The Most Learned Woman in America
A Life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
Anne M. Ousterhout, and Introduction by Susan Stabile
The Most Learned Woman in America
A Life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
Anne M. Ousterhout, and Introduction by Susan Stabile
“The Most Learned Woman in America is a delightful addition to the growing corpus of knowledge that we have concerning America’s ‘Founding Mothers.’ Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was famous in her time, virtually unknown in our own. Yet, as Anne Ousterhout points out in her painstakingly researched work, she was a woman who was known in her own right; she was never merely an appendage of the men to whom she was related. Fergusson’s literary salon in Philadelphia placed her at the very center of the cultural and intellectual world of colonial America.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Born in 1737 to a wealthy family, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson excelled from an early age. Although women in her day were denied higher education, Fergusson read widely, educating herself in literature, history, and languages, even reading classical literature in the original tongues, an unusual ability for a colonial woman. She wrote prolifically—often until midnight or later, spending but a few hours sleeping—and published her poetry. Her journals of a trip to England and Scotland circulated widely among admiring Philadelphians. During the 1770s she hosted a Saturday evening salon at her home that was unrivaled in the colonies for its brilliance.
Yet despite her achievements, Fergusson’s life was fraught with financial woes, bad romances, and treasonous plots that hounded her throughout her life. After her father forbade her marriage to Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, she secretly married Henry Hugh Fergusson, a British Loyalist who left her before the Revolution. Henry’s actions, together with Elizabeth’s own political indiscretions, earned her potent enemies, leading to the confiscation of her family estate, Graeme Park. Although she eventually succeeded in reclaiming her property, her reputation was tarnished in the process. Her efforts to justify her actions were tireless, alienating friends and making the last fifteen years of her life miserable.
The Most Learned Woman in America masterfully narrates Fergusson’s efforts to live an appropriately genteel life, even as she struggled against the limits that her society placed on its women. In the process, we can begin to understand the conflicts—internal and external—that women of the Revolutionary generation faced.
“The Most Learned Woman in America is a delightful addition to the growing corpus of knowledge that we have concerning America’s ‘Founding Mothers.’ Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was famous in her time, virtually unknown in our own. Yet, as Anne Ousterhout points out in her painstakingly researched work, she was a woman who was known in her own right; she was never merely an appendage of the men to whom she was related. Fergusson’s literary salon in Philadelphia placed her at the very center of the cultural and intellectual world of colonial America.”
“Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson's contemporaries recognized that the story of her life was extraordinary. Only now, however, has anyone succeeded in narrating the tale of the presiding genius of colonial America's greatest salon. Anne Ousterhout's book provides a concise, reliable, and readable account of the life of this woman gifted with wit, troubled with a volatile heart, and drawn to aristocratic political intrigue.”
“This book is a thoughtful and well-researched biography of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia.”
“Anne M. Ousterhout in The Most Learned Woman in America contributes significantly to correcting any notion that women were absent from the religious and political engagement—in words and deeds—that led to the founding of the United States of America. Through a style that is appealing both to the scholar and the general reader, Ousterhout encourages a complex reevaluation of this revolutionary era for evidence of the contribution of other women like Mrs. Fergusson.”
“This a beautiful book. The restrained sepia tones of the book jacket give way to vibrant orange endpapers embossed with vines and flowers. The floral designs of the chapter headings are replicated in the page headers. The few illustrations are full-page, clear, and sharp. Other presses might note that academic books need not be carelessly produced and ugly.”
“Thus, this biography both introduces us to an intriguing woman intellectual and serves to further the understanding of eighteenth-century American literary culture.”
“Ousterhout's study is an example of biography at its strongest: it provides a window into the detailed life of one woman and illuminates how she fit into the broader social, intellectual, and political communities around her.”
Anne M. Ousterhout was Professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University when she died in 1997. She is the author of State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution 1987).
Foreword by Joseleyne A. Slade
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction by Susan Stabile
1. Sweet Period of Vernal Youth
2. Love, Politics, and Rejection
3. This Bewitching Country
4. The Most Learned Woman in America
5. Very Tender and Painful Emotions
6. Everybody Is a Whig or a Torie
8. Confrontation and Confiscation
9. Between Constitutionalists and Anti-Constitutionalists
10. The Deserted Wife
11. Femme Savante
12. The Final Narrowing Circle
Elizabeth Fergusson and British-American Literary History
Susan M. Stabile
Until recently, Elizabeth Graeme’s famed travel journal remained an apocryphal text for over two centuries. "Her modesty alone prevented it from being made public," remarked Benjamin Rush in 1809, "thereby affording a specimen to the world and to posterity, of her happy talents for observation, reflection and composition." The stuff of oral legend, the journal was rumored to contain a catalogue of her adventures: socializing at the fashionable Scarborough spa and hot-wells at Bristol; rubbing elbows at the York races with "the celebrated Lawrence Sterne. Author of Tristram Shandy"; attending Sterne’s literary salon at Shandy Hall; visiting Benjamin Franklin at his Craven Street address in London; walking through the illustrious grottos and caverns at Clifton Hill and Wanstead; and witnessing "so many Huzzas as one might expect from the publick Appearance" of King George III. Framed between the epic moments of departure and return—"On the Passage from Phila:a to Liverpool" in June 1764 and "Upon Leaving England" in September 1765—the journal presents her transatlantic voyage as a heroic odyssey. Fashioning herself as a female Odysseus who leaves her native home for unforeseen adventures abroad, she watches Philadelphia fade into the horizon, as the fragmented journal begins: "I could not help observing, that whatever way the Ship moved she appeared to be in the Centre of a Circle. The Sea seems to be a perfect Circle, surrounded by Clouds, that look as if they bent down at the Edges to join it, so that our own Eyes form the Horizon, & like Self-Love, we are always placing ourselves in the Middle, where all Things move round us."
Unlike Penelope, who stays dutifully at home awaiting Odysseus’s return, Elizabeth Graeme situates herself at the center rather than in gendered margins of her narrative. Rather than rehearsing the imperial exploits of great men, "whose Hearts must glow & Head must toil for his Country," her female epic traces the evolution of polite society from England to America. Though she resists the lure of fame that propels Odysseus’s narrative, conceding that "a Woman’s glory is to shine unknown," Elizabeth Graeme nevertheless made an indelible mark on British-American literary history. She returns to what she called "the Athens of North America," completing the heliotropic journey of progress—from classical Greece to neoclassical England to Philadelphia. Poised to establish one of the first literary salons in North America, she fulfilled George Berkeley’s prospect of planting arts and learning in America.
