Just Teach One

Reading Rosa to Question the Formation of Americanness

Matthew Teutsch, Ph.D.
Auburn University

At first, teaching Rosa, or American Genius and Education (1810) in an early American literature survey course seemed somewhat daunting. I frame my courses around conversations, typically beginning with David Walker and Thomas Jefferson then moving around through time and region back and forth from the colonial to the early nineteenth century. I do this to show students that even though these texts appear decades, and sometimes even centuries, apart they still connect to one another through thematic issues that repeatedly show up again and again. As the nature of survey course does not allow for an in-depth discussion of very aspect in Rosa, I chose to highlight a couple of important points that had become reoccurring themes throughout the semester.

We read Rosa about a month into the semester after reading Walker, Jefferson, Samson Occom, Mary Rowlandson, Sarah Kemble Knight, William Apess, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, and a few others. As usual discussions began to center around the definition of who gets to be labeled as “American” in these early texts. Along with this aspect, issues surrounding calls for a distinctly American literature surfaced in our conversations. These two topics intertwine with one another to create explorations of constructions of Americanness during the early part of the nineteenth century.

Every two weeks, I have students post to a discussion board. They must ask a question about a reading and then respond to a fellow student’s question. For Rosa, one student specifically asked how the novel attempts to display an emerging Americanness and American literature. At this point, we had only read the first three chapters, and some students responded by saying that the opening chapter and the descriptions of Baltimore showed America as a “melting pot.” One responder, however, noted a sentence that compared “civilized Americans” to the British: “The manners of the civilized Americans, speaking with exceptions, are English.” The students’ questions and comments paved the way for further exploration of Rosa and how the novel approaches questions of Americanness and American literature.

During his travels from Baltimore to Boston, Richard encounters a struggling author. The man gives Richard a prospectus for his novel, “Views by Starlight,” telling the young traveler that the tale is original. Richard asks the man if he has ever printed the book, and the man replies that he had; however, “nobody would buy it.” At this, Richard offers the man some advice. He tells him,

In the first place, In the first place you are wrong to announce, as you have done in this prospectus, that the work was written by an American, or even that it was composed in America. That, I dare say, is what ruined the sale of your former novel. Your title, too, is much too plain. If you would call it “The Jug with Forty Handles” or something of that sort, and insert in the title page, that it is from the pen of a celebrated English or French writer, and that it is reprinted from the one hundred and forty-ninth European edition, you will infallibly succeed.

The man promises to follow Richard’s guidance and departs. Later, Richard hears that the man heeded the advice and “people had purchased up his books as fast as he could have them printed.”

When covering Sarah Kemble Knight, I make it a point to highlight for students the fact that her journal did not appear until 1825 when Theodore Dwight had it published. Five years before the public appearance of Knight’s journal, Sydney Smith inquired, “In the four corners of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the introduction, Dwight tells readers, “The object proposed in printing this little work is not only to please those who have particularly studied the progressive history of our country, but to direct the attention of others to subjects of that description, unfashionable as they still are; and also to remind the public that documents, even as unpretending as the following, may possess real value, if they contain facts which will be hereafter sought for to illustrate periods in our history.” Dwight’s objective is to highlight the rich literature of America, and by choosing Knight, he shows that that literature has a more significant background than some may have thought.

However, even after 1825, questions about whether or not America had a distinct literature continued to abound. To set America apart, writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, John Augustus Stone, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and more, turned to the colonial past, most notably King Philip’s War, to help construct and define an American literature separated from Europe. In her 1830 short story “Chocorua’s Curse,” Child describes Mount Chocorua by telling readers, “Had it been in Scotland, perhaps the genius of Sir Walter would have hallowed it, and Americans would have crowded there to kindle fancy on the heart of memory.” However, that was not the case. European literature still reigned supreme.

In class, we trace these movements in the calls for a distinctly American literature and we work to define what exactly that literature entailed for the early nineteenth century. Even when we get to William Apess, I have students think about this issue. For Apess, we read An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man, and during my lecture, I bring up his Eulogy of King Philip (1836) for a couple of reasons. The main reason is because he mentions Rowlandson and challenges how we read her narrative. The other motive for bringing up Apess’ speech is the subject matter. For a myriad of reasons, Apess would call attention his ancestry as being tied to King Philip. Yet, I contend there is one main reason he does this rhetorical maneuver, to add to the ongoing debates centered around the construction of what constitutes American literature because most of the authors mentioned above turned to King Philip as a subject, beginning with Washington Irving in the Sketchbook (1819).

Along with this connection, the incorporation of Apess in relation to Rosa calls upon students to think about who is an American according to individuals in the early nineteenth century. Reading Jefferson, de Crèvecœur, John Adams, and others, students begin to see that American became defined as white, landowning males of European descent. Walker, Apess, Child, and more challenge this definition through their writings, and the anonymous author of Rosa does as well with the introduction of the Peruvian Sol into the narrative. The plot hinges, essentially, on Sol’s “experiment” to prove that as an individual native to the New World and of Incan descent that his daughter Rosa is just as capable of intellectual growth and expression as Europeans.

This aspect, particularly his speech to the committee in England who asked him questions in order to judge “the extent of his intellectual capacity,” correlates to the continued conversations that sought to outline who gets classified as American. Sol answers all of the inquisitors’ questions sufficiently then launches into a speech that calls to mind the fiery rhetoric of Walker, Apess, and Frederick Douglass in both tone and scope. Notably, Sol deploys arguments related to the history of Europe and the Incas, beginning by describing how the history of America and the defining of an “American” comes from those ultimately in power. If you would like to see ore about Sol’s speech, I have written about it in depth elsewhere.

Rosa, ultimately, ends with an egalitarian representation of America, sans individuals of African descent. The novel works to try and define Americanness both in terms of citizenship and cultural production. What stands out in the former construction arises not necessarily when Sol speaks in front of the committee but when he tells everyone about why he burned the house down and placed Rosa in the field. At the end of the novel, the narrator defines Sol as American even though he is from Peru. The narrator says, “[Sol] had wanted to convince the world that the faculties of the native American were as susceptible of improvement and embellishment s those of the natives of Europe.” Obviously, this reference relates to individuals in the New World; however, after this statement, the narrator drops “native” and when stating, that Sol’s experiment to prove “the equality of the American mind with that of Europe” became problematic when he lost some of his money.

We did not come to a clear, concise answer about the author’s labelling of Sol as American, but the topic warrants discussion in relation to a myriad of factors. For one, we need to think about it regarding how authors of the Early Republic sought to define the term American. As well, we need to consider it in relation to debates about Native American removal that began to reach a zenith during the 1820s and 1830s. Apess, Elias Boudinot, and others worked tirelessly to highlight the humanity of Native Americans in the context of an American history and culture. While these are not the only aspects of Rosa that one could cover, they present important components of a nation working to construct its identity separate from the rest of the world.

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