Q&A: Cassandra Good, Author of Founding Friendships

CGood photoIn April, Tom Cutterham reviewed Cassandra Good’s new book, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Women and Men in the Early American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Good received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and is now the Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. Today, she speaks with The Junto about Founding Friendships and her next project.

JUNTO: As you mention in your introduction, eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century prescriptive sources discouraged mixed-sex friendships, and there was no contemporary term to describe such relationships. Since friendships between men and women do not seem to be an obvious category within the archive, how did you first come to this topic?

CASSANDRA GOOD: My interest in mixed-sex friendships came out of a find in the archive that really resonated for me. I was researching Margaret Bayard Smith for an independent study in college, and I read a letter she wrote to her sister describing saying goodbye to Thomas Jefferson when he left Washington in 1809. It sounded really romantic to me, and I thought I had discovered an affair. When I asked my advisor about it, though, she said that in fact this was how friends often talked about each other—it was much more emotional and dramatic than today. I started thinking about my own friendships with men and the ways people sometimes misinterpreted them. There was a spark of connection and I wanted to know more about how these friendships worked in the past. I had seen other male/female friendships in my undergrad and master’s research on early Washington, and I had a hunch there would be enough elsewhere for a dissertation. 

JUNTO: Founding Friendships is of course engaging with historians’ previous work on gender relations and the gendering of political life in the Early Republic. How do you see your work as building on or revising these literatures?

GOOD: Since early in my undergrad work, I’ve really been intrigued by the way women could be part of political culture in the Early Republic. I went deep into the historiography on that and the deconstruction of the idea of “separate spheres,” reading great scholars like Linda Kerber, Rosemarie Zagarri, Jan Lewis, and Catherine Allgor. I was particularly attracted to the idea of integrating men and women in one story rather than focusing on women separately, which I think better tells the story of politics in this era.

I also read a lot of theory on gender (especially classics like Carole Pateman, Joan Scott, and Sherry Ortner), and I approach my research as a sort of ethnography of the past. I think my work shows how gender (and sexuality, for that matter) is built through relationships, with all the rituals and negotiations of meaning that entails. I’m not the first to take this perspective—in fact I wrote one of my comprehensive exam essays on this topic!—but I think gender scholarship for all time periods could think more broadly about what sorts of relationships are possible between men and women.

JUNTO: What is your favorite friendship from the book?

GOOD: It’s so tough to choose. I was really fascinated by so many of the individual stories. I have a soft spot for Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams, who are on the cover of the book, because I think they had a great matching of wits. But I probably had the most fun writing about Eloise Payne and William Ellery Channing, because they were so open, honest, and sometimes even harsh in their letters to one another. They called each other out and they pushed each other to think and grow intellectually and emotionally. That, to me, felt so real and relatable. I was lucky, too, to have both sides of the correspondence for both of these friendships.

JUNTO: Which four books were most often on your desk as you were working on Founding Friendships?

GOOD: Actually I think the scholarship I referred to most often was a set of articles by Jan Lewis, one of the few people who has written about mixed-sex friendships in this era and who had really smart ways of connecting gender and politics (Full disclosure: she was on my dissertation committee because our work was so closely connected).[1] Otherwise, though, the fun of this project was that I was looking at such a broad range of scholarship—literary analysis, art history, biography, emotional history, sexuality, anthropology, European history, political theory.

JUNTO: This was your first book. Can you reflect on the process of turning the dissertation into a monograph? What advice would you offer to early career scholars engaged in similar processes?

GOOD: I followed a somewhat unusual and very efficient course: I came into my PhD program knowing my dissertation topic, worked through historiography and theory as well as starting my research for seminar papers and exams, and wrote the dissertation as a book. I started talking to publishers before I had graduated and my editor asked me to rewrite the introduction and conclusion before sending the manuscript out for review. Between the comments from my dissertation defense and the reader reports, I ended up with a good path forward for revisions rather than doing a full overhaul of the dissertation.

This wouldn’t work for everybody. My primary advisors—Kathleen Brown and Michael Zuckerman—were incredibly generous with their time and read everything I wrote through three drafts. They also let me leave the historiography to the footnotes. My topic worked for this streamlined path, because I was focusing in on discrete collections at the archives, many of which were close to where I did my graduate work, and I had a lot of published materials to work from.

JUNTO: In your book’s conclusion, you reflect that “popular culture and opinion continue to deny the possibility” of mixed-sex friendships.” You also suggest that social media—especially Facebook “friending”—continues to raise new questions about the nature of friendship. To ask you to play cultural critic for a moment, have you noticed any new and telling examples of public’s attitudes toward mixed-sex friendships since your book went to press? More broadly, how has your work on the Early Republic shaped how you view mixed-sex friendships in contemporary culture?

GOOD: I’ve been waiting for the next “When Harry Met Sally” type film to come out or the latest pop psychology article on why men and women can’t be friends, but those haven’t happened recently. The one news story that has come up was when GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham was questioned about what he would do about a first lady, since he’s a bachelor. He replied that his sister and female friends could fill in that role, which I loved.

Interestingly, I think my research did more to change how I think about marriage than friendship. I saw this long history for a narrative where marriage was the pinnacle of adult fulfillment and other relationships, particularly friendships, were marginalized. It’s surprising to me how much this remains the case; just look at Justice Kennedy’s decision in the recent gay marriage case in which he says marriage is “essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations,” while unmarried people are basically “condemned to live in loneliness.” There’s this all-consuming focus on sex that continues to raise marriage up and make mixed-sex friendships suspect that I find really troubling.

JUNTO: What are you working on now/next?

GOOD: I’m turning from friends to families, still with an interest in how gender and relationships are tied to power and politics. In Founding Friendships, I included several members of George Washington’s extended family and started to wonder about their place in the new republic. Washington was treated as a quasi-monarch, but he never had his own children and there was no family dynasty. He did raise a number of children though, including his step-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. The project will be a family biography that traces his descendants from the late eighteenth century through the Civil War as a lens to understanding how family and politics were intertwined.

 ___________

[i] See Jan Lewis, “Politics and the Ambivalence of the Private Sphere: Women in Early Washington, D.C.,” in A Republic for the Ages: The United States Capitol and the Political Culture of the Early Republic, ed. Donald R. Kennon (Charlottesville: Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society by the University of Virginia Press, 1999); Jan Lewis, “Sex and the Married Man: Benjamin Franklin’s Families,” in Benjamin Franklin and Women, ed. Larry E Tise (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000); Jan Lewis, “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 44, no. 4 (October 1987): 689-721; Jan Lewis, “‘Those Scenes for Which Alone My Heart Was Made’: Affection and Politics in the Age of Jefferson and Hamilton,” in An Emotional History of the United States, ed. Jan Lewis and Peter N Stearns (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

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