U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Their foot shall slide”, Or: Pencehouse Letters

“Their foot shall slide”, Or: Pencehouse Letters

guest post by Jonathan Beecher Field*

Recent discussions of Mike Pence’s rules for happy marriage (no dining with women not his wife, no events with alcohol without his wife), was another reminder that the early American novels I teach have a way of becoming more relevant than I would prefer. (WARNING SPOILER ALERTS FOR 227 YEAR-OLD NOVEL FOLLOW). I have been teaching Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette for almost as long as I have been teaching. In case you have not read it, it is a based-on-a-true-story story of a young woman, Eliza Wharton, who vacillates in her choice between two suitors: Boyer, the boring but reliable preacher, and Sanford, the dashing but untrustworthy colonel. Eliza hesitates, but the monitory chorus of her female friends and relatives leads her to decide in favor of Boyer. The pivotal moment of the novel comes when, having informed Sanford of her choice, he insists on hearing the news from Eliza face-to-face. She agrees, and Boyer comes upon Eliza and Sanford conversing in the garden, and at once realizes that Eliza could never be his wife, because this exchange with Sanford reveals her as a “finished coquette.”

When I started teaching this book to undergraduates at Clemson in 2004, I was surprised and a little disturbed to find out how relatable my students found this story that was two centuries removed from their own time. One student in particular confided to me that it was difficult for her to join in class discussion, for she, too, had a boring suitor her friends and family favored, and a more dashing lover she fancied instead. One of the challenges of teaching the novel is getting students to identify what, exactly, it is that Eliza does to warrant Boyer’s rage and rejection. The nature of her betrayal is that she has a semi-private conversation with a man that she is not married to. This is, as it happens, is exactly the kind of betrayal that Mike Pence spares his wife because he respects her too much.

For Boyer, and for Pence, sex is dangerous, and sex with the wrong person is a crime. Any detective can tell you that a crime involves means, motive, and opportunity. When it comes to sex, a healthy heterosexual man always has the means, (a penis) a motive (heterosexual desire). In this logic, male genitals and male desire are the two constants – the only variable that can prevent this crime is opportunity. Opportunity, in this case, is the presence of a woman, and some modicum of privacy (a banquette, a hedge, a hotel room). If extramarital heterosexual sex is a crime that requires someone with the kind of genitals that you do not have, and men, with their penises, and their ambitions for their penises, are the given, then vaginas are the variable you can control to prevent a crime. This reasoning posits that much like Samsung Galaxy phones on airplanes, vaginas are simply too dangerous to permit in these situations: if preventing this risk restricts opportunities for people who happen to have vaginas, that’s a small price to pay, and possibly even a feature, rather than a bug.

And yet, many adults have observed that they have managed to share a meal with an adult who is not their spouse, without having sex with them. There are several reasons two people who dine together might choose not to have sex after – fidelity to an absent partner, a lack of mutual attraction, an early flight the next morning, and so on. Evidently, these obstacles are not enough to deter the likes of Mike Pence, because he understands sex as something that is bound to happen any time two adults are unsupervised, and that sex is likely to happen at any time. As such, we can understand Pence’s thinking through a combination of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century theologian, and Bob Guccione, the 20th century pornographer.

A theologian in the Calvinist tradition is an unlikely influence on Pence, who identifies as an “evangelical Catholic.” But his notion of sin as irredeemable and unavoidable echoes Edwards’ famous explication of Deuteronomy 32:35, “their foot shall slide in due time.” As Edwards observes, the verse “implies that they were always exposed to sudden unexpected Destruction. As he that walks in slippery Places is every Moment liable to fall; he can’t foresee one Moment whether he shall stand or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once, without Warning.”

Guccione might disagree with Edwards on the nature of sin, but they share a preoccupation with the sudden and unexpected. Guccione’s Penthouse occupied an ill-defined middle ground between Playboy’s aspirational aspirations, and Hustler’s putative blue collar aesthetic, but the letters section of Penthouse offered a Ripley’s Believe it or Not of fucking. Penthouse Letters taught a generation of impressionable youth that sex could happen at any time – that a study session for a chem midterm would turn into a steamy threesome, that the cashier at the convenience store might write her number on your receipt because she wanted to enlist you in her elaborate domination scenario, that car trouble on the interstate was likely to involve fulfilling and consensual sex with a stranger.

For Jonathan Edwards, sin is inevitable. For Bob Guccione, sex is inevitable. For Mike Pence, sex and sin are two names for the same thing. For Eliza Wharton, and for the women excluded from dining with the vice president of the United States, the cultural logic of misogyny produces a social landscape where being present in a scenario that might allow sex to happen is exactly the same thing as having sex. Against the possibility of sex without dire consequences, misogyny offers dire consequences without sex. This logic requires three postulates –  that sex involves a man and a woman, that male desire is relentless and ungovernable, and that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies. Unfortunately, these postulates seem to be consistent with the rest of Vice President Pence’s political philosophy.

After she is rejected by Boyer, the remainder of The Coquette is the story of Eliza’s decline. She loses the vivacity that had won her so many admirers, abandons her ambitious reading for frothy novels, and eventually accedes to Sanford’s overtures, even though he is now married. Foster’s novel is technically a seduction novel, but it is a deeply unsexy seduction novel – Sanford manages to sleep with Eliza only when she no longer has the will or the energy to keep telling him no. Because it is an 18th century American novel, the consequences of the illicit sex between Sanford and Eliza are a pregnancy that results in a stillbirth and a fatal puerperal fever.

Superficially, The Coquette is didactic fiction that shows young women in the new United States the dangers that inevitably ensue if they stray from the path of virtue. Generations of scholars have suggested that instead, Foster offers a critique on the circumscribed roles available for young women in the early United States. Unfortunately, the vision of the nation in 1790 that Foster presents in her novel, where women lack agency, or any kind of sovereignty over themselves, appears to be exactly the kind of nation Mike Pence imagines in 2017.


*Jonathan Beecher Field was born in New England and educated in the midwest. He is an associate professor of English at Clemson University. He is the author of Errands into the Metropolis (2009), and his essay, “The Governor’s Two Bodies: Polity and Monstrosity in Winthrop’s Boston” appears in the current special issue of Early American Literature focused on disabilty studies.  You can follow him on Twitter at @ThatJBF

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is one of the best responses I have yet seen so far this political season to the problem of – I don’t know what to call it? – far Right cultural ideology.

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