Twenty years later in 1789, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson recorded the realization of this prospect in a set of companion poems, "Ode to the Litchfield Willow" and "Ode the Second, A Tribute to American Genius and Friendship," which carefully map the westward progress of cultural refinement promised by her earlier English voyage. Marked by the aesthetic principles of neoclassicism, or the veneration and imitation of the classical social order and literary customs of ancient Greece and Rome, the odes chronicle the emergence of an early national literature. In the first poem, Fergusson condenses British literary history to highlight the particular contributions of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his famous Litchfield group: essayist Joseph Addison, actor David Garrick, painter and caricaturist William Hogarth, epistoler Hester Thrale, and poet Anna Seward. Given the Litchfield group’s influence over Philadelphia’s burgeoning republic of letters, Fergusson composes a poetic sequel to her willow ode. Returning from England in 1765 with Richard Peters (whom she mythologizes as the Greek "Mentor who parent like distill’d / Maxims with pure Religion fill’d"), she superintended her literary salon at Graeme Park through the next decade. The poem begins with habitué Thomas Godfrey, "Whose Verse and Hours beguild / . . . the tunefull Nine." Joining Godfrey at the famous Graeme Park salon was poet Nathaniel Evans. Though he died young, Evans was not forgotten as "Laura did Evans Merits Breath[e] / Full twenty years now gone." Thoughts of Evans provoked EG’s memories of Thomas Coombe, whose "Mellifluous ardent Mild" elocution and "whose Accents Melt the Soul." Coombe’s poems, in turn, remind Fergusson of Jacob Duche’s "Strains in their own Subject grand." Like Evans, Duche lived immortally through his verse as "A Triple Garland placd upon / Thrice favord of the Nine!" Fergusson then rounds out her biography of male habitués with Philadelphia College President William Smith and musician James Bremnar. While she compares Smith to her favorite British poet Edward Young ("To whom pathetic Powers are lent/ Strong as the Bards who Sung"), she applauds Bremnar’s music for its "Magic Powers," which was like "quivering Mounting Fire / Ere quite to Heaven it towers."
With the men properly acknowledged, Elizabeth Fergusson goes on to enumerate the women in her artistic circle. Not surprisingly, first mention goes to Annis Boudinot Stockton, her life-long friend and correspondent, whose "illumind Pen" in "Brilliant Rays Reflected back" the salon’s ethos of friendship and politeness. Fergusson mentions sculptor Patience Wright for her "Sculptor’s Skill displayd . . . innate Genius." Regretting Wright’s departure for a career in England, she moves on to artist Betsy Pyle. Pyle drew with "Elegance and Ease," creating pleasing landscapes that "Our Fields she Skims; Our Woods she Roves." Pyle’s landscapes, finally, remind Fergusson of her beloved niece, poet Anna Young Smith. A "soon Cropt Rose Bud of the Muse," Smith was among "the smoothest of Parnassian Maids!"
Read concurrently, the two odes trace the progress of arts and literature from England to America through the persistent metaphor of the willow tree. Cultivated on "Albions Coast; / On Litchfields favord plain," the willow was "Transplanted thence" to Philadelphia, where it "flourish’d Fair." "If we the Metaphor pursue / Symbolic of the wise," Fergusson predicts, Philadelphia "may to Perfection rise." In a long annotation to the poem’s third stanza, she explains the metaphor’s literal origins:
<ext>About thirty years past a Basket made of Willow came from England and lay a Winter in a damp Cellar belonging to Dr. Franklin. . . . Dr. Franklin gave it to Miss Deborah Norris, a lady who had a particular taste for Gardening. She had it planted in her Garden near the State House in Philadelphia. . . . the great part of the Willows which are now so plentifully planted over the State of Pennsylvania took Rise from this Emigration.</ext>
Some say the original willow was planted by Samuel Johnson’s father; others suggest the tree came to England "in a basket from the Euphrates by Mr. Vernon," which was sent by bluestocking Lady Mary Wortley Montague to Alexander Pope, "who planted it with his own hand." But brought to Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin and cultivated by Deborah Norris, the willow tree continued the heterosocial refinement of Samuel Johnson’s Litchfield group and Alexander Pope’s Scriblerian circle.
Preserved in their respective commonplace books, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s travel journal and companion odes together represent women’s aesthetic preference for manuscripts at a time when printed texts were proliferating during the eighteenth century. Written by hand, read aloud in company, and circulated among intimates, women’s commonplace books mediated between the lively oral and print cultures in early Philadelphia. They continued the improvisational, conversational style of salons and belles lettres, on the one hand, while mimicking the publication of literary miscellanies and collections, on the other. More important, the female commonplace book negotiated the rhetorical nuances between the "private" and "public" spheres. Though the private sphere has long been imagined as the feminine domain of home and family, with the public sphere encompassing everything beyond it, recent scholars of early American literature and history have reconfigured—and correctly merged—these supposedly separate spheres. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s influential work on civic culture, historiographers recognize the public sphere as a complex network of private discursive institutions, including salons, taverns, coffeehouses, tea-tables, and clubs. Diverging from the Habermasian notion that shared reason and disinterested political critique cemented these exclusive societies, however, literary historian David Shields offers an innovative reconstruction of a British-American public sphere dictated by manners. Self-selected and voluntary, Shields argues, these institutions cohered because of common taste, sociability, and politeness. Unlike the masculine prerogative of reason, politeness not only guaranteed one’s ease and pleasure, but also promoted a relatively ungendered participation in public conversation, allowing women as well as men to participate.
Shield’s formulation of a heterosocial public sphere as an aesthetic culture of civility has important implications for interpreting Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s biography, especially in placing her in British-American literary history. While the rhetorical discourse of the private (i.e., domestic, material, feminine) and the public (i.e., civic, cerebral, and masculine) spheres ostensibly excluded women from the institutions of politeness, Fergusson collapsed these boundaries by channeling politeness into her literary salon and its textual analogue, the commonplace book. Unlike the rigid rules and classical learning promoted by scholasticism, politeness provided a model of learning based on an accumulation of universal and generally applicable knowledge, which was cleverly expressed to elicit pleasure from one’s company. Because politeness "branched into a thousand little channels and flow[ed] through all the minutiae of human life," moreover, it reified women’s relegation to the home, while at the same time accommodating their inherent affinity for pleasing in company. In other words, it transformed domesticity into sociability. Though admonished to "Let your knowledge be feminine as well as your person," letting it "glow within you rather than sparkle on others about you," women could dazzle their company with polite learning without being censured as pedantic. "If the theme is treated quite in a domestic Manner," remarked Elizabeth Fergusson about her literary ambitions, " I hope the author will not be accused of S[tray]ing into Subjects improper for her Sex; For a female pedant is a most disagreeable character." On the contrary, a woman could superintend a literary salon without leaving the privacy—or feminine decorum—of her best parlor.
As the handwritten analogue to the salon, the commonplace book similarly made polite learning more readily available to women. Just as the rise of female academies after the American Revolution increased literacy and improved education for young women, so the commonplace book served as an informal mode of education for elite women of the previous generation. Begun by classical oratory and punctuated by the eighteenth century’s gradual transformation of rhetoric into belles lettres, the commonplace book was sociable rather than scholastic in its accumulation of usable knowledge from oral and printed sources alike. Women supplemented their dame-school education or home schooling by transcribing information from classical and modern texts. Then circulating these compilations with female friends, they instituted a pedagogy based on politeness as well as friendship. Similarly conflating a woman’s knowledge with her house, moreover, the commonplace book continued the salon’s domestication of knowledge. Based on a rhetorical tradition that considered topoi, or places in the mind, as domestic spaces where one gathered, arranged, and displayed ideas, the commonplace book recuperates the house—and the female mind—as sites of knowledge. Typically, a female space associated with the material (rather than intellectual) world and the feminine body (rather than the masculine mind), the house, it follows, was a potent, epistemological metaphor for Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s neoclassic literary aesthetic.
