The Coquette is an epistolary novel based on the famous death of Elizabeth Whitman who was a socialite that died giving birth to a still-born illegitimate child at a Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts. The novel allows the reader to form their own opinions of Whitman from myriad points of view: she can be seen as both a victim and not. The book is representative of the state of the American media during the 1790s because it represents the freedom of expression enjoyed by publishers, newspapers, and authors at the time. The laws for publishing were lax and this allowed more diverse forms of expression: some considered offensive and scandalous. The mere fact that this novel was published is attributed to the lenient state of American media at the time. Provocative and radical ideals were now being circulated in print for society to debate. The Coquette “raised several controversial issues—female education, female employment, political and legal rights of women, and the double sexual standard.”
Starr’s The Creation of the Media documented how “America’s high literacy rate and its rapidly growing population…led to markets for print that were…increasingly diverse.” Starr spoke of “the rise of publishing as a popular information and entertainment industry” and “new forms of cultural expression frequently met with condemnation as vulgar, indecent, and dangerous.” The author wrote publishing got off to a “slow start in colonial America,” but the “doors to publishing were wide open—a good thing for freedom of expression.” Cathy N. Davidson stated that, with regards to Whitman’s ordeal, “within days the account was picked up and reprinted by the Massachusetts Centinel and then in dozens of other newspapers.” The story went on to become “one of the most reprinted early American novels.” Why do you think The Coquette became one of the most popular novels of the 18th century?
It is on the issue of freedom of expression The Coquette comes into play. The epistolary form of the novel uses multiple points of view of many characters to give a voice to the different members of society, each with roles determined by their places on the societal ladder. The characters are relatable on many levels because they are allowed to be viewed through different lenses. This assortment of opinions and values—whether agreed with or rejected by the reader—makes The Coquette exemplar of the freedom of speech and expression enjoyed by publishers during this era. The story of Whitman was distributed widely throughout colonial America. Given the subject matter it expresses, how might this novel be used by a clergyman?
The state of American media in the 1790s lurks just under the surface of the novel. America was adjusting to these new shocking forms of expression in print and was having difficulty balancing the moral with the amoral. The character of Eliza has a difficult time negotiating between a yearning for independence and the shackles of tradition forced on a woman living in colonial America. The state of American media during this era allowed subgroups—in this case women—to question societal norms in a much louder voice and The Coquette represents this by dramatizing those questions in the text.
 Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), ix.
 Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 114.
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 116.
 Foster, viii.
 Ibid., x.