Tenney, Tabitha Gilman
Tabitha Gilman Tenney 1762-1837
(Born Tabitha Gilman) American novelist.
Tabitha Tenney is known to have published only a single work, the novel Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), which is considered both a parody of the sentimental novel and a satire of the social and political inequities that existed in the United States during her lifetime. Tenney has been noted for exposing the socially restrictive roles to which women were expected to adhere, as well as for her ability to combine comic elements with an unsentimental view of life.
Tenney was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on April 7, 1762. The eldest child of Samuel Gilman and Lydia Robinson Giddings, she was raised in an educated, religious, and politically active household. While there is scant documentation of Tenney's life, biographers speculate that as the oldest child in the family she stayed at home to help care for her six siblings after her father's death in 1778. The diaries of Patty Rogers, who also lived in Exeter, provide the principal source of information regarding Tenney's character. Rogers described Tenney as someone whom she found particularly repellent, although the diarist admitted that she could not fully explain her opinion of Tenney. This characterization may have been colored by the fact that Rogers was a rival for the affections of Dr. Samuel Tenney, a surgeon who became Tenney's husband in 1788. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., after 1800, where Dr. Tenney served as a congressman until his death in 1816. Public records and family histories describe Tenney as “accomplished” and, as evidence of this, Tenney edited a textbook of writings for young women entitled The Pleasing Instructor (1799). This volume covered such subjects as literature, music, and geography. In 1801, Tenney published Female Quixotism, which was well-received by contemporary readers and reviewers. Tenney returned to Exeter following her husband's death. She died in 1837 after a brief illness.
Tenney's Female Quixotism is modeled after both Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605) and Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1762). The novel centers on Dorcasina Sheldon's romantic entanglements with different suitors. In all these relationships, Dorcasina is guided by a desire for the kind of romantic love that is exhibited in the sentimental novels she reads. By the end of the narrative, Dorcasina is an old maid who has knowingly traded opportunities for marriage and a conventional life in order to pursue an unfulfilled, idealized romance. Tenney's depiction of her protagonist and her refusal to supply the novel with a redemptive ending have led critics to view Female Quixotism as both a parody of the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century and as a work that cautions readers against the romantic illusions encouraged by the genre. At the same time, Tenney's novel exposes the limited options for women in Jeffersonian America and suggests the ambivalence of the period regarding class and racial issues.
Female Quixotism was a popular work during Tenney's lifetime and went through five printings between 1801 and 1841. Based on this single novel, Tenney has attained a reputation as a significant early American novelist. Scholars assert that her work contributes to a greater understanding of the genre of the sentimental novel and serves as a critique of early American society, particularly concerning the limited prospects for women during this time. Cathy Davidson argues that one of Tenney's primary goals was to promote critical reading for women when such literary endeavors were not encouraged. Davidson explains: “Female Quixotism is a more subtle how-not-to-read-a-novel novel. Tenney allegorizes the reading process and turns it upon itself; one must be a resisting reader, a critical reader, … able to read the context in which the text is read.” Cynthia Miecznikowski, however, suggests that Tenney's novel should be read as a parody of the romance novel rather than simply a satire of the reading and interpreting processes themselves. Miecznikowski reasons that “if we read Tenney's novel as parody …, it unmasks its own textuality, suspending satiric judgment, deferring moral didacticism, and leaving its readers to judge the text on its own terms.” Given Tenney's adept use of humor in her novel, critics also find that Female Quixotism serves as an example of an emerging comic sensibility in American literature. In the late twentieth century, several new editions of Tenney's novel were published. Critics Jean Nienkamp and Andrea Collins conclude that Female Quixotism, while popular in its own time, still offers an enlightening look at eighteenth-century literature and contemporary social issues.
*The Pleasing Instructor [editor] (drama, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) 1799
Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (novel) 1801
*This work was compiled as a textbook for female students.
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SOURCE: Petter, Henri. “The Pernicious Novels Exposed: Female Quixotism.” In The Early American Novel, pp. 46-59. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Petter emphasizes Tenney's didactic tone in Female Quixotism.]