<1-h>The Graeme Park Salon: An American Parnassus
Returning to Graeme Park in 1765, Elizabeth Graeme recounted the pleasures of her homecoming in a long commemorative poem, "Some Lines upon my first being at Graeme Park; after my return from England." Though she fondly remembers her adventures in England, "yet like Ulysses with his darling spot, / the much-lov’d Ithaca was not forgot." More than suggesting her nostalgia for home, however, her allusion to Ithaca underscores the conventional literary predilection for the pastoral over the urban world. "The sweet Domestic Joys" of Graeme Park were far from the "Bustle & noisy Strife" of London. Unlike the empty and external forms of what she called England’s "mechanical Politeness," the pastoral scene in Horsham, Pennsylvania, promised a world of retirement and ease, which encouraged Elizabeth Graeme and the other inhabitants to "associate the ideas of peace, of leisure, and of innocence . . . and banish from her thoughts the cares of the world." Seemingly reinforcing the domestic ideology that binds women to the house, pastoralism imagined domestic life as an aesthetic privilege. Privacy, leisure, and contemplation comprised the country-house ethos. As long as women fulfilled their family obligations, the argument went, they could spend their leisure hours in more pleasing intellectual pursuits. Leisure, Graeme asserts, is best suited to women as "our Sex have a greater Chance of obtaining it as the Publick has no Demands on us."
Based on a nostalgia for the classical golden age and the neoclassical tradition of the country house, the pastoral not only guaranteed leisure but also advanced civility and manners. Leisure and politeness went hand in hand. As Thomas Parnell explains in his popular poem, The Hermit: "The contemplation of the objects of Nature, displayed in rural scenes, produce the cheerfulness and diffuse calmness and serenity over the minds. . . that is a natural inducement to check the rise of passion and gradually meliorates & refines the hearts of man." Women could check their own passions, refine those of their male companions, and in the process, find time for contemplation and writing. Upholding domestic order and social propriety, Fergusson thus sees her home as a place to do intellectual work: "I wish to lead a calm & tranquil Life," resolves Graeme, "The Book, the Work, the Pen can all employ / The vacant Moment to some peaceful Joy." Transforming the alienating effects of domesticity into the welcome aesthetic of solitude, Fergusson sees the house as an inspiration for contemplation and creativity. It is at home that "the mind reviews and arranges, with the happiest effect, all the ideas and impressions it has gained in its observations in the world." A familiar topoi, the house both afforded and represented the accumulation of common knowledge.
Underscoring the topographical importance of the country house to the female intellect, Elizabeth Fergusson imagines her mind as a pastoral landscape. In her poem, "Laura’s Effusions on Friendship and Fancy," for instance, she presents Graeme Park’s garden retreats as mental topoi:
<LL>For Similes of mental Sweets
Are Shewn in Flowers and Shell Retreats,
Love, Light, and Harmony are found,
Painted in Nature’s Scenes around;
As Correspondent to the Mind.</LL>
The garden’s symmetrically organized flowers and contemplative grottoes expressed the harmonic virtues of sociability, while also reflecting a woman’s thoughts. The mind’s "correspondence" to the material world accordingly understands knowledge as studied perception.
As Fergusson explains in a related poem, "On the Mind’s being engross’d by one leading pursuit":
<LL>When one fond Object occupys the mind
In Natures Scenes we still that Object find
The Trees and Brooks but Trees and Brooks are still
We make them Mirrors by Ingenious Skill,
They all reflect the object of our thought
Strong with that Image is each substance frought.</LL>
Nature, she asserts, embodied the viewer’s imagination. To prove her empirical argument, the poem then goes on to catalogue practical examples of how humans project their feelings, desires, and ideas onto the material world. The Peasant observes cultured soil. The Alchemist sees gold. The Lover beholds his lost Delia. The poet witnesses divinity in nature. The scene, she concludes, perpetually changes with the landscape of the viewer’s mind. Following such theorists as David Hume and George Berkeley, Fergusson suggests that the phenomenal world was wholly the product of the subject’s observation. Knowledge rested in perception and imagination.
Given the pastoral’s association with domesticity and female knowledge, and given the corresponding aesthetic theories of perception that link knowledge with taste, or "the power of receiving pleasures from the beauties of nature and of art," women extended their predilection for politeness and perception to the realm of taste. Though aestheticians believed the foundation of taste "is the same in all human minds," they agreed that taste evolves and eventually exists in different degrees. Women may have been "marked by the difference that displays the function to which they are called and the passive state to which nature destines her," according to one critic. But it was precisely the "different frame of their natures [and] nicer organs and finer internal powers" that made them the natural arbiters of taste. As British moralist and litterateur Hannah More explains, "that Sex have lively imaginations, and those exquisite perceptions of the beautiful and defective, which come under the denomination of taste." Like politeness, taste suggested the universal and pastoral pleasures of neoclassicism, for as rhetorician Hugh Blair insisted, "what interests the imagination, and touches the heart, pleases all ages and all nations." The pastoral setting of Graeme Park, coupled with Elizabeth Graeme’s powers of taste, thus set the classical scene for her "attic" gatherings. As her nephew John Young predicted: "I am sure Graeme Park may vie with Arcadia; for poetry may easily convert Neshaminy into Helicon, the meadows into Tempe, and the park into Parnassus."
Benjamin Rush’s often quoted description of Elizabeth Graeme’s impressive salon performances not only presents her gatherings as the epitome of taste, but also illustrates the influence of neoclassical taste over rhetoric’s transformation into belles lettres during the eighteenth century. As Rush fondly remembers Graeme:
<ext>she instructed by the stores of knowledge contained in the historians, philosophers, and poets of ancient and modern nations, which she called forth at her pleasure; and again she charmed by a profusion of original ideas, collected by her vivid and widely expanded imagination, and combined with exquisite taste and judgment into an endless variety of elegant and delightful forms. </ext>
At first glance, Rush seems to reiterate Aristotle’s tripartite definition of rhetoric: invention (finding proofs or arguments); disposition (arrangement of materials); and style (display). Elizabeth Graeme compiled "stores of knowledge" (invention), which she "called forth at her pleasure" (disposition) through "an endless variety of elegant and delightful forms" (style). But read again through the lens of neoclassicism, her "stores of knowledge" and "profusion of original ideas" exemplify the notion of "imitation," or copying and improving correct models. The collection of ancient and modern materials suggests neoclassicism’s partiality toward universal and applicable knowledge, while the elegant and delightful forms illustrate both politeness and "wit" (or, as Alexander Pope defined it, "what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed"). Politeness, finally, demonstrates the ease and pleasure with which she called forth this knowledge; wit points to the pleasure elicited by her stylistic innovations.
