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The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation
ISBN: 9780807055168
By: Nancy Rubin

Review by: Ina Christiane Seethaler


Only a few biographies have been written about Mercy Otis Warren. The Muse of the Revolution adds to this small collection in a rather unique way. Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of several popular historical biographies, was able to draw on a range of unpublished correspondence between Warren and her contemporaries, which enables new insight into women's lives during the emergence of the nation. The Muse indeed succeeds in creating an original understanding of the connection between Warren's writing and her political influence, exposes Warren's immense historical, feminist, and artistic legacy, and relates her life to the historical events that led to the Revolutionary War and the creation of an independent nation. Every reader interested in American history and the lives of women during the Revolutionary period will enjoy this engaging biography of America's first female playwright, historian, and reporter of the American Revolution.

A meticulous biography, The Muse of the Revolution takes up the task to raise readers awareness of Warren's impact on American history and politics. Paralleling the birth and adolescence of the new nation, Warren's personal life, which ended in 1814, was just as exciting and at times troubling as the historical era in which she lived. Stuart's most powerful accomplishment lies in her portrayal of Warren's search for an independent voice at a time when her country was struggling for political freedom. Stuart aptly introduces her main focus, by leading the reader into Warren's life in 1773, shortly after the Boston Tea Party. John Adams has asked Warren to write a poem about this event, but it will take several months until she agrees and her poem "The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs" appears anonymously on the front page of the Boston Gazette. Anonymity was the fate of most of Warren's writing, and yet she predated such talented women writers as Judith Sargent Murray and Susanna Rowson, who are now believed to have been the nation's first female authors.

During the Revolutionary War Warren worked as her husband's personal correspondent and, hence, became fully immersed in politics. The American Revolution proved as the defining moment in her life that transformed her from a docile matron into an outspoken patriot and feminist (Stuart 6). Warren wrote a number of influential propaganda plays for the Republican cause during this era. Her pamphlet Observations on the New Constitution heavily influenced the Bill of Rights, and her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) truly immortalized her as the Muse of the Revolution. Besides touching on the lives of such renowned persons as John Adams, The Muse presents itself also in part as a biography of Warren's brother James, whom Stuart brilliantly uses to contrast men's influential role in Revolutionary America with women's duty to tend more domestic fires (26). In fact, Stuart skillfully creates suspense for the moment when James Otis is sent to an asylum and Warren rose to champion the patriotic cause in her brother's place (44).

In my opinion, one of Stuart's most astute accomplishments is her portrayal of Warren's charismatic complexity in her role as wife and mother, patriot and author, and the confidante of political leaders. In particular, this biography introduces us to a new understanding of women's patriotism during the Revolutionary War. It is fascinating how, in a period that seems to have been solely shaped by men, Warren, sometimes at great personal risk, spoke out for American independence and against the suppression of women. While Stuart points to Warren's provocative and bold statements, she also depicts Warren's inner fragility that becomes apparent in her worries about her husband and sons and her doubts about her writing.  Being scurried between her family and the Revolution (Stuart 93), she was sometimes misguided by her emotions, but she never questioned her patriotism.

The Muse of the Revolution is a compelling source of appreciation for the achievements of a truly patriotic woman. The general reader, to whom Stuart explicitly addresses her writing, will be especially gratified by the author's treatment of landmark events in American history. The richness of Stuart's research becomes also apparent in her detailed description of the estates in which Warren and her family lived. Even though Stuart sometimes finds herself on the verge of getting lost in minutiae, she impressively succeeds in painting a complex and yet intimate picture of Warren's life. Unfortunately, The Muse of the Revolution, overall an account that does great justice to the captivating nature of Warren's story, in some instances slips into melodrama, a technique that might be ascribed to Stuart's intention of writing a popular biography. It is certainly questionable whether she would have portrayed a man's life in the same overly emotional tone.

Overall, Stuart's style is very approachable for the general reader. Her bibliography and index show particular richness, including material on the womens movement in the U.S. and political writings. With The Muse, Stuart effectually emphasizes the need for finally acknowledging the historical, political, and feminist role of the most accomplished woman in America according to President John Adams (xi). More valuable information on the author and her biography can be found online at http://www.nancyrubinstuart.com/work1.htm.

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