Mrs. Tabitha Tenney published in 1801 a novel modeled after Don Quixote and meant to be a warning against romantic fiction: Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon. Dorcasina has been reading too many novels ever since she was a young girl; as a result she has imbibed notions difficult to conciliate with the demands made on her by a normal existence among people not similarly influenced by novel-reading.1
From the outset Mrs. Tenney's heroine is predisposed to respond to all the dangerous influences that may be conveyed by fiction. Her romantic turn of mind2 conditions her attitude toward novels and, through them, toward sober life. This peculiar receptivity of Dorcasina was of course purposely invented and exploited by Mrs. Tenney to achieve her didactic aim. It is this intention of hers, to expose the dangers of novel-reading, that is first to be considered.3 Her purpose is very much a reality throughout the book, however rewarding and enjoyable writing the burlesque may have turned out to be.4 Mrs. Tenney's message...
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SOURCE: Hoople, Sally C. “The Spanish, English, and American Quixotes.” Anales Cervantinos 22 (1984): 1-24.
[In the following essay, Hoople traces the influence of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote on Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote and Tenney's Female Quixotism.]
Tabitha Tenney's novel Female Quixotism, which was published in Boston in 1801, is, as Duyckinck says, “one of the numerous literary progeny of Cervantes' immortal satire.”1 Moreover, in many ways Tenney is closely related to two other early authors whose work reflects the influence of Don Quixote. Although Charlotte Lennox was born in New York in 1720, she moved to England in 1735, where her novel The Female Quixote was published in 1752. In spite of tenuous claims that she was the first American novelist2, generally she is regarded as an English writer. Her novel, like the greater Don Quixote and the made-in-U.S.A. Female Quixotism, humorously attacks the negative effects of reading romances. While Modern Chivalry (published in numerous parts between 1792 and 1815), by Hugh Henry Brackenridge3, does not specifically satirize the reading habits of young girls, it does deal topically with a broad range of subjects which Brackenridge subjects to his critical scrutiny.
M. F. Heiser, who traces Don Quixote's American...
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SOURCE: Davidson, Cathy N. “The Picaresque and the Margins of Political Discourse: The Female Picaresque.” In Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, pp. 179-92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Davidson examines the female picaresque novel and its appropriation of a literary form which celebrates male social mobility, claiming that Tenney's employment of the picaresque and her marginalized status as an author expose the restrictions of women of the period.]
A woman on horseback, presents her form to advantage; but much more at the spinning wheel.
[The] circumscription of the female character within the domestic sphere constitutes a defining feature of sentimental fiction. In contrast, the picaresque novel defines itself by its own mobilities—formalistic and on the level of plot and characters, too. The picaresque hero can comment upon slavery, class disturbances, party politics, and different immigrant groups precisely because his travels carry him into encounters with diverse segments of the population and across those dividing lines that mark out the contours of the society. His journey is also the reader's journey and his freedom the reader's freedom. Whenever a particular episode might become too constraining and threatens to fix the action...
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SOURCE: Miecznikowski, Cynthia J. “The Parodic Mode and the Patriarchal Imperative: Reading the Female Reader(s) in Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism.” Early American Literature 24, no. 1 (1990): 34-45.
[In the following essay, Miecznikowski considers the parodic functions of Female Quixotism in relation to the eighteenth-century sentimental novel and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote.]
Tabitha Gilman Tenney's novel Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon, first published anonymously in 1801 and widely reprinted thereafter, is underestimated by twentieth-century scholars of early American literature.1 Only two recent studies offer readings of the novel—one as social satire, the other as collusive criticism of the novel as genre.2 While both of these readings of the novel are useful for their study of its extratextual implications, neither addresses the ways in which the text's radical and conservative tendencies interplay within the text itself; that is, neither interpretation accounts for the ways in which the novel both conforms to and deviates from the conventional norms of the romance novel and what is gained by this duality. Moreover, Cathy Davidson's classification of the novel as “the female picaresque” effectively marginalizes this “revolutionary” novel and perhaps secures...
(The entire section is 5166 words.)
SOURCE: Nienkamp, Jean, and Andrea Collins. Introduction to Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon, by Tabitha Gilman Tenney. 1801. Reprint, pp. xiii-xxviii. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Nienkamp and Collins provide an overview of the historical and cultural influences on Tenney's novel as well as a biographical sketch of Tenney that offers insight into her literary achievement.]
When Female Quixotism was first published in 1801, the United States was engaged in building a national identity. All aspects of life—not just the laws inherited from England—were scrutinized for their suitableness for Americans. What literature, entertainment, and fashions were most appropriate for a people who were distinguishing themselves culturally and commercially from their British roots? What extent and kind of education would promote civic responsibility among men who had never previously had a voice in government and women who would be rearing future generations of the citizenry? What, after all of the wartime rhetoric concerning freedom and natural rights, should America do about its slaves? While Female Quixotism addresses all of these concerns, the novel touches on them in the context of its central concern, what books good citizens “should” read.