Interested in balancing wit with politeness in her salon performances and later writings, Elizabeth Fergusson copies her niece Anna Young Smith’s poem, "The Distinction between good naturd and Ill Naturd wit attempted," into her 1789 Commonplace Book. A type of universalized knowledge displayed in cleverly turned rhetoric, a refined wit complemented polite conversation. While ill-natured wit provides "poisons men tho men Refined; / And festers in their Heart," good-natured wit offers a morally correctly antidote. Wit, Smith’s poem suggests, has a "pleasing Influence" that "Enlightens Charms, and Warms in One." Sociable in intent and pleasing in nature, wit flourishes in the Graeme Park salon:
<LL>While gathering oft in Circles gay
Around the Social Fire
That Wit shall Charm our Cares away
And Mirth and Joy Inspire.</LL>
Wit inspires pleasure and sociability; like retirement, it replaces worldly care with mirth and joy. And it contributes to hospitality, for when properly displayed, "Sweet smiling Peace shall keep the Door; / And Friendship Reign within." Initiating heterosocial friendship, wit brings men and women together through their shared taste in polite discourse.
The tension between good- and ill-natured wit in Anna Smith’s poem points to the partially gendered understanding of wit during the eighteenth century. Though Elizabeth Fergusson wrote in the belletristic genres associated with verbal play, her first responsibility as a woman and salonierre was to ensure her company’s continued pleasure. Since wit could degenerate into bawdy repartee unsuitable for mixed company, she carefully imitated the models provided by Alexander Pope and the British Bluestockings. Describing Pope’s work in her poem, "A Farewell to the Muses," she remarks, "How do we relish taste so here, / So Elegant his turns, / Harmonious numbers known by few." Then "turning from the Door / Of Philosophic Men" to the Bluestockings, Fergusson illustrates the salonierres’ antithetical responsibilities between politeness and wit. Known for their didacticism rather than banter, the Bluestockings offered a meliorating dose of piety. Lauding psalmist Elizabeth Rowe, for instance, Fergusson writes: "How like a Seraphim refind, / Does Rowe our Hearts inspire; / Warm, tender, Pious and Resigned." Like Rowe, her sister Bluestockings exemplified Anna Smith’s sociable definition of wit, as Fergusson explains:
<LL>Carters, Mores, Sewards, and Smiths we view
In verse mean vice oppose;
Genlis and Burney nobly show
Their talents great in Prose. </LL>
In verse and prose, the Bluestockings supplied appropriate neoclassical examples that would delight, but more importantly, instruct their audience. Following their lead, Fergusson fashions her salon accordingly, as she explains to Benjamin Rush: "tho alliteration was not study its my wish for this Country Peace, Plenty, Piety, and Politeness."
Balancing wit and politeness, Fergusson’s contributions to belles lettres included such quintessential genres of wit as the rebus, anagram, and the acrostic. Traditionally a phonetic puzzle pieced together through pictures, a rebus was also a poem that posed a question, working toward an answer by its conclusion. In "A Rebus upon the Name of a City the Sollution of which is for Mystical Reasons most humbly referd to the Fraternity of Free Masons" (1754), for instance, Elizabeth Fergusson mimics the reciprocal repartee of salon conversation. Carefully structured into three parts (the introduction, the rebus, and the answer), the poem begins by addressing the fraternal order of Freemasons, a model society (despite its homosocial exclusiveness) for Fergusson’s literary salon. An example of a private institution in the public sphere, Freemasons epitomized what moral philosophers called a sensus communis. Masonic symbols and gilded rituals established order and unity among the members, "the Cement which does most your Society bind," according to Fergusson. Though intensely enigmatic in their coded symbolism and gestures, Freemasons also projected themselves into the public sphere: on one hand, private society connoted innocence and charitability; on the other hand, it bespoke the frivolity and triviality of insular clubs. Seeing Freemasons as the ideal readers for her rebus, Fergusson accordingly gives them the appropriate clues:
<LL/title>The Rebus </LL/title>
<LL>Take the Cardinal Virtue most tincturd with Art;
And what High the left Breast’s the most delicate part
With the qualification so fam’d among Bees;
And what Orpheus playd sweet on to animate Trees.
What containd all the living within a small space;
And the Fate thats [entaild] upon Man and his Race.
The Bird which the Romans displayd in their Arms;
With What moves the Swiftest; and as it moves warms.
The Name which for Doctors of Physick agree;
And the rising which still next to a Valley you see,
The word thats most common for Water congeald;
And that Letter which first is to Children reveald.</LL>
Similar to an acrostic, whereby the initial letters of each line have meaning when read downward, the rebus requires answers to successive images, which are accumulated line by line. Then taking "all the Initials of these Mentiond Things," the poem’s reader solves the rebus. Answered in vertical sequence, the solutions are as follows: the cardinal virtue most tinctured with art is Prudence; the most delicate part of the left breast is the Heart; the bee’s qualification is Industry; Orpheus played the Lute; the small life-containing space is the Atom; humanity’s common fate is Death; the Roman coat of arms displays an Eagle; Light moves quickly as it warms; Physicians are Doctors of Physick; A Hill rises next to the valley; Ice is congealed water; and children first learn the alphabetic character, A. Reading down the column and collecting the initial letters of each row’s answer, the solution, she hints, is the name "Of a neat decent City; of no small renown":
Connecting the rebus’s "Introduction" to the Freemasons with the civic culture of ancient Greece, Fergusson gives one final clue: "A Town once so famous in the Lists of Greece /
A Name Expressive of Fraternal Peace / Of Seven great Churches that alone was found." While she explains in a footnote that "The meaning of the word Philadelphia is Brotherly Love," her allusion to the classical world underscores her ambitions to create a refined culture of belles lettres at Graeme Park.
The gender distinctions between the male-centered Freemason society and heterosocial salon not only accentuates the potential rift between wit and politeness for women, but also highlights the related tension between "sense" and "sensibility," or as Benjamin Rush put it, between judgment and taste. Possessed by men and women alike, sense was an inherent awareness of propriety, which legislated both moral and aesthetic judgment. Closely associated with reason, sense guaranteed the platonic friendships forged through heterosocial conversation. Linked to taste, sensibility was the neurological and psychological susceptibility to "feeling"—both physical and emotional. Like taste, sensibility was associated with the delicacy and suggestibility of the female sex. Threatening to the salon’s Platonism in its explicit corporeality and potentially excessive passions, sensibility became the exclusive discourse of women. British Americans made the cultivation of sense an overriding concern of conversation in mixed company after 1760, while establishing sensibility as the dominant ethic of sororal communication. Elizabeth Fergusson thus illustrates the markedly gendered distinction in describing her salon as "A Society of Friends whose Actions are guarded by Affection, Chearfulness, Probity, and Good Sense." Platonic friendship and correct judgment ensured the emotional restraint demanded by neoclassical (and sexual) decorum.
