Just Teach One

Thinking about Early Adolescent Literature

Zach Hutchins
Colorado State University

Teaching a course of my own design, about how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts make their way from the archive and into modern classrooms, seemed like the perfect opportunity to share a novel with students from the Just Teach One archive. In the three months preceding our scheduled consumption of Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl, my students had transcribed a handwritten sermon, annotated and introduced a slave narrative, and written an essay assessing the challenges of reconstructing an incomplete novel. They had, in other words, participated in the scholarly work of recovering primary texts and preparing them for publication: work similar to, if less sophisticated than that performed by Ed and Duncan in this forum.

As my students read The Factory Girl and several other brief novels recently republished for the first time, including The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania and Emily Hamilton, I asked them to shift from the actual work of recovery to a broader consideration of that work’s value. Two accomplished and respected scholars, I explained, had deemed Savage’s short novel worthy of a broader audience than it has traditionally enjoyed; what, if anything, did they see in the work that deserved this attention? Posing this question was a risk that aroused more than a little anxiety on my part. What would I say to my colleagues if students decided that The Factory Girl did not merit their time? What would I write for the Common-Place blog?!?

Fortuitously, my students concluded that The Factory Girl was one of the most important and enjoyable texts they had read during the semester. When pressed as to what they saw in the work, several reiterated or developed points from the introduction prepared by Duncan and Ed. The “factory designates a different moral & social environment,” one student wrote. And another referred to the novel as “feminist” because “Mary has autonomy, uses logic in arguments.” But I was much more interested in a consensus that emerged through in-class discussion, as students agreed that the novel’s primary value lay in its status as a piece of adolescent literature.

The JTO introduction references Gregory Jackson’s identification of the novel’s intended audience as “young adults” and “children”—but I was surprised that my students accepted and agreed with that assessment in an era when adolescent literature and sci-fi/fantasy seem like synonymous categories. Students valued The Factory Girl because it provided a window into the literary options and preferences of their historical peers. Part of the pleasure in identifying Savage’s novel as adolescent literature came in the realization that their own literary options were no longer constrained by religion; in one student’s words, the novel “connects us to the past and celebrates just how far we’ve come” by stimulating a new awareness of and appreciation for the broad array of secular novels available to children and young adults for pleasure reading. In other words, rather than reading the novel for “the power of religious instruction to reconstruct the self and make it more effective, economical, and durable,” my students read it with a new understanding of L. Frank Baum’s declaration that “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment” in literature, not religious instruction.

Students admired Mary’s willpower and appreciated her innovative negotiation of new social spaces, but thinking of the novel as a work written for children and young adults provided an invitation to reflect on the evolution of both literature and social mores. They agreed, unanimously, that The Factory Girl is adolescent literature, and applying that descriptor to the novel seemed to stimulate more appreciation for Savage’s work than any of the socio-historical arguments I might have made for its importance. Their collective reaction has taught me that the labels we use to categorize books shape readers’ expectations and textual experiences in more powerful ways than I would have guessed and that adolescent literature is a phrase with considerable cachet for the Harry Potter generation—even when Hogwarts is nowhere in sight.

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