Tears for Mary Wollstonecraft

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a conference at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. I’d been invited there because my research on the Friendly Club, a circle of young male writers in New York City in the 1790s, fit the conference theme: Literary Utopias and Cultural Communities. I was flattered at the invitation; the other plenary speakers were senior figures in their fields, each with several books under his or her belt.

Little did I know when I accepted the invitation that the task would reduce me to tears. Perhaps not full-blown tears, but I was certainly left verklempt, choked up, holding them back, and it was a little embarrassing.

My talk, which I drew from a chapter of my (finally!) forthcoming book, dealt with the problem of mixed-sex conversation among young intellectuals in New York City two centuries ago.

The club I write about upheld a conversational ideal of absolute sincerity, inspired by the British bourgeois radical William Godwin. Often considered to be a founder of modern anarchism, Godwin believed that if everyone were totally frank with each other in everyday interactions the world’s evils would be eradicated in a matter of weeks. Unrestrained truth could not fail but to persuade an audience.


The group was also inspired by another British writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, often considered to be the founder of modern feminism. Wollstonecraft denounced prevailing systems of female education, which she believed had created separate cultures for men and women to the point that mixed-sex conversation was in most cases impossible. Men spoke down to women; women simpered in order to attract men. Her thinking put a peculiarly gendered spin on Godwin’s problem of sincerity: gendered norms made it impossible for men and women to be perfectly frank with one another in conversation. Wollstonecraft called for equal educational opportunities for men and women, including equal access to professional life and the right to speak one’s mind in public.


In the late 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft and Godwin, who had met years earlier and had been mutually repulsed, became reaquainted. They fell in love. She famously violated polite convention by arriving at his house unannounced and without escort. They eventually developed a sexual relationship which Godwin accounted for in code in his journal. She became pregnant (her second premarital pregnancy). They married, although they had both been stern critics of the institution of marriage, wrapped up as it was in corrupt systems of power and property. They maintained separate residences and spent much of their days writing — often passionate letters to one another.

When their marriage was publicized months later across the Atlantic, the young New Yorkers who made up the Friendly Club celebrated. They wrote enthusiastic letters to friends to spread the news. This was a radical marriage that heralded a total reordering of society.

So where’s the problem? Though the Friendly Club never actually admitted women, some of its members did make concerted efforts, along with a specific circle of young women, to push the boundaries of acceptable social behavior where conversation was concerned. They cultivated mixed-sex friendships that weren’t romantic, spent time talking about politics, religion, literature, and science, took walks through city streets and daytrips into the countryside: all of which apparently scandalized some older New Yorkers, since one of the young women was engaged to a young man in Philadelphia.

But back to Leiden. My talk began with a general discussion of the club’s personnel, moved to an overview of their thoughts on gender, education, and conversation, covered their reading of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, and then turned to a discussion of a bizarre little pamphlet — a fictional dialogue on women’s rights, which includes the narrator’s visit to a sexless Utopia — written by one club member, Charles Brockden Brown, who would soon become the first American novelist to amass a significant body of work.


Once I’d sketched out the basics on the group and its social setting, I planned to conclude the talk with an account of the attempts at mixed-sex conversation between club members and their female friends. My final point — that in the difficult poltical situation of the late 1790s, when partisan politics dominated public life and conservative politicians and social leaders fought to shore up traditional class and gender norms in the face of what they saw as Thomas Jefferson’s godless radicalism — would be accompanied by my idiosyncratic account of the backlash against feminism in at the turn of the nineteenth century. The last image of my PowerPoint show would be my favorite portrait of Wollstonecraft, serene in spite of the intense reactions her work provoked and the difficulties she faced as a writer and a woman:


My plan for the conclusion (pardon the detail here) was to argue that a marginal character named Mary Waldegrave in one of Brown’s novels, Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, figures as a sort of Bizarro to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Superwoman. Mary Waldegrave, the novel’s narrator asserts, was not prepared to discuss hard matters of epistemology because her religious education had prevented her mind from being prepared for the task. The novel ends before we learn if she ever argues back with the narrator on this point. In light of the social conditions in America at the moment Brown wrote this novel, I read Mary Waldegrave’s very name as marking the death of the possibility for a Wollstonecraftian revolution.

Indeed, by the time Brown wrote his novel, Mary Wollstonecraft had become a pariah on both sides of the Atlantic. After she gave birth to her second daughter (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to become Mary Shelley), Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever. She was 38.