Just as the Freemasons forged a communal masculine identity through secret mysteries, so Elizabeth Fergusson and her circle established a shared feminine identity through uncensored expressions of sensibility. Sending copies of her poems at Annis Stockton’s request, Fergusson explains in an accompanying letter that sensibility—exemplified by female friendship—justifies the scribal publication of her manuscript commonplace books:
<ext>Remember my dear Friend, that you often ask’d me for my little pieces. And I Have comply’d with your Request. It is time you Said, that if I Survivd you would wish to have them. But I know that you have a Sensibility of Friendship which would make you Sigh at Reading them when this writer is no More, But alas when I copy them I find it makes past ideas very feverishly in my mind. . . tears obtrude itself But I show Patience more than my Genius in these Works of your Obligd Friend. Laura </ext>
The affections of friendship, she confesses, are reciprocal: just as Stockton would sigh at reading Fergusson’s work posthumously, so she faced a torrent of nostalgic tears in copying the poems. Effusive and uncensored, sensibility disregarded the emotional restraint and rigid formality required of neoclassicism. As such, it served as the prelude to the emergent Romantic movement marked by William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798.
Though markedly gendered, "sense" and "sensibility" merged in the ethical discourse of "sympathy." Positioning oneself in relationship to another, sympathy (much like modern empathy) is an act of the imagination. According to the Scottish Common Sense School of Philosophy (popularized by David Hume, Frances Hutchinson, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid, among others), sympathy marks a sensus communis of like feeling and collaborated taste. As Elizabeth Fergusson notes in her 1789 poem, "On the Preference of Friendship to Love," sympathy is like a steadily burning star that outshines even the sun:
<LL>Let Girlish Nymphs and Boyish Swains,
Their amorous Ditties Chant!
Make vocal Echoing Hills and Plains;
And Loves frail Passion Paint.
But Friendships steady flame as far;
Out shines that transient Blaze;
As Mid Day suns a glimmering Star
Which faintest Beams displays.</LL>
The constellation metaphor recalls philosopher David Hume’s electrical description of sympathy between female friends. As women carefully watched, diligently imitated, and theatrically mirrored one another’s manners, they not only reflected "one another’s emotions," according Hume, "but also those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated." Such rays, beams, flames, and blazes of feeling suggest a distinctively physical and natural energy between friends. Such a reverberation, comments salonierre Annis Stockton, is like a collective pulse animating the group. As she suggests to Elizabeth Fergusson in 1769: "How often when I am reading Mr. Pope’s Letters, do I envy that day when the knot of friends that seem’d to have but one heart by which they were united and their greatest pleasure was giving each other pleasure." Reverberating passions, like a communal heartbeat, kindled private society.
Long after the pleasures of her salon had subsided by the century’s end, Elizabeth Fergusson fondly remembers the intimacy afforded by sororal conversation. Revising Stockton’s respiratory metaphor for a magnetic one, Fergusson subsequently describes sympathy in physical terms:
<ext>For we are all of us such Domestic fire-side beings that a certain degree of nearness seems absolutely necessary to make us meet. Characters of such a Cast may well be compared to the Magnet and the Loadstone. They must be placed at a certain point Before the attraction operates and then when that prevails the two Objects adhere with the utmost force. </ext>
While her metaphor suggests that the sensus communis can only be sustained by emotional intimacy ("a degree of nearness"), her aesthetic of proximity also intimates geographical closeness. Separated from one another in their respective country retreats, women needed another means of sustaining their sympathetic bond. They turned toward the handwritten word, acknowledging its indebtedness to the uniquely oral culture of the domestic sphere. Transferring the heterosocial conversation of salons into a markedly sororal circulation of their commonplace books, women substituted the literal space of their parlors with the figurative space of commonplace topoi. As Elizabeth Fergusson explains to Ann Ridgely in 1797:
<ext>I declare when by peculiar Circumstances I am as it were a Link Cut off from the Chain of Society both by Birth and Education which I was once taught to expect, and devote my Hours to Retirement and my Pen, I feel a Latent Wish that those whose tasks are congenial to my own, might with the Eye of not Candor But Partiality see my turn of thought and mode of Life. </ext>
Through the domestic or scribal publication of her commonplace books, Elizabeth Fergusson—and her female friends—upheld the sensus communis of the public sphere based on congeniality and partiality. Handwriting made absence presence, revising solitude into sociability.
<1-h>The Topography of Knowledge: The Female Commonplace Book
Privately circulating her commonplace books among her female coterie throughout the last half of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Fergusson domesticated the ancient art of commonplacing by comparing universal topoi to the intimate spaces in her house in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Like the pastoral retreat from the beau monde into the unfettered world of the imagination, commonplaces are universal ideas that transcend historical time and space. As cumulative passages selected from printed texts (or "copia"), commonplaces were copied into a notebook and organized into general topics (or "heads") for later retrieval. As essayist James Beattie suggests, "A methodical composition, rightly divided into its several heads or members, which do all naturally illustrate each other, and whereof none can be misplaced or wanting, without injury to the whole, is readily understood, and quickly remembered." Memory, rhetoricians further insisted, depended on familiarity. Most familiar with their homes, women consequently adapted the classical architectural metaphors for commonplaces (i.e., "sedes," "dwelling places," or "local habitation") to their individual circumstances. As Elizabeth Fergusson explains:
<ext>If one has been long accustomd to a certain Sett of Objects, which have made a strong Impressien on a man’s Mind, such as a House, where he has passd many agreeable years, . . . they seem endowd with Life, They become objects of his affection . . . I have also in my Life felt the Force of those Local attachments.</ext>
A "local habitation," the Georgian country house was figuratively divided into rooms (or "heads") filled with useable figures, quotations, or images (i.e., "moveables," as women’s dowered objects were called). Like furniture, knowledge could be arranged, rearranged, practically utilized, and decorously displayed.
Until its confiscation in the political aftermath of the American Revolution and Elizabeth Fergusson’s consequent removal to Seneca Luken’s farm, the ephemera of Graeme Park’s household provided familiar topoi for organizing her commonplace books. Witnessing the inventory of her domestic possessions and later buying back what she could afford, Fergusson may have reiterated rhetorician Hugh Blair’s question, "How then shall these vacant spaces, these unemployed intervals, which more or less, occur in the life of everyone, be filled up?" The answer was simple: through commonplacing, or "the study of arranging and expressing our thoughts with propriety," which "teaches us to think as well as to speak accurately." As her companion Betsy Stedman describes Fergusson in her unfortunate circumstances: "Calculated to impart and receive pleasure in society her confined income, not her inclination, caused her for years to live a retir’d life. Her active mind must have employment. Writing became her constant pursuit; her unremitted application to this mode of filling up her hours often astonished me." House poor, but verbally rich, Elizabeth Fergusson accumulated stores of knowledge in her commonplace books that could never be taken away. Since domesticity provided ample rhetorical figures, since rhetoric moved the emotions and evoked a moral response, since a moral response was recognized through sympathy, since sympathy deferred to the imagination, and since women were credited with a superior imagination, commonplacing well suited Elizabeth Fergusson and her circle.
