Just Teach One


Jordan Alexander Stein

Fordham University

For some years I have kept in rotation a course called “Literature and Politics in the Early US, 1774­–1801.”  The course is modeled after Cathy Davidson’s The Revolution and the Word and aims to show students that in the early US political tracts (often authored by men) and sentimental novels (often authored by women) participated in the same conversations about individualism, rights, and social forms.  Pairing political and literary texts in each unit, the course demonstrates how literary texts can be read politically and political texts can be read rhetorically.  Representative pairings include The Federalist with The Power of Sympathy, Rights of Man with The Coquette, and Alcuin with Wieland.

In the spirit of this syllabus, including Humanity in Algiers required that I also include a political text with some thematic similarities, and I chose the 1786 “Barbary” treaties between the United States and Morocco.   Standing behind this choice was a desire to embed the early US in a transnational world system of commerce and cultural exchange.  I expected that these texts would encourage concrete discussion of the ways that the forms of nation-building colludes with xenophobia, even as international treaties try to broker a separate peace.  I hoped that the students would be pleasantly surprised by the relative cosmopolitanism of both the treaty and the novella, which might counterbalance any lingering fantasies about the sui generis nature of US independence.

However, the internationalism of the treaties were not especially surprising to my students.  A treaty whose dates reference the Hirji calendar (alongside the Gregorian one) was, for instance, far less noteworthy than the treaty’s use of the word “Friendship,” in which students detected irony and perhaps subtle coercion.  Our discussions about rhetoric were paying off, and I was excited to see what they made of Humanity in Algiers.

But while the subject of slavery in Humanity in Algiers also suggested a theme of coercion to my students, the pairing that interested them was not with Barbary treaties but with Franklin’s Autobiography.  Class discussion of Humanity in Algiers focused extensively on the novella’s Frankin-esque qualities.  Students pointed out that Humanity in Algiers is fundamentally an upward mobility narrative, in which Azem graduates from hapless slave to entrepreneur and family man in under sixty pages.  In the tradition of Franklin, his character rather than his circumstances accounts for much of his success.  Humanity in Algiers is careful to show Azem’s acceptance of his circumstances; and, like the mature Franklin, his manner is deferential.  As a reward for his passive conduct as a slave, Azem’s bondage merits expeditious narrative treatment, and being freed from slavery before half the tale is told, he is able to concentrate on his love plot.

The upward mobility narrative of Humanity in Algiers, complexly framed as a tale-within-a-tale, is ultimately a first-person recounting.  The immediate purpose of these multiple frames wasn’t clear to the class, though discussion of them did propel us to observe that many of the other texts we had examined were also hybrid narrative forms.  For example, Franklin’s Autobiography and Wieland both borrow conventions from the epistolary tradition as the occasion for their writing but then proceed with letters far too long to reflect epistolary plausibility.  Charlotte Temple likewise draws from the epistolary tradition (notably including the Richardsonian device of letters being missent or lost), as well as the didactic form of the conduct manual and the orchestrations of dramaturgy.

Humanity in Algiers makes its biggest break from the early US sentimental novel not in terms of its (admittedly wacky) narrative form, then, but in terms of its narrative attention.  And here is perhaps the most fundamentally Franklin-esque aspect of Humanity in Algiers: its subtle but persistent interest in economic details.  Throughout the short text, there are a surprising number of numbers––dollar values, net worths, years of indenture, dates and times.  There is also a contrast between such summing and what we see in the 1786 treaties, whose language is comparatively qualitative.  Equally unlike the sentimental novel’s interest in psychology and experience, and the political tract’s interest in compelling argumentation and careful rhetorical characterizations, Humanity in Algiers dwells in actuarial details.

I hesitate to come to any too-quick conclusions about a text I have taught only once.  But I can say with certainty that my presumptions about what might be interesting about this text were challenged by students, and their own observations were in turn quite generative.  Humanity in Algiers proved to be a text that links together politics and economy in far more consistent narrative terms than do sentimental novels which it also draws from and imitates.  Why precisely this is so is a matter for some speculation.  Humanity in Algiers weds aspects of the sentimental genre with aspects of travel narrative (something not otherwise represented on my syllabus) and aspects of the more actuarial realism.  It does so, moreover, in a way that does not so much reflect connections with the political tracts to which it might seem thematically related, but in a way that is markedly different from them.

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