The title, This Violent Empire, is somewhat of a misnomer, but the end result of this important study causes the reader to reflect not so much on the violence of America's heritage, but rather its conflicts and ambiguities. Author Carroll Smith-Rosenberg celebrates the contributions of early American literature from magazines to novels, and particularly the contributions of women either as authors or as characters,as a guiding force of national identity development. But this book goes beyond the well known contributions of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth or Betsy Ross and her flag. Indeed, neither of these women are even mentioned. Other famous women are barely mentioned - Pocahontas, for example. Instead, Smith-Rosenberg emphasizes women authors and book characters along side wives and daughters of leading male merchants and politicians as the role models for women of the era.
Men play an unimportant role. Smith-Rosenberg continiuously feminizes men ranging from western farmers in Shay's Rebellion to the insecure "Paxton Boys" of central Pennsylvania, to the leading merchants of the age. Indeed, a woman is at the center of every successful man's life, not as a docile helpmate, but as the driving force. Women embody freedom and liberty; they are the bearers of republican virtue. Men are often effeminate clods who happen to be present.
The one criticism of this book is in its title. The reader has to wait for 215 pages before things really become "violent." Up to this point, the author ranged from one literary source to another, from novels to early magazines, none of which indicated a truly "violent" society. THen she begins to address white-Indian relations and things become violent in a hurry. However, once again the women are the heroes while the men are the helpless victims. Take for example the Indian captive narratives Smith-Rosenberg cites. While women are adapting to their new lifestyle while plotting their eventual escapes, often the men in tese accounts are hiding in the woods or are otherwise helpless onlookers, clueless on how to resolve the situation.
This theme of male helplessness reappears time and again. The male merchant depicted as a version of Manat's "Olympia" is another image SMith-Rosenberg emphasizes. The victims of the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak of 1791 is another. White men, instead of being the traditional driving force of early American development, are instead de-emphasized to the point of virtual obscurity.
But Smioth-Rosenberg's efforts are an important contribution to current scholarship. In the end she uses the novel "Zelica" to portray black-white relations stemming from the revolution in Haiti and how American republicans struggled to accept its results. "Zelica" is used almost as an autobiographical portrayal of Smith-Rosenberg's own lifestyle. In the novel, two female lovers navigate through the murky waters of acceptance of the images of freedom and liberty while struggling with taboo. The final pages of "this Violent Empire" are not statements of fact on how we got where we are today, but instead are questions of how much we truly value the concepts (freedom and liberty) we preach but in reality often deny to any who do not fit the traditional mold of virtuous republican.
As a result, some will embrace this book while others will scorn it. But as the cliche says, "it is what it is" and there is no denying double standards exist. They always have existed, and will continue to exist until we as a nation and a society choose to give them the debate and reconciliation they deserve. Until then, too many Americans will be willing to simply wrap themselves in a flag and preach empty words that sound good but have no meaning until they are fully embraced in their full context.