Precipitous_Sensations_Herman_Mann_s_The - Access Provided by UCLA Library at 11:22PM GMT GRetA L LAFLeUR University of Hawai`i at Manoa Precipitous

Precipitous_Sensations_Herman_Mann_s_The - Access...

This preview shows page 1 - 4 out of 32 pages.

Access Provided by UCLA Library at 03/08/13 11:22PM GMT
{ 93 Precipitous Sensations Herman Mann’s The Female Review (1797), Botanical Sexuality, and the Challenge of Queer Historiography In 1800, printers in both New York and London released a “re- published” edition of The Unsex’d Females , a political tract by Richard Pol- whele, a London curate. Published anonymously in 1798, Polwhele’s ex- tremely popular poem was a vitriolic attack on Jacobin gender politics, reserving the largest part of its ire for one of the most notable “unsex’d females” of the decade, Mary Wollstonecraft. Historians and literary crit- ics of Jacobin and anti-Jacobin politics alike have explored at great length the relationship between The Unsex’d Females and the essay to which it, in large part, responds: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Often overlooked, however, is that both the form and the content of Polwhele’s poetic diatribe also parodically address another con- troversial and quite popular piece of literature from the 1790s: Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants (1789), an epic poem based on Linnaean tax- onomy that described the sex lives of plants in pornographic detail. To Polwhele, Wollstonecraft’s radical feminist politics and Darwin’s lavishly copulating flora both reflected the same social ill: the violation of “NATURE’S law” (7) of feminine modesty. Though Wollstonecraft’s work became culturally associated with sexual lasciviousness due to popu- lar knowledge of her many romantic affairs, Polwhele’s anxiety about the sexual implications of the rise of popular interest in botany was derived from the science itself. Because of the 1735 publication of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae , which introduced a “sexual system” of taxonomy that identified plants by the presence or absence of their reproductive organs, botany emerged as a sexual science, and cultural practices of plant ex- change, dissection, and illustration exploded among the middle class and the wealthy.1 If we keep this in mind, Polwhele’s critique of radical femi- GRetA L. LAFLeUR University of Hawai`i at Manoa
94 } eARLY AMeRICAn LIteRAtURe: VoLUMe 48, nUMBeR 1 nism takes new shape when we consider his complaint that female mod- esty was imperiled by Wollstonecraft’s call for women’s education. The American edition of The Unsex’d Females is permeated with assertions of his haughty disapproval of women practicing botanical science in the name of education. Describing a botany class, he writes that young female students With bliss botanic as their bosoms heave, Still pluck forbidden fruit, with mother Eve, For puberty in sighing florets pant, Or point the prostitution of a plant; Dissect its organ of unhallow’d lust, And fondly gaze the titillating dust. (10–11) This series of lusty images—heaving bosoms, “forbidden fruit,” “pant[ing],” “prostitution,” and the plant’s “organ of unhallow’d lust”—render Pol- whele’s tract perhaps more pornographic than even Loves of the Plants , the poem it satirizes. In the American edition, Polwhele footnotes this passage,

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture