Imlay, Gilbert (DNB00)

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IMLAY, GILBERT (fl. 1793), author and soldier, was born in New Jersey about 1755, as may be inferred from an allusion in the preface to his account of Kentucky. He served in the American war of independence on the patriotic side, attaining the rank of captain. After its termination he went to Kentucky, where he was employed as 'a commissioner for laying out lands in the back settlements.' It is uncertain when he came to Europe, but in 1792 his 'Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America' was published in London. It is in the form of letters to a friend, represented as the anonymous editor, but it may be doubted whether the person and the epistolary style were not equally a disguise. The book is full of information, evincing both knowledge and ability on the part of the writer; it was reprinted at New York in 1793 with a supplement by John Filson, and republished in London, with additions, in 1797. In 1793 Imlay published a three-volume novel, 'The Emigrants,' the writer, as an American observer of English institutions, proposing 'to place a mirror to the view of Englishmen, that they may behold the decay of those features which once were so lovely,' and in particular to induce them 'to prevent the sacrilege which the present practices of matrimonial engagements necessarily produce.' How Imlay worked these views out is uncertain, as the only accessible copy of his novel is imperfect. The scene is laid in America in districts familiar to him, the conduct of the story is artless, the style matter of fact, and he may be easily believed when he says that he 'was only induced to give the work the style of a novel from believing that it would prove more attractive to the generality of readers.' It may be doubted whether this anti-matrimonial performance promoted his connection with Mary Wollstonecraft, or was a consequence of it; probably the latter, as he writes in his preface as one no longer in England. He was certainly in France by April 1793, at which time he formed that memorable connection with Mary Wollstonecraft which has gained her the sympathy of all readers of her impassioned letters, and left him with the unenviable character of 'the base Indian who threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe' [see under Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft]. Imlay was evidently inconstant, sensual, and unfeeling. He lived with Mary at Havre and in London for about eighteen months, and parted with her in the autumn of 1795. The last glimpse we have of him is in April 1796, when, as Godwin tells us, he and Mary Wollstonecraft 'met by accident upon the New Road; he alighted from his horse and walked with her for some time; and the rencounter passed, as she assured me, without producing in her any oppressive emotion' (Godwin, Memoir, 1798, p. 145). He probably returned to America; the time and place of his death are unknown.

[Posthumous Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, vols. iii. and iv.; Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters to Imlay, edited by C. Kegan Paul; Pennell's Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; Paul's Life of William Godwin; Appleton's Dictionary of American Biography.]

R. G.