Imlay’s delightful epistolary adventure of 1793, set on the American frontier, was one of the first American novels. The trials of an emigrant family in the Ohio River Valley of Kentucky contrast the decadence of Europe with the utopian promise of the American West. Its sensational love plots also dramatize the novel’s surprising feminist allegiances.
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Gilbert Imlay (1754?–1828?) was a man of many trades and talents, few of which were within the confines of what is conventionally regarded as legally and morally acceptable behavior. A self-styled “captain” in the American Revolutionary army, Imlay set out to try his luck across the Allegheny Mountains in the Ohio Valley soon after the war ended. In Kentucky, he became involved in various shady activities, including land speculation schemes and dubious secessionist politics. Having accumulated more debt than he could handle while successfully eluding sheriffs’ summonses and court writs, Imlay quietly left the West (as the Ohio Valley was considered then) and America sometime in late 1786. He reappeared in London in 1792, the year in which his first and highly influential book, A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, was published. This was followed, in 1793, by his only other known publication, the epistolary novel The Emigrants. During much of 1793 Imlay was in Paris, where he associated with the group of intellectuals and revolutionaries who gathered around the notorious radical Tom Paine. It was here that he met the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom he began a tempestuous and ill-fated love affair. After he abandoned Wollstonecraft, little is known of Imlay’s life. A grave believed to be his is found on the Channel Island of Jersey, dated 1828.
W. M. Verhoeven teaches at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) in the Department of English and is cochair of the American Studies Program. An editor of Post-War Literatures in English and The Dutch Quarterly Review Studies in Literature, he has published essays on a wide array of topics, including Gothic literature, epistolarity, canonization, the idea of the wilderness, postmodernism, and multiculturalism. He edited James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts and Rewriting the Dream: Reflections on the Changing American Literary Canon, and coedited Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper.
Amanda Gilroy teaches at the University of Groningen, in the Department of English. She works mainly on women writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her current projects include a book of essays on travel writing entitled Romantic Geographies, and an edition (with Keith Hanley) of the work of Romantic poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie.
Together, W. M. Verhoeven and Amanda Gilroy have coedited the special issue of the journal Prose Studies on nonfictional letters, and Cultural Correspondences: Essays on Epistolary Writing (forthcoming).
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First published in Great Britain 1793 This edition with an introduction and notes by W. M. Verhoeven and Amanda Gilroy published in Penguin Books 1998
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA Imlay, Gilbert, 1754?–1828? The emigrants/Gilbert Imlay; with an introduction and notes by W. M. Verhoeven and Amanda Gilroy. p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
eISBN : 978-1-101-50166-5
1. United States—History—1783–1815—Fiction. 2. British—Travel—United States—History—18th century—Fiction. I. Verhoeven, W. M. II. Gilroy, Amanda. III. Title. IV. Series. PR3517.I44E45 1998 —823’.6—dc21 97–34617
In preparing the introduction to The Emigrants, we greatly benefitted from the previous scholarship of William Clark Durant, Ralph Leslie Rusk, and, especially, John Seelye, whose original and highly informative writings on Gilbert Imlay and his cultural-historical context inspired us throughout and are a model for all scholars working in the field of early American studies. We would very much like to thank Sandy Stelts, at the Rare Books Room at Pennsylvania State University Library, and Jaime Jamison, of the microforms department there—two of the most efficient library researchers we have ever had the pleasure of working with and who were able to trace and retrieve various documents by and related to Imlay for us, in some cases at a moment’s notice. We also thank Nancy Armstrong at Brown University, Dorothy McMillan at the University of Glasgow, and Saree Makdisi at the University of Chicago for having carved out time in their own busy academic lives to find materials for us. We appreciate the assistance of Morgan Love, and the comments of students on our “Revolutions & Watersheds” course. We gratefully acknowledge the commitment and patience of our editor, Kristine Puopolo. Finally, we would like to thank our friend Carla Mulford for her support and advice throughout the preparation of this edition.