Particularly at issue was the...
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SOURCE: Çaliskan, Sevda. “The Coded Language of Female Quixotism.” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 2 (1995): 23-35.
[In the following essay, Çaliskan considers the subversive humor of Female Quixotism.]
In her witty article titled “What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write” (1972), Joanna Russ, the author of the highly provocative The Female Man, makes a list of very familiar situations or story lines which seem very funny when “the sex of the protagonist (and correspondingly the sex of the other characters)” is changed. Here are a few examples of these odd transformations:
- a. Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West.
- b. A young girl in Minnesota finds her womanhood by killing a bear.
- c. Alexandra the Great
- d. A young man who unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment loses his masculinity and ends up as a neurotic, lonely eunuch.
- e. A beautiful, seductive boy whose narcissism and instinctive cunning hide the fact that he has no mind (and, in fact, hardly any sentient consciousness) drives a succession of successful actresses, female movie produceresses, cowgirls, and film directresses wild with desire. They rape him
Joanna Russ's point is that “there are...
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SOURCE: Harris, Sharon M. “Lost Boundaries: The Use of the Carnivalesque in Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism.” In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, pp. 213-28. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Harris argues that Tenney's employment of the carnivalesque in Female Quixotism exposes the limitations of the purportedly democratic government of the United States during the early years of the new nation.]
When Tabitha Gilman Tenney's novel Female Quixotism was published in 1801, it joined a national voice of lament over the dangers of novel reading. The typical antinovel argument was that the genre's romantic allurements would lead women away from the realities of their domestic responsibilities. In Female Quixotism, however, Tenney used a comic, anti-romantic stance in relation to novel reading to demonstrate the failed sense of democracy in the new republic. No element of the citizenry escapes her comic examination; as the editors of the recent Oxford edition of Female Quixotism note, “The novel's cutting wit spares hardly any segment of society: droll servants, earnest merchants, scheming scholars, and self-deluding gentry all get their fair share of ribbing.”1 The argument I am presenting examines Tenney's novelistic use of the carnivalesque as a means of exposing...
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SOURCE: Traister, Bryce. “Libertinism and Authorship in America's Early Republic.” American Literature 72, no. 1 (2000): 1-30.
[In the following essay, Traister compares some of Tenney's male characters in Female Quixotism to the stereotypical American libertine male and his representation in Charles Brockden Brown's novel Arthur Mervyn.]
Late in the first book of Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism (1801), the novel's heroine, Dorcasina Sheldon, “calling herself the most wretched of women” because her unreasonable father has prohibited her marriage to Patrick O'Connor, rejects the novels “in which she had formerly taken such delight” and turns for comfort to the letters O'Connor had written her during their clandestine courtship. Dorcasina “had got them arranged in perfect order, tied with a silken string, and wrapped in a cover, upon which was written these words, Letters from my dearest O'Connor before marriage.”1 One of the great novel-reading heroines of the eighteenth-century Anglo-American antinovel tradition, Dorcasina has already arranged her paramour's letters into the form of her favorite genre and has even given them a title. Female Quixotism then presents what must have been for late-eighteenth-century readers a hilariously caricatured scene of female novel reading: “Taking the first [letter] in order she kissed the seal, and the...
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White, Devon. “Contemporary Criticism of Five Early American Sentimental Novels, 1970-1994: An Annotated Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography 52, no. 4 (December 1995): 293-305.
Provides an annotated bibliography of scholarship pertaining to five early American sentimental novels, including Tenney's Female Quixotism.
Brown, Herbert Ross. The Sentimental Novel in America 1789-1860. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940.
Defines and contextualizes the sentimental novel with references to Tenney.
Frost, Linda. “The Body Politic in Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism.” Early American Literature 32, no. 2 (1997): 113-34.
Analyzes the protagonist in Female Quixotism.
Hoople, Sally. Introduction to Female Quixotism, by Tabitha Gilman Tenney. 1801. Reprint, pp. 3-9. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimilies & Reprints, 1988.
Examines Tenney's novel as illustrative of the cultural shifts during her lifetime.
Loshe, Lillie Deming. The Early American Novel, 1798-1830. 1907. Reprint. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1958, 131 p.
Traces the early development of the novel in American literature and briefly acknowledges Tenney....
(The entire section is 173 words.)