University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Kaylie’s song inhabits two voices from the American survey. The first stanza takes the perspective of Sarah Darnley, who flees a disastrous marriage and concubinage, wanders down the public road and knocks on a farm house door outside Dublin:
Some say that I once was bright
Now I am a ghost
Wandering your streets at night.
Readers will remember the scene outside a “rustic cottage,” where a stranger reluctantly greets Sarah, saying she “looks monstrously like a ghost.”
The second stanza is Benjamin Franklin, describing his arrival to Philadelphia to his son. Again, we all know the story. Young Ben walks the city grid, puffy rolls under each arm, and passes the home of his future in-laws. With a silent nod to the future, he anticipates his own success:
I stepped out onto the street
I became the man that I
Always wanted to be ….
Read alone, the lyrics seem to fall back on Franklin’s sturdy parable of rags-to-riches. But the song closes with “ghost,” which loops us back to Sarah’s predicament. In performance, we know where the telling comes from. The irony sparks in Kaylie’s nods to the camera. We witness her presence, her voice.
Toward the end of the American survey, I ask students to respond creatively to any one work we have read. I leave the medium open (barring only collage, except for fine arts majors). The students paint, rap, sing, strum or drum their thoughts to a work of literature. The project comes late in the semester, when a break is welcome, and the exercise serves as an organic prompt for the final paper. Students then extract the core idea behind the creative response and build out the paper. I learn a lot about my students. The resulting essays always come back more fresh and revived.
Some time ago F.O. Matthiessen defined Ralph Waldo Emerson as reading “in the optative mode,” exploring in a system of open possibility “how to reconcile the individual with society.” The field that Matthiessen shaped in 1941 has shifted since The American Renaissance. We have expanded the cast of five white males (plus Emily Dickinson). Projects like “Just Teach One” move us further beyond the strict national model, conceived as the United States was entering a war, and we now approach authors like Susanna Rowson from both sides of the Atlantic. Geographic boundaries no longer uphold the narrow ideological frame. What keeps our tenuous field in place, I think, is the optative mode. A revisionist (or reformative) edge continues to inform our scholarship. We seek options.
I personally declared myself an English major, during the Reagan eighties, in pursuit of some half-articulate path. It’s easy to forget the longing for self-definition at younger ages — and the costs of clinging to a less inclusive canon. Removed from that experience by the passage of time and too many graduate seminars, we as teachers underestimate the college student’s need to recognize his or her own situation in a work of literature. Two centuries of criticism, we all know, offered Franklin as the “pattern” or “model” American. The apparent ease with which Franklin penned his life often leads undergraduates to mistake his telling as the genuine article. As a Sincerity. The story of Sarah, an “exemplary wife,” offers a second option.
To what extent does the optative mode still drive Americanist scholarship? We sound out alternatives to the received cant, to the fixed narrative of nation with Franklin front and center. We want our students to inhabit other voices from early America. So we dig into the archive. Kaylie summons Sarah’s ghost.