Just Teach One

Amelia and Attachment Disorders

Michelle Burnham
Santa Clara University

We all know that it is generally not a good idea to do too many new things at once. I have promptly violated this rule by teaching Amelia for the first time, in a course I am teaching for the first time, which also happens to be running as a pilot foundation course for a new major our department is hoping to institute next year. So this experiment begins for me by breaking several attachments at once, attachments to more familiar pedagogical objects and curricular terrain.

First, then, some curricular context: the course is titled Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation, and it’s populated primarily by first- and second-year students who are recently declared English majors. My course design is heavily indebted to the work and ideas of Chris Phillips (Lafayette College), from whose brilliant re-imagination of the conventional American literature survey I have borrowed extensively. (I’ll take this opportunity to thank Chris once again for so generously sharing his syllabus and assignments with me.) If a conventional survey uses an anthology to lead students on a tour through the house of American literature (with its various floors, wings, hallways, and rooms), this course looks instead at the way the house itself has been constructed differently over time (what happened to that wing? why are there so many more rooms now? why has the furniture in this room been changed? etc.). But it also aims to equip students to practice archival research in primary texts (using electronic archives, print resources, and university librarians) so as to become agents of literary recovery (their final project is to produce their own mini-anthology). The idea is to shift from imagining literary history as a museum through which students are led on a tour, to imagining it as a building under constant construction which students are expected to help remodel.

Small groups were assigned different additional readings from the Heath anthology alongside of Amelia, and so everyone arrived to class having either read Elizabeth Ashbridge, Judith Sargent Murray, Susanna Rowson, Thomas Jefferson, Phillis Wheatley, or Samson Occom. Small groups summarized for the rest of the class the central issues raised by these other texts, thereby providing an initial sense of the literary, social, and historical context for Amelia: issues of female education, seduction, inequality, independence, virtue and corruption, slavery, rebellion. Students were quite immediately drawn to an allegorical reading of the novel in the context of the Revolution, seeing in the relations between the virtuous though naïve Amelia and the corrupt and self-interested Doliscus a version of the political relationship between the American colonies and the British empire. In this reading, Amelia becomes a warning about unhealthy and dangerous colonial attachments to Britain, and a justification for breaking that attachment.

Another discussion thread emphasized the issues of female education and empowerment raised in different ways by Ashbridge’s narrative, Murray’s essay, Jefferson’s letters, and Rowson’s novel. Is Amelia a product of the limited education available to her? Is she empowered? Although we learn little about her education, we do see that her father’s “attachment to the solitude of his library” allows his daughter’s seduction by Doliscus to proceed unrecognized and without intervention. His own attachment to books permits Amelia’s growing romantic attachment to become too strong. Yet Amelia herself seems not only a paragon of female virtue but surprisingly capable and empowered, and my students were impressed by how quickly the text defended her continued virtue despite her loss of chastity to the dastardly Doliscus. But we also had to confront the textual details that challenge this more optimistic feminist reading: Amelia’s appeal to Doliscus fails; her body and her honor are saved, respectively, by her father Horatio and brother Honorius; and after her averted suicide she goes mad and dies, along with her child. Is she really empowered after all? And if we’re going to read this allegorically, what does Amelia’s final fate portend for the emergent nation of America?

Students decided at first that Honorius was the answer to this question: Amelia was what could have happened to the colonies; Honorius was what should happen to the colonies. We had to look closely at the text to determine Honorius’s position: he begins as a fellow soldier to Doliscus, a Loyalist fighting on the side of the British, and gets imprisoned in London after Doliscus falsely accuses him of desertion; after defending his sister’s honor in a duel in which he kills Doliscus, he returns to America where he fights with the Continental Army against the British in the Battle of Monmouth. The fallout of his sister’s seduction leads Honorius to break his attachment to Britain. But he is also killed in this battle. The novel’s final paragraph leaves us with a grieving and solitary father who has lost his family entirely and spends his days mourning at the grave of his daughter. If we’re still reading this allegorically, and Honorius is now America, does his end really suggest more hopeful prospects for the new nation?

While most students were committed to the allegorical reading, a few suggested instead that Amelia might be a novel less about taking political sides in the Revolutionary War and more about condemning war altogether. As one student put it in the one-page thinking paper she wrote in response to the reading, Amelia is “a story in which no one wins”; another described it as a story about the “traumatic destruction of a family” by “a political machine they never encounter, which they are unable to hold directly accountable for the ruination of their lives.” This is a compelling way to account for the bodies that are strewn everywhere in the novel, which leaves us first on a battleground and then in a graveyard. These anti-war sentiments appear also in the novel’s somber preface, in Horatio’s initial decision to move his family away from the scene of warfare, in Honorius’s internal debate about the morality of dueling, and in the father’s final solitary grief in which the only attachments he has left are to another world, not this one. If we’d had more time, we might have talked about Monmouth’s Molly Pitcher and Amelia as a kind of domestic female soldier figure, or about the ambiguous referent of the novel’s subtitle, or about the compelling synchronicity of the Constitutional Convention (held in Philadelphia in 1787) with this novel (first published in Philadelphia in 1787).

Because of the particular design of this course, my students came to this novel having thought a bit about the politics of anthologies. The course began with William Spengemann’s “What is American Literature?” before moving into the first volumes of the Heath anthology. In the week leading up to Amelia, students examined the differences between three anthologies of American literature (published in 2009, 1979, and 1935). They also read the poetry anthology smackdown in The New York Review of Books between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove—so they’d been exposed to the anxieties of attachment (to particular writers, texts, assumptions, and rubrics) so easily provoked by changes to the architecture of the literary house. I didn’t mention the “Just Teach One” project until the end of our Amelia discussion, when I informed students that they’d just unwittingly been part of an experiment related to our larger course project of exploring the construction of literary histories. We had just read and discussed a text that was last in print in 1810, all but forgotten to literary history, and written by an author whose identity remains a mystery. Is this a text worth reading, anthologizing or reprinting, deserving of rescue from the literary historical dustbin? I got a room full of thumbs up. I’ve also developed a new attachment: next quarter I’ll be teaching a course on the Revolutionary Atlantic Novel, and I’m in the process of adding Amelia to my syllabus.

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