Eve LaPlante, Harper San Francisco, 2004
Reviewed by T.J. Boisseau
While I enjoyed reading Eve LaPlante’s biography of Anne Hutchinson for its engaging style and engrossing subject matter, I do not believe that scholars of women’s history will learn anything new from this book. The biography holds still less interest for feminist scholars trained in other fields and may even irritate feminist anthropologists who will likely chafe at the author’s inability to place a story about colonial political struggles in any sort of global context.
From the beginning, LaPlante makes much of her travels to the various Anglo and American sites where Hutchinson’s life unfolded, lacing her narrative with dramatic recollections of mounting “the steps to the pulpit where (Hutchinson’s) father preached” and treading with awe upon the “broad timbers of the manor house” in England where the young Anne once resided (page xix). With such boasts, the author suggests that a mutual haunting of biographer and biographical subject has taken place to great result. No awareness of the existence of a substantial body of feminist criticism problematizing the existential and often transferrential relationship between biographer and biographical subject informs LaPlante’s enthusiasm for this view of her project. In fact, it would appear she feels her greatest ace as a reteller of Hutchinson’s infamous struggle with the colonial and religious authorities of Boston in the 1630s is her own genealogical connection to the colonial rebel. LaPlante is one of Hutchinson’s direct descendents, as we learn immediately from her introduction. The specialness of this fact is meant to impress the reader almost as if this were another sort of “DaVinci Code” come true and even if Anne Hutchinson (with a dozen children surviving over four centuries ago) has hundreds of direct descendants alive today. As we learn from LaPlante herself, many of these descendants are not loathe to let themselves be known as such. In fact, at least one other female descendant—the far more widely known scholar Mary Beth Norton—has also written extensively on the subject of Hutchinson’s banishment (Founding Mothers and Fathers, 1996). Unlike Norton, LaPlante indulges herself in her introduction with Rockwellian reminiscences of listening to older female relatives’ ancestral tales while lying in “the curve of an armchair” in an Aunt’s “little red house” set not far from, as LaPlante tells us, “the Provincetown rocks where the Pilgrims first set foot on this continent in 1620” (page xx). As popular nonfiction goes, this is not a bad start, and I would recommend this read for anyone intending to visit New England on a summer holiday, for instance, and in search of a good, true, story about perhaps the foremost female rebel of seventeenth-century colonial America. Still, however beguiling ruminations upon the uncanniness of literal foremothership may be, such mysticism is of no interest to the women’s studies scholar except as a subject for interrogation itself.
Let me be clear: this is not a scholar’s book, but that does not mean its scholarship is in any way faulty. The whimsy LaPlante permits herself does not supplant intelligent exegeses on the religious and political culture of seventeenth-century Puritanism. LaPlante has done her homework, and not just by literally treading the same paths that Anne Hutchinson once did to lend literary panache and an authentic aura to her tale even if this is what she feels will be most meaningful to her readers to hear about. She has also immersed herself in the abundant scholarly literature on Hutchinson in particular and early modern religious history more generally. The wholly untutored reader can be confident that LaPlante has taken no liberties with the facts and represents the mainstays of scholarly arguments regarding Hutchinson and colonial power struggles in the Massachusetts Bay colony with accuracy and near comprehensiveness. Undergraduate students, should they be asked to read the text, will find embedded in her narrative solid and interesting explanations of how such a pious woman as Hutchinson could come to be exiled from the Massachusetts Bay colony by a group of unnerved and insecure male authorities.
However, the promise that the author makes early on—that she will hoe a row between what she claims have been here-to-fore universally, and unhelpfully, polarized views of Anne Hutchinson as either demon spawn or feminist heroine to provide a neutral and presumably more useful analysis—is hardly borne out. Not only has the ‘demon spawn’ view of Anne Hutchinson quite decidedly died out in the last two hundred years, LaPlante’s work clearly positions Hutchinson as an enormously attractive female role model. Indeed, her narrative positively seethes with longing for connection with this author’s spiritual, and literal, foremother. Admittedly such emotive investment will not dim the pleasure of the average reader who is looking to savor the details of Hutchinson’s saga and to ponder its potentially feminist meanings. For such a reader, LaPlante’s palpable passion may even add a fascinating depth to the story’s implications. But the text in no way takes a neutral bead on its subject and it is silly for the author to claim this as having been even a goal of the project to start with.
In short, American Jezebel is a pleasurable read, one that begs the curve of a comfortable armchair much like the one that first nurtured LaPlante’s own enthrallment with Hutchinson. If not quite worthy of scholarly attention, this biography is bound—and deserves—to attract an appreciative, if wholly popular, audience.
T. J. Boisseau is author of White Queen (Indiana University Press, 2004), a biography of the first woman explorer of Africa. She is also associate professor of women’s history at The University of Akron in Ohio.