Just Teach One

“She Really Wants to Dance!”

D. Berton Emerson
Cal Poly Pomona

In an upper-level seminar that the catalogue titles “Early American Literature” and describes as featuring “critical analysis of literature written in or about North American before 1820,” I selected readings appearing between 1789 and 1815 to examine the various ways Americans worked through the meanings of Revolutionary ideals played out in everyday life. Few of the twenty students were familiar with any of the texts in the course, so I opened the course with the general conceit that, amidst all the creative energies of social, political, economic, and cultural life after a successful military revolution, citizens and statesmen struggled to come up with a name for the new nation. Was this a minor issue, I asked, or emblematic of ongoing tensions between ideals, reality, and the narratives we weave to make sense of it all? To answer this question of naming and narrating, we would examine the ways a handful of early American authors grappled with the values, oversights, and paradoxes of theories and praxis in the new nation.

Savage’s The Factory Girl was the fourth of four novels in a unit titled “A Woman’s Virtue,” which focused on early American identity and relationality. Students having previously read Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Foster’s The Coquette, and Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, The Factory Girl provided a refreshingly new portrayal—at least in my students’ experience—of an early American female protagonist. First reactions, however, were mixed. Many agreed that Mary Burnam was likeable, and one noted that “she was the exact opposite of Eliza Wharton,” (which I understood to be a good thing). A couple of skeptics found her less affable, largely for seeming too pietistic. One student went so far as to claim that she was duplicitous because “she lured multiple guys into marriage in a snap.” Quickly, though, we decided that she was a distinctive case that constructively complicated our conceptions of the novels in this first unit.

Eliza Wharton immediately became our touchstone of contrast, especially in the ways that The Coquette and The Factory Girl staged various expectations for individual deportment as well as suitable relationships. In our discussions of The Coquette, we had focused on Eliza Wharton’s efforts to establish alternative modes of relationality, paying careful attention to her desire for public friendship in contrast with a more dominant investment in privatizing marriage, a convention underscored by the shifting metaphors in the preambles of the Article of Confederation and the Constitution. A couple of students pivoted off these intertextual readings and recognized that The Factory Girl offered a bit of both, certainly privileging marriage in the final outcomes of the plot, but also exhibiting a more balanced representation of multiple options.

At this point, I steered the class toward questions involving communal regulation and self-regulation and their impact on exemplary modes of citizenship. Again, Eliza Wharton proved a helpful foil. In The Factory Girl, students agreed that there was little evidence of victimization, but they also expressed discomfort with Mary’s asceticism, particularly with her resolve to practice virtuous behavior in spite of her desire to attend the dance. I suggested that this showed early signs of what Christopher Castiglia in Interior States (2008) has argued as the increasing interiorization of political experience during the period. Once I introduced this concept, the students quickly grasped other scenarios featuring this tension, and they could see the ways that practices of citizenship in the everyday now seemed to involve both outward practices and inner regulation.

The discussion quickly shifted when one student wondered aloud about the function of the factory in this story. I used the opportunity to mention some Marxist-oriented terms to bring out issues like labor, the capitalization of labor, routinization (e.g. the “factory bell” which brought Mary to work on her first day, and which students insightfully distinguished from the church bell and school bell). We looked closely at the passage in which Mary is scrutinized by her fellow factory workers and grappled with the portrayal of laborers on the production side bearing the marks of modern-age consumers bartering over the marketable qualities of Mary Burnham. This brought us back to earlier points about notions of individuality, citizenship, and alienation before the class concluded.

All in all, this text provided a keen example of the heterogeneity of early American fiction and helped students recognize this period’s literature as a highly dynamic and contested site of identity production. The material on individual and collective identity, potential and authorized modes of relationality, and the complex web of socioeconomic factors in the backdrop suggested to me that this was a text that merited more than one class. As our discussion demonstrates, The Factory Girl brims with a variety of issues—more than the three we covered in our class—playing out in these early decades of the young republic.

Many thanks to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for making this text and supplementary material available along with this forum to share our experiences!

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