Godwin, her husband of less than a year, in an act of what he believed to be radical sincerity (and genuine affection), published a biography of his wife in which he included details about her sexual history and even her two failed suicide attempts. His confidence in sincerity turns out to have been misplaced; even readers who had been sympathetic to their philosophy thought Godwin had, to paraphrase the poet Robert Southey, stripped his dead wife naked and dragged her body through the streets.

So I’m reading away at my talk, forty-five minutes or so into it. I’m reading from some letters written by one of the young women, Margaret Bayard, to her fiance in Philadelphia. Her conversations with the young men of the Friendly Club, she tells him, have energized her intellectually. She has published pieces in their magazine. She has gained a desire to study science. She has been pushed to question the foundations of her religious beliefs. She has even — in a semi-conscious imitation of Wollstonecraft, who famously traveled through Scandanavia without a male escort — taken a stage from New York to New Brunswick on her own.

All this her fiance loves. He encourages her to keep up the friendships. Maybe he (and the Friendly Club members themselves) was invested in Wollstonecraftian feminism precisely because, Pygmalion-like, he wanted to craft an ideal wife, an intellectual. But Bayard (having been the one to be called out by older women who thought her behavior scandalous) seemed to have a clearer view of exactly how much was at stake. She had come to think about friendship in different terms than she had before; she equated it with intellectual development above all. She had a new view of what could be possible in conversation between men and women, and she would demand it within her impending marriage. “Forget that I am a woman,” she implores her fiance in one particularly passionate letter. “You can make me what you please — make me then your friend.”

About half way through my excerpt from this letter I felt it coming like a freight train: a dull, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, a catch in my throat, a slight quiver in my voice. Something about Bayard’s letter — how deeply she feels these issues to matter, her fears that marriage will nullify everything she’s fought for in developing these mixed-sex friendships, her continued infatuation with Mary Wollstonecraft, even though Bayard, like most other readers, claimed to be disappointed in the details of her personal life — something about it had me choking up, and in a professional setting no less.

Trying to keep myself together through the last five minutes or so of my talk, I sped up the pace, barreled to the end, but things got even worse, given that the conclusion dealt not only with Wollstonecraft’s death but my reading of the death of Wollstonecraftian feminism. (It would take almost 50 years for another concerted women’s rights movement to emerge in Europe or America.)

Afterwards, the audience was kind. The person moderating the session actually said he’d give me a moment to collect myself before asking me to take questions. Someone later in the day said it had been moving to see a speaker break professional ranks and offer a performance as “a true eighteenth-century man of feeling.”

Of course all these niceties only made me more sheepish about the incident. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks trying to figure out exactly what happened. It wasn’t as if the experience were totally unfamiliar. Maybe it was congenital: I grew up with a dad who joked that he’d cry at a supermarket opening; like him, I’m often moved by stories of underdogs making good.

Or maybe I’ve been otherwise conditioned to tear up. I grew up, after all, in a religious environment that encouraged public tears as a sign of religious conviction. Maybe it has to do with the role that my own commitments to feminism played in my break with my religious upbringing — the painful experiences a lot of my friends went through at our private religious college as they went head to head with such an intractable, patriarchal institution. But it’s been years since those issues have elicited emotional responses from me (though I did choke up once in an undergraduate lecture while reading the final lines of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America).

Maybe I’ve fully conditioned myself as a sentimental reader. After all, I’ve spent years studying and teaching texts that were explicitly designed to make readers cry.

Undoubtedly I suffer from a problem an historian friend of mine identifies as loving your subject too much. (I have a huge crush on Wollstonecraft, I’ll admit.)

Maybe it’s that my wife was in the audience — a rare occasion at a conference. Maybe even though it’s been a decade since I had a ponytail, I’m still just a sensitive 90s guy.

None of these explanations satisfied me. Maybe I was just tired, coming down from a long, fun-filled weekend in Amsterdam with friends. Maybe it was the early morning hour.

Or maybe, I thought, a few days after I was back in New York, just maybe — my best professional intentions aside — maybe I’d actually written a decent story, one capable, in its best moments, of moving an audience. It’s not something we do often as academic writers. But I kind of like how it made me feel.

