Date of Degree
David S. Reynolds
American Studies | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Rhetoric | Women's History | Women's Studies
natural history, rhetorical genre studies, ecology, creoleness, botany, Surinam
In the eighteenth century, “natural history” was a capacious genre designation that alluded to conventions as diverse in their cultural and political resonances as they were in their applications within the New Science. My project is a genre study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural history text and art produced by women scientists, explorers, colonists, and early Americans writing the New World; it destabilizes rigid notions of genre that exclude women, suggesting that genre is by nature fluid, inclusionary as well as exclusionary. To this end, I return into conversation understudied naturalists Maria Sybilla Merian, Jane Colden, and Eliza Pinckney, who physically and figuratively toiled on the peripheries of transatlantic institutional science, and reimagine the early republican novels of Leonora Sansay and Susanna Rowson as hybrid natural histories. I explore how women’s complicated negotiations and performances of gender and genre (conventions) expose gender and genre’s dynamic interplay and this interplay’s role in crafting alternate visions of the Americas. I argue that women naturalists evolved the genre by disrupting imperial modes of knowledge production to arrive at these alternate visions.
My first chapter pairs German entomologist Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) with Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), whose natural histories of Surinam underscore the genre’s radical transformations over the course of the eighteenth century and expose the fundamentally different investments of female and male naturalists (regeneration/production and consumption, respectively). I interrogate the gendered lenses through which Merian and Stedman narrate ecologic changes, especially in light of a Surinamese topography that enabled the “stable chaos” of constant slave marronage, a condition that paradoxically preserved parts of the pre-colonization landscape. In Chapter Two, I trace the parallel career trajectories of two colonials, Jane Colden (1724-1766) and William Bartram (1739-1823), who begin as gender-marked objects in their fathers’ transatlantic correspondence, but become subjects through their botanic practice. My chapter probes how Colden and Bartram differently channel ecologic impulses through their depictions of the upstate New York wilderness and the Southeast; I argue that Colden’s ecologic sensibility is more highly developed than Bartram’s, whose proto-nationalism compromises this sensibility. Chapter Three compares republican mother and indigo planter Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) with surveyor and statesman William Byrd II (1674-1744). I argue that Pinckney and Byrd engage a “colonial regionalism” to creatively “map” both the regional instability of the South Carolina lowcountry and the Virginia/North Carolina borderlands and their own fluid creole identities. The autobiographical nature of their work enables proto-national readings and marks an evolution of the genre toward narrative, and ultimately, toward even greater hybridity. Chapter Four explores how the early national “novels” of Leonora Sansay and Susanna Rowson, set fully or partly in the West Indies, appropriate the natural history in order to navigate what Sean Goudie calls “the creole complex.” I argue that neither Sansay nor Rowson is able to successfully mark the West Indies as distinct from the new nation; while Rowson attempts to disavow “paracolonial” relations, promoting a narrative of white American “creole regeneracy,” Sansay’s work is more ambivalent, suggesting that U.S.-Caribbean economic relations and the further creolization of whites may be unavoidable, and even necessary for the Republic.
Epelbaum, Diana, "Evolving the Genre of Empire: Gender and Place in Women's Natural Histories of the Americas, 1688-1808" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.