Elizabeth J. Clapp is Senior Lecturer of American History at the University of Leicester. This interview is based on her new book, A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America (University of Virginia Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write A Notorious Woman?
EC: I discovered Anne Royall the ‘Grandmother of the Muckrakers’, when searching for a new project after finishing my book on Progressive Era women reformers and the juvenile courts. I thought she would make a great subject for a book. I wanted to know more about this woman who, in her fifties, traveled alone on stagecoaches and canal boats to explore the United States as it existed in the 1820s, and wrote about her travels. She claimed respectability, yet her behavior appeared to contradict such aspirations. I read her books and newspapers, and what people wrote about her in their private letters and in the newspapers, and I found that she was a highly controversial figure. She was a forthright woman who voiced her opinions in public without regard to her gender, and who roundly condemned the agents of the evangelical revivals who, she claimed, were undermining American liberties. Her prosecution as a Common Scold by an evangelical congregation in Washington in 1829 threatened to silence her, but it made little difference to her presence in the public life of Jacksonian America. As I found, with the aid of her supporters she continued to write and publish for another twenty-five years, until her death in 1854.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Notorious Woman?
EC: Casting aside characterizations of Anne Royall as a virago, or pioneer for women’s rights, A Notorious Woman concentrates on how Royall sustained a viable publishing career in the boisterous political and religious world of Jacksonian America. An often divisive figure, she asserted her right to a political voice despite being a woman and demanded the attention of Americans as she fought to defend American liberties against those she claimed were undermining them.
JF: Why do we need to read A Notorious Woman?
EC: I think Anne Royall deserves to be better known, but she is difficult to pigeon-hole. In part this is because she wrote so little about her own life, but also because she divided contemporaries. By placing Royall firmly within the context of her time, A Notorious Woman is more than simply a biography of a fascinating woman, but makes a contribution to the history of early nineteenth-century American politics, religion and print culture, and women’s place within those arenas.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EC: I was inspired by my teachers as an undergraduate and when deciding to study for a PhD it was not difficult to choose American history. My graduate studies at University College London allowed me to spend a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was introduced to American women’s history. Since gaining my PhD, I have become part of a strong community of nineteenth-century American historians in Britain who have a long tradition of transatlantic scholarship and close connections with their American colleagues.
JF: What is your next project?
EC: The next project was prompted by my research into Anne Royall’s childhood on the Trans-Appalachian frontier during the Revolution. It looks at the role of women in building communities on this frontier, and has so far been supported by a fellowship at The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky and several research trips to other archives and libraries in Kentucky, Chicago, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. It aims to challenge the focus on male pioneers such as Daniel Boone, to consider the significant contributions of the women involved in creating this first American West.
JF: Thanks, Elizabeth!