25 responses to “Tears for Mary Wollstonecraft”

  1. Lane says:


    For this EXHAUSTIVE written account, the actual presentation (and SURELY it was Steph’s presence that choked you up) and THE BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. ssw says:

    After so much work on this particular group ( and your ardent affection for the key characters) it’s no wonder you might be moved unexpectedly when trying to share their lives. You are a wonderful story-teller Bryan.
    I don’t know about Bayard though. While I do want to be your friend, I do not at all want you to forget that I am a woman. ;)

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Bryan – I wish you were my college English professor! I love that you’re so moved by the people and times you study. Also, big, big congratulations on the book — isn’t it a thrill to see that cover on Amazon?


  4. ssw says:

    by the way, i love these pictures. they’re so cool. do you think portraits will ever come back around?

  5. Scott Godfrey says:

    B ‘n’ W, I too am a crier — BIG TIME. My situation, and I suspect yours, is that when I’m reading something aloud that portrays injustice, it somehow psychically connects to all the other injustice in the world, and I fall apart under the weight.

    But of course, the happy accident aspect of your story is that you connected with the utopians, communicating honestly amongst the constraints of a conference. I imagine that this type of behavior is not favorably looked upon by many in academia, but it is for these instances that we reserve the phrase: fuck ’em; there are some things even more important than career.

    I love every thing about your post.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Another wonderful post! Affect is one of the most interesting flies in the ointment of the academic humanities. Undergraduates are attracted to grad school in English because they “love books,” but once they are there they are systematically stripped of their emotional responses to texts. Demonstration of emotion (especially tears) is treated as the sole province of the naive and amateurish.

    To my mind, on the contrary, it is the sign of a highly developed professional, one who has broken through these simplistic strictures to reclaim one of the social functions of the professor – to profess. This passionate aspect of the professoriate is generally suppressed because it is not entirely predictable or controllable – two qualities that make it contrary to the university and its systematic cultivation of the individual. A deeper, richer understanding of profess(or)ing restores this passion and allows for it in all its quirky individuality and unpredictability.

    In my time in academia I occasionally encountered the rare individual who had come through the process with the capacity for emotional response intact. Usually, it is allowed to (re)blossom only when the individual is advanced far enough along (book, tenure safely on the way) that the recrimination of others can do no real professional harm.

    You have reached a moment in your career when you can cry while giving a lecture and no one’s going to put it down on your permanent record. Perhaps this was part of the reason you had this ‘episode’. You have, to some degree, come full circle and can now pursue your real passions without worrying too much about pleasing other people. Let your love flow, baby.

  7. Lisa Tremain says:

    Yes! How strange that, for a class (grad school for Lit, babe), I just wrote a poem remembering a professor I had as an undergrad who would “become” Kate Chopin one day for our Women Writers course, Mary Wollstonecraft the next, then Virginia Woolf, and so on. The class would “interview” our visitors with pre-determined “post-modern” questions.

    She was my most favorite professor ever.

    And now she has a rival in BW.

    And, Tim, don’t worry, even though I’m in school, I’ll keep getting my cry on.

  8. Stephanie Wells says:

    I have to disagree with Tim on one thing: I can’t think of any instance in which it would make one less professionally appealing (at least in academia) to show this kind of weakness about the works you study. I have only seen it happen once, but will never forget when my professor at UVA, who was about 70, choked up and nearly sobbed when reading Macbeth, when Macduff first gets the news that his wife and children have been slaughtered:

    All my pretty ones?
    Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
    What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
    At one fell swoop?

    It made me respect him immensely that he felt it so deeply. I myself often have trouble keeping it together in front of the class, as happened last week when Prufrock says “Do I dare disturb the universe?”–but it also happens very very often when I teach Othello, and even once when a student was reading “somewhere i have never travelled” aloud. I’ve never completely broken down as it sounds like you came close to doing, and I will continue to try not to, but I don’t feel ashamed of it. If it doesn’t move us, sometimes to tears, then we’re wasting our time, or as Wordsworth (like Tim) warns about overanalysis, “Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–/We murder to dissect.”

    Bryan, your story definitely makes you about 20 billion times more enjoyable than you already are, and I wish I had been at the conference to share a hanky. Keep on weepin’, or as Emilia says to a bawling Othello in a phrase that always give me the moist-eye, “Nay, lay thee down and roar!”

