Just Teach One

Stolen Lives

Siân Silyn Roberts

Queens College, CUNY


First off, many thanks indeed to Duncan and Ed for preparing this edition of St. Herbert. My students were very intrigued by the idea of being part of the Just Teach One project, and we had a lively, interesting discussion about the text, thanks to Duncan and Ed’s edition.  I’m really grateful to my students for their very generous engagement with St. Herbert – they were really enthusiastic in their approach to a text that, as I had cautioned, was all but unknown in college classrooms.

I placed the novella in a course for upper seniors called Stolen Lives: Kidnapping and Captivity in American Literature and Culture, in a section on gothic captivity.  Initially, I thought this placement might be a bit of a stretch, but it ended up working extremely well in a course on the captivity narrative.  So our discussion was largely framed around the text’s repurposing of the cultural materials of the gothic and captivity.  What follows are some of the highlights of our discussion:

I asked my students to account for the style (the “empurpled” prose?), expecting to lead into some discussion of the rhetorical conventions of sentimentalism. Instead, one student remarked on the almost epic qualities of the novella’s more descriptive passages (“The sun was verging toward the empurpled horizon…” etc), saying that they reminded her of reading the Iliad.  This led to a fruitful discussion about the novella’s publication history, and how some of the formal strategies employed in oral epics might be transplanted into serial culture (whereby descriptive sentimental prose can help resituate readers after their attention has been disrupted).  In this regard, the editors’ introduction was especially helpful, as they accounted for the episodic nature of Herbert. This allowed students to think about how the material conditions of publication can produce allied innovations in form (as a side note, I was really struck by the facility with which this text encouraged my students to think laterally across other genres and cultural regimes, from epic poetry to Judeo-Christian morality).

We talked about the way in which the “wilderness” was transformed in this narrative into a redemptive, regenerative space, contrasting it with earlier depictions of the wilderness as a site of potential cultural degeneracy in Rowlandson and the Panther Narrative.

We spent some time discussing the repetition and redundancy of the plot, and formulated some thoughts about captivity as an endlessly recycled cultural narrative (which, in large part, is the aim of the course).

My students were particularly intrigued by the figure of Ludono the Indian (which also made this a highly effective text to read in a captivity narratives course). In the previous weeks we had read Ethan Allen’s The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen, and I asked students to compare St. Herbert’s native American with earlier, bigoted depictions like those that appear in Allen’s text.  This comparison threw Ludono’s peculiarities into sharp relief.  One student drew a connection between this figure and the pro-Catholic sentiments of the novella, on the grounds that Ludono feels enormously guilt over his former ingratitude and seeks a life of redemption, devotion, and good works.  Another pointed out the Judeo-Christian nature of his morality (“gratitude, fortitude, and usefulness”), which allowed us to think about the Indian as a mouthpiece of Enlightenment moral sense philosophy, and not as a culturally essentialist construction of indigeneity.  One student remarked on the formal similarities between Ludono’s trials in the wilderness and Mary Rowlandson’s. We examined a passage from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to think about sympathy as an emotional exchange whose rhetorical power in Herbert resides in its capacity to cross racial lines (although students were quick to point out that St. Herbert fails to learn Ludono’s lessons of “gratitude, fortitude, and usefulness” when he allows his melancholy to continue to get the better of him.  This allowed us to think about the emergence of a new racialized Other: the Native American as cosmic mentor and proto-environmentalist.  One student made a sophisticated Fiedleresque argument when he said that this reminded him of the propensity in popular culture to pair naïve white men with unruly yet transcendentally insightful black mentors (as a side note, this would be a great text to teach alongside Fiedler, to think about his argument concerning the death of sentimentalism and interracial homoeroticism).

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