As literary critic Susan Miller contends, commonplacing was an invaluable method of reading and storing information in the early United States: "the copying and imitation that licensed commonplace acquisitions under republican rationalism also invested them with a transformative dynamism." More important, this dynamism (typically subsumed by the rhetoric of "Republican Motherhood") made learning more readily available to women. More than valued for their reproductive capacity in perpetuating the Republican citizenry, women were also esteemed for their domestic contributions to education. As useful knowledge was requisite for all Republican citizens, commonplace books could be used by men and women, boys and girls, at school and at home. Unlike the original Latin commonplace books for schoolboys, the early modern variant did not stress classical learning as much as the universality of ideas and the correctness of taste. As the Age of Enlightenment, the eighteenth century ushered in a new mode of learning based on accumulation, order, and classification. It was a time when the collection—including dictionaries, encyclopedias, miscellanies, "repositories," "cabinets," and anthologies—promoted useful knowledge. Sound bites of memorizable and applicable ideas accordingly became the hallmarks of polite learning. Taken from a variety of printed sources and copied into manuscript commonplaces, this new pedagogy of transcription enabled girls and women alike to practice their handwriting, catalogue their reading, order their thoughts, and inspire their own compositions—despite the exclusionary gender codes in colleges. Commonplace books thus inaugurated a feminine genealogy of learning, where mothers and daughters taught successive generations of women.
Learning the value of a commonplace book at a young age, Elizabeth Fergusson warmly remembers her mother’s home instruction:
<LL>When the dear Anna led my Infant mind
Up those Ascents which God and Truth designd
Should be displayd to opening tender Age,
Nicely adapted to each rising Stage.</LL>
Monitoring her daughter’s reading and penmanship, Ann Graeme carefully planned the curriculum, progressively adapting the lessons "to each rising Stage." On December 3, 1762, for instance, Ann Graeme wrote a letter to her daughter Elizabeth, explaining the pedagogical and moral value of transcribing the Bible. As part of the commonplace tradition of praising virtue and correcting vice, paraphrases and translations of the Scripture provided women with textual exempla to model in their life and writing:
<ext>I was extreamly surprised and shocked when my Child told me she did not believe a directing hands towards individuals in their trifling events, how such a thought could take place in a mind so well acquainted with the Scripture and believes them as they are so very full and clear to the contrary, I wonder at.</ext>
Having discussed the textual validity of transcription, she then explains its usefulness for women’s moral understanding. Interpolating biblical passages into her letter, Graeme provides her skeptical daughter with a model to emulate in her own commonplace book:
<ext>I shall quote but two, one out of the Old and the other out of the New Testament, because I might as well attempt to transcribe the whole Bible as to enumerate texts to this purpose, but if there were none but these, they are so clear and full that they alone are sufficient to beat down all contradiction, King David in the 55 Psalm ves. 23, O, cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall nourish thee, and shall not suffer the righteous to fall for ever, endeed most part of that Psalm, as well as many others is extremely applicable to your Case.</ext>
Then quoting the Beatitudes, she reads one text against the other: "Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy Laden and I will give you rest." Paraphrases are not only acts of spiritual devotion and meditation, but also aesthetic endeavors that replicate the balanced order of the natural world in balanced meter, careful diction.
Following her mother’s pedagogical model, Elizabeth Fergusson similarly took charge of her niece Anna Young’s education after Jane Graeme Young’s death:
<ext>Since Providence has placed it in my Lot I shal[l] try to educate Anny. . . as Well as I can. . . Her length of time at Graeme Park in the Sumr is a very great Draw Back on her writing, and Sewing. Her reading and A Proper Choice of Books with Explanations on them is my Branch, and I keep her close to it. . . . I have no ambition to Make her a Destinguished Character was it in My Power, But I could Wish to see her Afectionate a tolerable Show of Understanding, and passable Agreeable. Moderate as this Character appears to be it takes some attention to form it. </ext>
Fergusson not only compiles the reading list and guides her student’s interpretation, but she also undoubtedly monitored Young’s commonplace book transcriptions. Seemingly sharing the educational duties with Young’s father (making reading and writing "my Branch"), Fergusson’s pedagogy is notably premised on politeness. Keeping Young close to her studies through habit and discipline, she initiates her niece into the world of manners. With appropriately polite learning, Anna might become an affectionate, bright, and agreeable character. Though Young dies before she has a chance to fully participate in the Graeme Park salon, evidence of her successful education and literary ambition are found in a small collection of her poems, which Fergusson scatters through several of her own commonplace books.
Given the original pedagogical purpose of the commonplace book, one might trace the progress of Elizabeth Fergusson’s polite learning through the six commonplace books she compiled over the course of her life. From roughly 1750 to her death in 1801, she carefully organized transcriptions from and neoclassical imitations of her favorite authors; she copied poems by members of her literary circle; and she interpolated draft and fair copies of own verse. Given her introduction to English literary society by Lawrence Sterne in the 1760s, Fergusson applied the discourse of politeness to the process of transcription. A form of copying, transcription was inherently neoclassical. Rereading and copying her favorite authors not only gave her pleasure, but also ensured the pleasing performances in company. Copying, moreover, meant directly reflecting poetic forms; these forms, in turn, mirrored human nature. Much like the reverberating sympathy between women, poetry mirrored and perpetuated the sensus communis. Personifying her books as intimate companions, then, Elizabeth Fergusson explains the transcribing art:
<ext>I cannot help classing my Books like my Friends, they all have their respective Merits, but I am not equally acquainted with them.—Doctor Young is a Friend in Affliction, that I could open my Heart to, Mrs. Rowe flatters my Imagination, & takes walks with me in a summer evening,—Mr. Addison suits me in all Humours, Mr. Pope I am a little afraid of, I think he knows so well the turnings of the human Heart, that he always sets me into Examination.—Harvey says the same Thing over & over so prettily, & I am persuaded has so much Goodness of Soul, that I revere him, amid all his Prolixity, as for Mr. Richardson, he is a perfect Proteus, ever assuming a new Form, but in all sensible.—</ext>
Since polite learning, I have shown, was predicated on proximity, Fergusson negotiates the alienating effects of the printed medium (which erases a writer’s handwritten marks and hushes the salonierre’s voice) by reading literary texts as direct emanations of authorial character. Friendship, goodness, and sense opened her heart, excited her imagination, and prompted her examination.
While her commonplace books contain prose excerpts and experiments, the lion’s share of material are examples of neoclassical poetry. As Fergusson explains her generic preference: "Poetry is my weak Side, and I never can pass over a Beautiful passage But I wish to transcribe it." For instance, speaking of her admiration for graveyard poet Edward Young (and his "strict Orders [that] all his Manuscripts & Papers should be burnt" at his death), she remarks in her travel journal: "For my own Part I acknowledge myself, to be among the Number, that have been deeply touched with his Writings, & extracted many useful Sentiments from them, which if not sufficiently remembered, is owning to myself, not to the Writer who is admirable." Sometimes she responds directly to printed texts by writing her poetic response in the book itself. She composes a poetic reply in the blank leaf of her copy of Night Thoughts, for instance, and similarly writes an impromptu rejoinder to a question posed by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Writing in the margins of Smith’s text, Fergusson engages in a written form of dialogue. Much like salon conversation and the intimacy forged through personifying her favorite texts, transcription enacts another mode of sociability. The translator takes an impersonal imprint and humanizes it through script, leaving her own marks on the newly handwritten text. With additional marginalia and annotations, the commonplace book’s intertextual format resembles the reciprocity of actual conversation.