  9. bryan says:

    hey all. thanks for the love. it makes me happy that something i do has at least *some* appeal to the smart people i like. and i worried (thanks, lane) that it would be *exhausting* rather than exhaustive, so i appreciate that at least a half dozen readers made it to the end. you are good friends.

    i’m not sure how i feel about emotion in the classroom. i’m glad it only happens on very rare occasion, and i’ve learned over the years to avoid certain texts like the plague. some scenes from uncle tom’s cabin, for instance, work just they way stowe had hoped they would, even though i find much about her writing to be repulsive. but the last lines of kushner? now i just show the scene from the HBO DVD. (i know way too many gay mormons for that shit to hit me any other way.)

    a student in my grad seminar this semester actually called my attention to the fact that i talk often about how a text makes me *feel*. again, it may very well be an 18c thing — my saturation in the literature of a time when aesthetic experience was registered above all in *physical* responses to art, when being *moved* by something was more literal than figurative, when nerves were like heart-strings, waiting to be plucked. works for me, anyway.

    i agree with everyone who called for a return to saying how stuff makes you feel. i’m sick of the coldness of clinical reading.

    man, i have to say that i love the stuff i’m working on now, which is a continuation of my infatuation with wollstonecraft and her relationship to american readers. fun, fun stuff.

    talk to you all later — i’m off to see joanna newsom.


    p.s. ssw: don’t worry, babe, you’re always a woman to me. (yikes. that may be the first time i’ve ever cited billy joel. can’t i think of something else? lou reed’s he-doth-protest-too-much early 80s anthem “i love women”? help me out, people!) in any case, ssw, it would be pretty hard to forget.

  10. bryan says:

    p.p.s. i can’t wait to see scott cry on some occasion. man, that would be fun.

  11. Missy says:

    I was at a conference this weekend where a big name in 20th century American poetry cried while reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about Robert Lowell’s death, “North Haven.” He composed himself, and then choked up again when he read Lowell’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick’s, letter to Bishop upon hearing the poem for the first time. And those of us in the audience cried right along with him. I think we all felt a little sheepish, lifting up our glasses to dab at our eyes, but it led to a nice discussion about the narratives we do and don’t allow ourselves to indulge in when studying literary figures, and it felt a lot better than trying to *not* cry. Your talk sounds like it was wonderful. If I had been in the audience I think your crying would have made me cry.

    And you probably don’t know this about me, because I try to be really low-key about it, but I have a tendency to get a little crushed-out on my authors, too.

  12. Stephanie Wells says:

    Was that at PAMLA with Stephen Axelrod? Man!! I wanted to go to that lecture so much, but mine wasn’t till the next day so I wasn’t in town yet. Was happy to see Axelrod at my own presentationl! but, no tears, from me or him, alas.

  13. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Um, dude you cried.


    Too much Beck, my friend.

    Seriously Bryan, another thoughtful and engaging post.

    Thank you.

    But do you all really feel that the world’s problems would be eradicated in a matter of weeks if we were all totally frank with each other?

    Not only does it sound like the plot of a Jim Carrey movie but it just sounds so, well, utopian.
    Hell, I get shouted down for poking fun at earnest, studiously arty Scientologist indie rockers. Can’t imagine what would happen if we really signed up for the sincerity oath.

    I actually like a bit of repression in my fiction, don’t you?

    Have always had a fascination with the Wollstonecraft/Godwin relationship myself but have a bit more a cynical read on the whole thing. I mean, they couldn’t keep it as real as Brangelina? Two leading radicals who rationalized after the fact the passions that drove them is romantic (go ahead and use a big R there too, it fits) as all get out and is more compelling finally than all that earnest attempt at enlightened conversation and the like.

    Love the Lou Reed shout out.

  14. Tim Wager says:

    Sorry, Steph, but I know plenty of academics who would think less of someone who cried while giving a paper at a conference. Crying while teaching (e.g., while reading a particular poem) is more acceptable, because you’re ministering to the flock and modelling an emotional response can be a means to inspiring them. Conference papers, though, that’s where many demand a thoroughly composed presentation of self. This is not to say that it’s the right way to think and feel about it – or to make you paranoid, Bryan – but that’s my sense of it (without taking a poll or something).

    P.S. Bryan, you should see Scott’s *brother* cry. Now *that’s* an emotional experience. Those Godfrey boys, they’re not shy with the tears. Cuties.

  15. Jeremy Zitter says:

    A lovely post, Bryan.

    For the record, I usually cry at home, alone, in the dark. Not in a room full of students or colleagues. But that’s just me.

    Having said that, I do experience my share of crying in class, but maybe that’s because I should stop giving all my students “D”s.

