
Epstein, Leslie. The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981.
Howe, Daniel. "The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture in the North during the Second Party System." The Journal of American History 77 (March 1991): 1216-1239.
Newton, Judith. "History as Usual? Feminism and the 'New Historicism.'" The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989. 152.
Prince, Nancy. A Black Woman's Odyssey through Russia and Jamaica: The Narrative of Nancy Prince. New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1990.