Emily Bingham's Mordecai has all the elements of a great family novel. The characters are vivid and endearing, and the antebellum setting in eastern North Carolina is both familiar and remote. Across generations the Mordecais exemplify the classic family dramas of parental conflict, unrequited love, women's liberation and, since the story is Southern, even a touch of incest. The cast is artfully assembled and the tale deftly told. Dominating is the patriarch Jacob; learned but impecunious, tolerant but authoritarian. We suffer with his daughter Rachel as she is torn between domestic duty and the dictates of her heart. And, hovering above them all is the spirit of a dead mother whose legacy binds them for generations. Driving the action are powerful historical forces: a secular enlightenment that extols the life of reason and a religious awakening that exalts the piety of Christian faith. As if more dramatic interest were needed, the Mordecais are, of all things, Jews.
To make the story even more unlikely, Mordecai is no work of fiction but footnoted historiography. Bingham came to the Mordecais as a UNC grad student searching for a dissertation topic. "One of my bones that I was picking at as an academic was the stereotype of the South being anti-intellectual," Bingham explains in an interview. In UNC's Southern Historical Collection she discovered troves of letters and writings of the cosmopolitan, highly intellectual Southern family.
In 1793, Jacob Mordecai, a revolutionary war veteran, moved his brood from Virginia to the village of Warrenton, N.C. Four years later, wife, Judy, died, and Jacob composed a letter for his six children that became a Mordecai "covenant." Although noting religious duties, the covenant was a "road map" to emancipation. The family was "to aim for the highest levels of intellectual cultivation, family solidarity, and dedication to useful work," Bingham wrote. It advocated an "enlightened domestic life" that was especially liberating to women.
Fifteen years later, Jacob, a better scholar than merchant, opened the pioneering Warrenton Female Academy. The Mordecai children comprised much of its faculty, particularly Rachel, who was well-read, and exemplified the then radical notion that women were equal in rational capacity to men. The academy aspired to educate women's minds, not merely teach parlor arts or household talents.
Mordecai is a feminist story, and Bingham is obviously drawn to Rachel, the story's protagonist. "I was just beginning to realize my own intellectual ambitions," Bingham explains. "She was very much a heroine to me, all her efforts, her energy, her desire to express herself, and as I moved into other ages of my life--engaged, married, a parent--I began to see other dimensions of her."
Rachel also became a heroine to America's fledgling Jewish community when she chastised the English novelist Maria Edgeworth for anti-Semitic stereotyping. Their correspondence later led to an epistolary friendship. When Rachel married Aaron Lazarus, a Jewish entrepreneur from Wilmington, she sought to establish her own enlightened household on Edgeworth's family principles. Over time, she found communion with evangelical ladies who nursed her through illness and brought her into "Christian friendship." Wanting to bring her children to Jesus, Rachel confronted a husband who threatened to "separate the children from her" and a father who tore to shreds her heartfelt plea for baptism.
Mordecai is also a Jewish story. For a Judaism just emerging from medievalism, the free airs of America were both emancipating and shocking. The Mordecai children indulged in that American freedom to choose their identity. Ellen Mordecai worked zealously to direct every Mordecai to Christ, while sister Emma founded a Hebrew Sunday school in Richmond. Each Mordecai intermarriage with a Christian was a stab in the heart of Jacob. At the story's climax, Rachel fell ill on the way to visit her dying father and underwent a deathbed baptism.
The Mordecais are also a Southern family. Rachel complains testily of slaves as lawless wretches and chastises indulgent slaveholders. When the Civil War beckons, they are ardent Confederates, and they feel a stain on the family honor when Major Alfred Mordecai, the first Jew to graduate from West Point, sits out the war in Philadelphia with his wife's family.
Bingham chooses to subtitle her book, An Early American Family, because, as she explains, in the Early Republic, "the project resting before most Americans was how to be an American." Regional identity was not a factor until the late antebellum era when slavery forced the issue. She presents a national story of upward mobility and middle-class aspiration, as the grandchildren of impoverished immigrants become bankers, authors, educators, lawyers and physicians.
Ultimately, the family myth collapses under the stress of its contradictions. The Mordecai covenant assumed that reason would lead Judy's children to moral duty and obedience. But this enlightened domesticity was also liberating, especially for women, and Jacob's rational, virtuous tolerance opened his children to other possibilities and undermined his patriarchal authority. As Bingham observes, the Mordecais anticipate the challenges that confront us today: the fluidity of identity, the possibilities and limits of self-invention, the conflict of freedom and tradition. As Bingham concludes, "Their project was in many ways that of the striving nation's writ small."