    (Truth be told, music makes me cry all the time. And I loved that you mentioned Joanna Newsom in a comment, since I’m pretty sure I cried when I saw her play out here… Oh, I also cry every time I hear the phrase, “Dave, I’m home.”)

  16. James says:

    Whether I would or wouldn’t (or for that matter you or You would or wouldn’t) show emotion as Bryan did in that presentation, and whether or not such a display would affect one’s professional standing aren’t the questions that hit me reading that post.

    I’d be terrified – am terrified – of never being capable of feeling something strongly enough to react as Bryan did. Good or bad.

    Once, at a really bad event in my life, I remember also feeling an exhilaration – because at that moment, I had a realization of the depth to which I COULD feel something. And after, I could recognize it better when it happened at good points, too.

    The way you told this story, Bryan… man. I’ve been talking here and there with your dad about your Friendly Club book for years. But to read this… I am so utterly impressed. I am impressed that it evokes so strong a response in you, in that setting.

    Just impressed.

  17. Missy says:

    It was Thomas Travisano at SSAWW. Interestingly, Cheryl Walker made a HUGE POINT of not crying, and tried to steer the conversation away from emotion, or rather, back to her boring paper and its specious thesis.

  18. Missy — #11 made me tear up this morning. I’m not kidding.

    Ruben: But do you all really feel that the world’s problems would be eradicated in a matter of weeks if we were all totally frank with each other?

    Did I say my name was William Godwin? I just kind of like the little freak. I didn’t say I wanted to join his non-church. That said, I sometimes get caught up in it all and wish I could muster faith in human perfectibility.

    Tim and Steph: I agree with Tim — teaching is one thing, although if you went overboard it could be bad. But at conferences? I think the it’s not what most professionals are up for — for better or worse. I do remember one of the best moments of my undergrad education, though, which didn’t involve tears but did involve one professor (CKF for the fellowtravellers) who bore witness one day to the effect Invisible Man had on her the first time she read it. “What ever happened to the idea that a book can change your life?” she said. Part of what I love about British Jacobins is that they naively believed that books and conversation could change the world.

    Jeremy: For the record, I usually cry at home, alone, in the dark. That is just so sad. But I love the idea of you weeping at Joanna Newsom’s show. Man that show was fantastic last night. I’ll write more about it later. (Right now, I believe, Farrell and Trixie are watching her at the Unitarian church in Philly.) I didn’t cry at her show, but I had an hour and a half’s worth of goosebumps.

    James: I find it hard to believe that you don’t feel that deeply about your work or family. Congrats, by the way, on your book — oh, and that little movie deal that followed. Bingo!

  19. joanna says:

    love. love. love. my #1 early americanist homeboy. congrats on the book, bryan. (shout out to missy and steph.) jb

  20. Rachel says:


    While any one of the causes you mention could have caused you to tear up, all of them together made it virtually inevitable. The intense, rich experience of European travel? Check. Presence of beloved spouse? Check. Passionately researched literature? Check. Relief about long-anticipated book? Check. Truth is, you were up against a perfect storm of feeling. And you handled it just fine.

    Congratulations on the book. I am so freakin’ proud of you, my beautiful friend.

  21. bryan says:

    man i have awesome friends. how did i get so lucky?

  22. James says:

    Heh. Bryan, you’re right: my work and my family are the two things I can feel that deeply about. The danger is in the shields we (well, I) put up in dealing with other things can make us too numb to ‘feel’ the things we want to, or are capable, of feeling.

    That’s the terrifying part. So I suppose I’m not saying I DON’T ever feel that – but that I try to remain vigilant that I’m ABLE.

    And re: book and movie stuff – I’m currently the local darling for all that. Especially with the 90% of the locals who thought I was out of my mind pursuing it as a career (heh.) But of the other percentage, your parents have never wavered in their support of me and my ambitions, and I’m forever grateful to them for that.

  23. Caleb says:

    Lovely piece, from the line about Mary Waldegrave being the Bizarro to Mary Woolstonecraft’s Superman, to the candor about your emotional response. Last year I made the mistake in a seminar of reading out loud a certain passage in “The House of Mirth,” not reckoning on the way that reading aloud makes words more sensuous and thus more powerful, and I, too, lost it.

  24. bryan says:

    hey caleb — hooray for a reader who’s read edgar huntly! (and written about it as well.) thanks for your note — and for your wharton anecdote. nice to know i’m not alone.

  25. Jessie says:


    Here’s a blog where people can write about a teacher who made a difference in their lives. They can also read and make comments on posts by others….