Arranging transcriptions, imitations, and original compositions in her commonplace books, Elizabeth Fergusson loosely organizes her entries. Unlike published models for organizing a commonplace book, such as John Locke’s dizzyingly complex New Method of Commonplacing, Fergusson typically begins with a detailed table of contents listing a description or title as well as a page number for each entry. Sometimes preceded by a short quotation, the table of contents is then followed by some version of her dedicatory poem to her readers, titled "Laura’s Effusions on Friendship and Fancy," which emphasizes scribal publication’s continuance of the salon’s sensus communis. The successive poems, diligently numbered, also have detailed annotations and footnotes, indicating the instructive component of neoclassical entertainment. In addition, she often includes helpful head notes (i.e., "On Needlework," "On Benevolence," etc.) as a supplemental index for her readers. As essayist James Beattie describes the process:
<ext>It is easy, and far more advantageous, to write correctly and legibly, with durable ink, and in note-books provided for the purpose, and carefully preserved. And when a volume is finished, it will be an amusement, and a profitable one too, to read it over; to make an index to it; and to write upon the cover such a title, or summary of contents, as may serve for a direction, when afterwards you want to revise any particular passage. </ext>
These textual features not only point to Elizabeth Fergusson’s integrity as an author, but also to her skills as a "compiler." Unlike an editor, who fixes and corrects texts, a compiler collects and arranges them according to her particular literary aesthetic. In other words, Elizabeth Fergusson’s coterie promoted sociability and pleasure by projecting their domestic authority as collectors of household topoi to their stockpile of literary miscellany. Through commonplace books, women transformed the rhetorical art of artificial memory into works of the imagination, for "by Memory, we acquire knowledge. By Imagination, we invent; that is, produce arrangements of ideas and objects that were never so arranged before."
While Elizabeth Fergusson follows Beattie’s general rules for compiling commonplace books, she rarely categorizes topoi under general heads, "under which may be arranged the manifold treasures of human Memory." "Under each of these heads," Beattie explains, "what an infinity of individual things are comprehended!" Given the intermittent nature of her organizational "heads," I would suggest another approach to interpreting Fergusson’s modern adaptation of rhetorical commonplacing. Setting her six commonplace books side by side, one notices that each book essentially comprises a single, comprehensive theme.
Her first book, Poemata Juvenilia (1752–72), traces her developing sense of civility inspired by her trip to England. Including some of the same poems transcribed in her travel journal, Poemata Juvenilia illustrates the young woman’s introduction to polite society in such poems as "The Invitation a Song," "A Parody on the Life of a Belle," "To Miss Betsy Stedman in Philadelphia: giving her an Account of the Movements of one Day as spent by people of Fashion in the full Season at Scarborough," and "Upon the Pleasure convey’d to us by writing; wrote on receiving Letters when in England from my Friends." After recounting her trip in verse, she then composes a long, retrospective poem, "On Being at Graeme Park after my return from Britain."
The next book, compiled for Annis Stockton in 1787, testifies to the burgeoning salon culture after returning to Graeme Park in 1765, with roughly thirty of her own poems, fifteen by Anna Young Smith, and several by habitué Francis Hopkinson and Major Andre. Assembled in 1789 for the five Willing sisters, the subsequent commonplace book continues the theme of British-American literary history, supplementing the previous books’ depiction of polite literary society with her two Willow Odes to British and American Genius. Using various trees as metaphors for universal knowledge throughout the book, she also includes "An Extract Relative to Chaucers Oak"; Extracts from Tomsons Seasons on Groves, Woods, and Shade; "An Extract from Milton on Groves," Pliny’s Epistle on Woods"; and an "Extract from Milton on the Tree of Knowledge." With a ready store of established authors on neoclassical nature writing, Fergusson’s Willow Odes boasted an impressive historical resonance.
In her 1796 commonplace book kept for either Elias Boudinot or Benjamin Rush, moreover, Fergusson shows the intellectual maturity reached in her later life when cut off from the civil society she once enjoyed at Graeme Park. While this volume includes poems copied in the other commonplace books (i.e., "Country Mouse," "The Dream of a Patriotic, Philosophical Farmer," and "Hymn on the Beauties of Nature," to name a few), the majority of poems explore the related themes of solitude, aging, and death. She includes a transcription of Thomas Parnell’s poem, The Hermit; Annis Stockton’s poem, "On the Advances of Old Age," along with her verse, "Youth and Old Age Contrasted"; and finally, a collection of elegies for such life-long friends and habitués as Richard Peters, Francis Hopkinson, Rebecca Moore Smith, and Ann Willing. The last two commonplace books, compiled around 1800, contain the metrical versions of the Psalms as well as poems exclusively on the homely art of spinning. Seemingly unrelated at first glance, these books suggest Fergusson’s seasoned morality and continued contemplation. Spinning was more than a material craft employing the fingers; it fully engaged the mind. Just as the former paraphrases the Bible for her continued ruminations, so the latter contemplates ethical questions about socioeconomic class, marriage, education, and motherhood.
Elizabeth Fergusson thus uses the commonplace book—like the pastoral salon—as an imaginative escape from the particularities of her life. Read sequentially, these books collectively form a kind of poetic autobiography. As much as the impressive documentary evidence presented in Anne Ousterhout’s ensuing biography, these manuscripts richly chronicle Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s intellectual life in verse.
<1-h> From Topoi to Types: Women’s Poetry in the Public Sphere
Though Elizabeth Fergusson publishes some thirty poems in local newspapers and literary magazines in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the majority of her poems are preserved through sororal publication. Kept in commonplace books, enclosed in personal letters, and signed with her characteristic pseudonym, "Laura," Fergusson’s poetry was "private" in its exclusive circulation, but decidedly "public" in nature. Unlike our contemporary relish for confessional lyrics, Elizabeth Fergusson and her literary world preferred neoclassical decorum, which demanded order and correctness, symmetry and balance, proportion and taste. Poetry, aestheticians contended, was a social rather than private activity with the simple aim of delighting and instructing its audience. Elizabeth Fergusson consequently begins each of her commonplace books with a standardized invocation to her critics to read her poetry according to the rules of politeness:
<LL>Let not the Critics Rigid Eye,
Poor Laura’s Odes and Sonnets spy!
Good Nature should the Opticks be,
Through which her Verses they should See.
Beauties if there, will then be viewd,
And Errors not too close pursued.</LL>
Calling for an expressly sociable demeanor in her critics’ shared good nature, she abandons the notion of "criticism" popularized by Dr. Samuel Johnson. "Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority," he claims, "men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies which escape vulgar observation." Ending the introductory poem with vernal twigs instead of traditionally heroic laurel bays, Fergusson provides a standard apologia for her writing. At the same time she downplays her intellectual accomplishments, however, Fergusson emphasizes the domestic epistemology of politeness begun in her literary salon. Since authors and critics share the common taste of the salon’s benevolent sensus communis, and since the rules for taste emphasize beauty over imperfection, then writers of polite learning, Fergusson suggests, can expect a generous reception from their critics.
