Just Teach One

Format, Genre, and Nosebleeds, Reconsidered

David Lawrimore
Idaho State University

I taught Susanna Rowson’s Sincerity in “Origins of the American Novel,” a once-a-week, 400/500-level seminar on American literature before 1800. The major goal of the course was to consider the causes and effects of early American novelists’ obsession with established British genres. We studied how American novels drew and developed from their British predecessors and considered the American authors’ reasons for writing within these well-worn genres. Sincerity was a particularly effective text for this seminar. Because the work was originally serialized in The Boston Weekly Magazine, I was able to supplement our class discussions of genre with considerations of format. Additionally, the novel treats sentimentality in a manner that is far more complex than many canonical early American texts, especially Charlotte Temple, the only work by Rowson that most students read. Therefore, it provided the class with a means to rethink how sentimentality and the sentimental genre functioned in the early republic.

We read Sincerity during the seventh and eighth weeks of the semester. I felt it was important for students to have a solid foundation in the courses’ themes and questions before we approached Sincerity, as the novel complicates the standard narrative about the early American sentimental novel. We began the unit with Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, followed by Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. These two novels served as a helpful lead-in to Sincerity and helped to familiarize students with the standard conventions of the sentimental genre—the ill-used protagonist, the sentimental effusions, the emphasis on education, the plight of womanhood, and so on. Charlotte Temple was a very effective counterpoint to Sincerity and provided a wealth of comparative possibilities. Students were quick to point out the differences between Sarah and Charlotte, for example, as well as between other characters, including Montraville and George Darnley and La Rue and Mrs. Bellamy. A brief overview of Rowson’s varied career was another beneficial framework. Students pointed out the similarities between Rowson’s own troubled marriage and Sarah’s as well as how Rowson’s own career as an educator paralleled the protagonist’s.

Much of the first week of our two-week discussion of Sincerity focused on the novel’s publication in a periodical and its serialization. I began the seminar by providing students with copies of an issue of The Boston Weekly Magazine (a .pdf of which is linked on the JTO website). Students initially commented on its difference from glossy, image-rich contemporary magazines like Time and The Atlantic and were amused by a few choice headlines. (A class favorite was “A Chicken with a Human Countenance!”) After their initial reactions, I asked them to consider the magazine as a whole, its internal logic, its visual rhetoric, the role of the editor, and so on. Students were surprised by the articles’ sundry topics, which ranged from historical, amusing, didactic, factual, literary, and so on. In spite of this miscellany, however, they noticed an internal logic to the selections. One student said that while the magazine was not “genre-specific,” it was “audience-specific” as all of the articles seemed to cater to a female, middle-class audience. They attributed this consistency to the editor, who, according to one student “knew the readership” and “wanted to hold on to them.”

Our discussion next turned to reading Sincerity as part of a magazine. I asked them to consider how Sincerity might fit within the miscellany of the other texts as well as how reading it in installments might change the way we view the work. While the essay by “The Gossip”—thought by many scholars to be Rowson—featured in this issue did not readily align with Sincerity, many of the students found parallels between the novel and the magazine’s other articles, especially regarding the theme of marriage. One pertinent article was “A Letter for a Gentleman, who advertised for a Wife in the public papers,” a faux personal advertisement that, through satire, catalogues the proper manners of a wife. Regarding the novel’s serialization, students noted that many of the novel’s installments offer a self-contained story that often ends in a cliffhanger. This observation led to a rich discussion of how form influences content both in early American novels—many of which are structured episodically—as well as in contemporary television—where the phenomenon of bing-watching has shifted the structure of television shows. While I only planned to dedicate an hour to these issues, the students were notably invested in these topics, and our discussion lasted the majority of the session. Moreover, these discussions of format, of the early American periodical, and of serialized novels, were fine supplements to our previous discussions of genre conventions.

The second week of class focused largely on Sincerity’s overarching narrative and its comparison to other sentimental novels, but our discussion began by considering how the text critiques the novel form. (Though students had read a number of other novels that criticize the novel form prior, they were attuned to this trope in Sincerity because of the previous week’s discussion.) Student’s pointed to the book edition’s preface (included at the end of the .pdf) and suggested that Rowson had “misgivings” about the novel form, how other novels “don’t relate to real life,” and how, by writing Sincerity, Rowson was “trying to improve the novel.” By framing our discussion in this manner, we were then able to consider how aspects of Sincerity might be more “true-to-life” than other sentimental novels we had read.

Students were drawn to a number of different aspects in Sincerity—Sarah’s relation to various social classes, the role of charity, the definition of the concept of “sincerity,” and others—but the two richest topics for discussion were the role of sentimentality and Sarah’s marriage to Darnley. Regarding the former, students indicated that Sarah seemed much more at odds with her emotions than characters like Charlotte or Primrose. This conflict manifested itself in a number of shocking ways, most notable being Sarah’s nosebleed during the wedding ceremony, which students saw as showing that Sarah, though she tries, “can’t accept her feelings.” Students noted that, compared to other texts, Sarah’s feelings were largely a problem and much of the text is her unsuccessfully attempting to “rationalize her sentimental feelings.” They were also interested in Sarah’s marriage, where Sarah experienced a “sort of abuse” at the hands of her husband. Students were conflicted about Sarah’s sense of duty, which some saw not as a virtue—though Sarah believed it to be—and rather as Sarah’s failure to acknowledge her limited options. Sarah had no way of surviving, one student pointed out, except to get married. The discussion concluded with students split over Rowson’s purpose in portraying marriage in this way: while some viewed it as a criticism of paternalistic marriage, others believe that Rowson validated Sarah’s mistreatment by making her out to be a martyr who accepts her abusive situation.

In sum, though some students may find Sincerity to be a challenging novel, it has the potential to be a particularly generative read for upper-division undergraduate and graduate students. I found it to be an effective introduction to early American magazine culture and serialization, two burgeoning trends in early American literary history. Additionally, Sincerity is perhaps one of the most complex and multifaceted early American sentimental novels, and thus challenges students to think more deeply about sentimentality and the sentimental genre.

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