Elizabeth Dill


Among themes of liberty, virtue, and the construction of national identity explored in the literature of the early American republic, there is the difficult and seemingly less glorious fact that the canon suffers from a scandalous shortage of prudes. Indeed, some of the most popular American texts during the late eighteenth century portray the virginity of their heroines only to highlight its untimely loss. Sensuous women populate the literature of the early nation, wrecking homes and seducing their seducers, and their presence calls for a discussion of what it means to be sexy in the 1790s. For even after decades of critical attention, the connections between the indiscreet women of post-revolutionary fiction and republican notions of community and virtue are unresolved. We continue to ask why it is that the earliest American novels concern themselves with pleasure hungry coquettes, seductive half-sisters, lovesick rakes, and the like: not a mob of angry villagers threatening another bloody revolution, but a mob of lusty villagers, out to sow their wild oats and explore the social limits of desire. Because seduction plots were often used as a genre to examine this phenomenon, we might turn to them to find an answer to our inquiries. But rather than indicating simply the sexual ruin of a woman seeking liberty outside marriage, seduction in the late eighteenth century engages the social ethics of desire. This conception of the use of seduction in the early American novel leads to further questions: why must the new nation struggle to come to terms with such unencumbered, sexualized, excessively social subjects? And where does the seduced woman, as an object and as an agent of desire, fit into our understanding of republican ideologies and the formation of an American community?