The American Gilbert Imlay is best known to readers of British Romanticism as the cad who abandoned Mary Wollstonecraft, the founding mother of modern feminism, and whose philandering drove her to attempt suicide (twice). Wollstonecraft’s Letters to Imlay (first published posthumously in 1798) and her travel book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) detail the ups and many downs of their affair, while William Godwin, in his Memoirs (1798) of his late wife, set the tone for subsequent criticism in deeming Imlay, after Othello, a man who could, “like the base Indian, throw a pearl away, richer than all his tribe.”1 Scholars of American literature and history, on the other hand, have long been familiar with another side of Imlay, that of the entrepreneurial author of one of the most influential and successful travel books of the late eighteenth century, A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (first published in London in 1792). Few readers of either British or American literary history, however, are familiar with Imlay’s novel The Emigrants, published in England in July or August 1793, a few months after the start of his affair with Wollstonecraft. This epistolary novel, which combines a sentimental plot of impeded love with episodes of travel and adventure (including a capture by Indians), acts as a type of fictional companion to the travel text: Both books, aimed at a British audience, function as practical guides for emigration to the Ohio Valley and map out a geopolitical future for the New World across the Allegheny Mountains.
In addition, The Emigrants provides a salutary alternative to the distinct absence of feminist ideals in Imlay’s checkered personal life, for it “espouse[s] the cause of oppressed women” (Letter XIII), especially the rights of women in marriage, which it ties to an anticolonial agenda. The novel exposes marriage in England as a type of cultural captivity for women, and makes a plea for more liberal divorce laws. The treatment of women also serves as the most affecting example of the differences between Britain and America, as Imlay uses the issue of domestic politics to construct a utopian vision of American national character. The Emigrants thus makes a claim for consideration as a Jacobin novel—a document of the transatlantic revolutionary movement. However, there are contradictions in the revolutionary rhetoric of personal liberty that support The Emigrants’ valorization of America over England (or Europe), and women continued to be seen as possession or spectacle.
In order to understand the novel’s politics of geography and of gender, we need first to know something about Imlay’s Topographical Description and the revolutionary era in which and of which he wrote, as well as something about the contradictory and charismatic character of the man himself, whom Edith Franklin Wyatt described as “unscrupulous, independent, courageous, a dodger of debts to the poor, a deserter, a protector of the helpless, a revolutionist, a man of enlightenment beyond his age, a greedy and treacherous land booster.”2
Very little information is available about the earliest period of Gilbert Imlay’s life or, indeed, about his life after he broke up with Mary Wollstonecraft—the known facts of his life covering roughly the twenty-year period from 1777 to 1797. Imlay was born on 9 February 1754, probably in Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey, where the Imlay family had been established since the early decades of the eighteenth century. Apart from a brief reference to a Gilbert Imlay in a will drawn up in 1761, nothing is known about him until his name appears in the military service records of the American Revolutionary army. These records indicate that Imlay served in Forman’s Additional Continental Regiment from 11 January 1777 to July 1778, and that he had enlisted for the duration of the war. Although he commonly styled himself “captain” (as on the title page of A Topographical Description), there is no evidence that Imlay ever rose beyond the rank of first lieutenant.