Explaining her tendency toward poetry, Elizabeth Fergusson echoes the poetic ambitions set forth in her travel journal and willow odes:
<ext>There is a certain Elevation of Soul, a noble turn of virtue that raises a hero of the plain honest man, to which Verse can only raise us, His Bold Metaphors and Sounding members peculiar To the Poets, Rouse up all our Sleeping faculties And alarm all the powers of the Soul like Vergils Exelent Trumpet. </ext>
Poetry, she argues, awakens the sleeping faculties through the practice of imitation. Her allusion to Virgil recalls her earlier Homeric identification with Odysseus. It also reiterates neoclassical aesthetic theories. While rhetorician Hugh Blair defined poetry as the "language of passion, or of enlivened imagination," essayist James Beattie agreed, for poetry is deadening when "our passions are not occasionally awakened by some event that concerns our fellow-men." But because her primary aim—as a poet and as a woman—was not only to emotionally move, but also to please her audience, Elizabeth Fergusson justified her epic ambitions by mimicking polite, neoclassical forms.
Given its general aim to delight and instruct, neoclassical poetry shared more than universal topoi with classical rhetoric. Like commonplace topoi, neoclassical poetry was classified into specific genres or "types": for example, the ode, elegy, verse epistle, satire, pastoral, allegory, occasional verse, Biblical paraphrase, and hymn were among the most practiced forms. Typically written in heroic couplets (i.e., aabb rhyme) or quatrains (i.e., abab rhyme), each genre was rhetorically structured to elicit a specific response from its audience. While the ode and elegy might eulogize a person or venerated ideal, the verse epistle or satire might ridicule social folly. As such, neoclassical poetry had a universal quality, much like rhetorical topoi, which appealed to and personified abstract qualities in order to express the general, the typical, the ideal. Poetry, in other words, was highly allusive and derivative; it imitated and improved idealized models. As Joseph Addison argued in the Spectator (20 December 1711): "Wit and fine writing doth not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn. . . . We have little else left, but to represent the common sense of mankind in more strong, more beautiful, or more uncommon lights." No knowledge is original, he contends; good art is good imitation. Addison describes good-natured wit and common sense. One can only appreciate poetry according to the standards established by the sensus communis. The neoclassical emphasis on wit and sympathy extends the conventional wisdom about the nature of knowledge and beauty from salons and commonplace books to poetry itself. Though the terms may change— public versus private, universal versus local, masculine versus feminine—the aesthetic debate remained the same.
Though Elizabeth Fergusson wrote prolifically in each of these genres, I haven’t the time nor space in this introductory essay to elucidate them in any detail. Instead I will end with a brief discussion of her 1760 verse translation of Abbé Francois Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus. Translating Fenelon’s popular philosophical romance on the proper education of the young into English heroic verse, Fergusson beautifully embodies the tenets of sociability, commonplacing, and domestic publication so important to her life and work. Working on the multi-volume poem for almost thirty years, she not only transcribed and translated the story of Odysseus’s son, but also imitated his exploits as he awaited his father’s return to Ithaca. While she claims "she is sensible the translation has little merit," but that "it is sufficient for her that it amused her in a period that would have been pensive and solitary without a pursuit," Fergusson also adds footnotes and other explanatory aids in 1786 and 1787. The completed text, she explained, was meant "for a particular Friend But if I live I intend to give it a more correct Version And perhaps if I meet with encouragement have it printed." Though she tried unsuccessfully to publish the epic poem in1793, the impressive manuscript remains in the annals of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The poem, I would suggest, exemplifies the importance of commonplace books to female education and epistemology in eighteenth-century British America. In her prefatory poem, "Ode to Wisdom," where Wisdom was the "guardian of the modest youth/soul of knowledge and source of truth," Elizabeth Fergusson traces the domestic genealogy of Wisdom, which she previously outlines in "Contemplation and Cunning: An Allegory." Commonly associated with erudite knowledge by mid-century, wisdom was also understood as moral judgment and proper conduct. Marrying "Wisdom" (descended from "Experience") and "Truth" (descended from "Jove") in her poem, Fergusson uncovers the intellectual bloodline of their daughter, "Contemplation":
<ext>She had a clear Head, and Warm Breast, with a Retentive Memory: yet before she admitted any thing to fix on her mind as a Rule of Life and Manners, She weigh’d it in her Fathers Scales which were priz’d with the utmost Escatings; or viewd it through the Mirror of her mother, a Glass, which for Just Representations had no equal.</ext>
With superior sensibility (i.e., "Warm Breast") and a natural proclivity toward commonplacing (i.e., "Retentive Memory"), "Contemplation" dwelled with her parents in "The Placid Grove, their Habitation." A privileged heir of pastoral leisure, she is served by her handmaidens, "Sincerity" and "Content." While Honesty principally serves Wisdom, Ingenuity is his pupil. Taken together, Contemplation’s family preserves the ethic of polite learning that informs Elizabeth Fergusson’s literary career.
A staple of education in early America, then, Fenelon’s book—and Elizabeth Fergusson’s verse translation of it—provided moral guidance through example, fable, tale, and parable. Such literary commonplaces, she suggests, would "catch the fluttering mind and fix the sense" of its readers. Although originally written for a prince’s courtly education, Fergusson’s version of Telemachus served female pedagogy as well: "Then struggling Passion might its portrait view, / And learn from thence its tumults to subdue." Following Telemachus from one earthly temptation to another, the reader would imitate his good choices and avoid his bad ones: "Through his Telemachus he points to view / What youth should fly from and what youth pursue." By translating and circulating the text in manuscript, moreover, Fergusson continued the commonplace practice of praising virtue and vilifying vice. As Erasmus once explained the process, organizational headings or themes should be gleaned "partly from the main types and subdivisions of the vices and virtues. . . . These should be arranged (digerere) by similars and opposites; for things which are related naturally suggests what comes next and the memory is prompted in a similar way by opposites."
Though Fenelon’s Telemachus shows that "Passion and Wisdom hold perpetual strife / Through the strange mazes of man’s chequered life," Fergusson’s translation combines wisdom and passion as the complementary requisites for women’s experiential knowledge. No longer at odds, passion and wisdom, feeling and knowledge, body and mind come together in her feminized epistemology. She defies the critics’ warnings that "a passion for poetry is dangerous to a woman." And she disproves their gendered logic that this poetic passion "heightens her natural sensibility to an extravagant degree," making writing "utterly inconsistent with the solid duties and properties of life." Transforming Graeme Park’s parlor into a vibrant literary salon and preserving her poetry in manuscript commonplace books, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson domesticated the otherwise public world of letters, writing herself into literary history. Like Odysseus, who embellishes his extraordinary adventures with each retelling; or like Telemachus, who repeats his father’s journey with his guardian, Mentor, Elizabeth Fergusson envisions herself as part of a British American epic. Becoming a mentor for the next generation of female writers in her coterie, however, Elizabeth Fergusson resists the lure of Odysseus’s hubris, assuring her friend and confidant Ann Steadman in 1762: "I hope I never shall be tempted to strain a sentiment of Truth for the sake of a jingling Rhyme; which would be converting an innocent amusement into a Criminal pursuit."
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