At the close of the Revolutionary War, Imlay, like so many other decommissioned officers of the American army, set out to try his luck across the Allegheny Mountains in the western territories of the Ohio Valley. The settlements along the shores of the Ohio River, in what is now the state of Kentucky, were at the time the farthest outposts of the westward expansion of America. This was the age of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, who first visited the area in 1769 and whose adventurous rambles through the sublime wilderness and constant tussles with the Indians in what the latter called the “dark and bloody ground” later earned him the status of national mythic hero (as well as the honorary title of “colonel”). This was the age, too, of Boone’s first biographer and fellow Pennsylvanian John Filson, who had crossed over into Kentucky in 1783 in search of fame and fortune, and who a year later published The Discovery and Settlement of Kentucke, one of the most influential accounts of what Filson described as “the best tract of land in North America, and probably in the world.”3
According to his own account of the trip in A Topographical Description, which borrows heavily from Filson’s book, Imlay arrived in Kentucky in March 1784. Although as a veteran officer of the Revolutionary War he would have been able to claim automatic land rights in the western territory, in March 1783 he had already bought a tract of land in Fayette, one of the three counties into which the District of Kentucky was divided at the time. Soon after his arrival in Kentucky, Imlay became deeply immersed in land speculation deals, leaving a long and complex trail of legal entanglements, according to Kentucky county court records. In Louisville in April 1784 he was sworn in as a deputy surveyor of Jefferson County, a position which must have been of considerable commercial advantage to him: As “a Commissioner for laying out Land in the Back Settlements” (as he styled himself somewhat inflatedly on the title page of A Topographical Description), he could play a modest role in publicly furthering the cause of the “probable rise and grandeur of the American empire” (Letter III in Description), while lining his pockets on the side.
It is not known how long Imlay retained his surveying job, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that before long lining his pockets was his main, if not his sole, preoccupation. However, the records of the various county courts also indicate that he was not always very successful in his business deals. Continually incurring debts and breaching contracts, Imlay was soon forced into a life of constant county-hopping in an attempt to elude sheriffs’ summonses and court writs. At one point, in August 1784, a warrant for Imlay’s arrest was issued by the Jefferson County Court, but, of course, he had taken to his heels by then.
Among Imlay’s business associates in Kentucky was the notorious General James Wilkinson. A veteran of the Revolutionary War and a man with a lust for wealth and power, Wilkinson had survived the siege of Boston and was present at the siege of Quebec, after which he served under Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Wilkinson later showed up in Kentucky, where he was soon involved in large-scale land speculation schemes. What earned Wilkinson the sobriquet “Washington of the West” was his plan to establish relations between the western territories and the Spanish authorities in Louisiana, with the ultimate aim of bringing about the secession of the western regions from the United States. While ostensibly backing the federal government in its dispute with the Spanish over boundaries and navigation rights to the Mississippi, Wilkinson was actually an agent in the pay of Spain and secretly campaigning for an independent state west of the Alleghenies and, ultimately, for his self-aggrandizement.
Sharing Wilkinson’s commercial self-interest as well as his unruly, rebellious western pride, Imlay became an admirer and a supporter of his double-tongued patriotism. Thus it is quite possible that the staunchly patriotic and expansionist 1788 petition to the United States by “the people of Kentucky in convention,” which is quoted at length in the preface to the first edition of A Topographical Description, was actually composed by General Wilkinson, who appears in The Emigrants as the avuncular character of “General W——,” the kindly godfather of Imlay’s secessionist utopia. In May 1785 Imlay asked Wilkinson to look after his business interests in Fayette County, no doubt because the place had become too hot for Imlay himself. In November 1785, soon after he had joined an ambitious investment project aimed at erecting an ironworks (later known as the “Green River Company”), Imlay absconded from Kentucky, leaving his business associates to figure out what had happened to their money. For years after his departure, sheriffs’ summonses continued to be posted on church doors and published in newspapers, but Imlay was no more to be seen or heard of in Kentucky.
At the end of 1785 Imlay was in Richmond, Virginia, where he continued to speculate in Kentucky land. Thus in December he acquired a patent for over twelve thousand acres of land in Jefferson County, Kentucky, which he sold in Philadelphia in September 1786 to a Silas Talbott for a dollar an acre. In November 1786 Imlay was back in Richmond, presumably to receive letters of patent issued to him for a large tract of land in Fayette County, Kentucky. Very shortly afterward, Imlay’s trail on the North American continent abruptly terminates, and it is generally assumed that he left the United States in December 1786, leaving behind legal entanglements that were to keep the courts busy for more than a decade. ...
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