Commonplace


Just Teach One

Restaging the Seduction Plot in Ira and Isabella

“She did not find it in her heart to die out of complaisance to these rulers of nature”: 
Restaging the Seduction Plot in Ira and Isabella 
Maura D’Amore 
St. Michael’s College 

I taught Ira and Isabella in two sections of the first half of an American literature survey, just after finishing The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster. As I’ll explain in the following paragraphs, the two texts paired productively with one another on a number of levels, but I found Ira and Isabella most useful in the ways in which it raised questions about narrative expectations and structure, especially in the representation of female desire and sexuality at the end of the 18th century. My students had a lot of fun discussing Ira and Isabella (potential incest! lecherous father figures! fabulous names for prostitutes! In all honestly, dare we ask anything more of a text that gifts us names like Fidelia Froth, Prudence Slammerkin, Desire Goodale, Love Midnight, Patience Couzens, Tabitha Sly, and Silence Tickle?) and it helped them become better readers of The Coquette

Like The Coquette, Ira and Isabella is interested in questions of sympathy, of the boundaries between self and other and the paths by which an individual might use language to cross those boundaries and influence feeling and cognition. In both, same-sex friendship offers a safe space to confess, act out, push back, and repent: the charitable sympathy of a loving friend, in other words, contrasts with the conniving sympathy of a rakish chameleon. Textbook Enlightenment novels that they are, both oscillate between critiquing/reinforcing gendered double standards in society and troubling/confirming distinctions between fancy and reason. In both, the mind is pregnable to assault, and the body follows the mind. Hidden danger lurks, appearance is oftentimes more powerful than reality, and morals and mothers offer protection from a cruel world. And yet, despite all this and more, both texts argue for an expanded consideration of women’s lives by chafing narratively against the very labels they are simultaneously complicit in placing on female characters. 

Stylistically, however, the texts are very different. Foster’s novel is epistolary, an exchange of private confidences between friends, family, and lovers that the reader “looks in on” from the outside. Wharton guides her audience in their reception of these documents by reminding them of their sympathetic responsibilities and moral obligations (they must not replicate the actions of a coquette by relishing gossip for gossip’s sake, but instead should seek to follow Eliza’s female friends by looking at her story with pity and learning from it). The novel asserts its fundamental role as teacher by illustrating the dangers of openly rebelling against authority, even as it critiques from within. Regardless of the text’s sympathy with Eliza’s private grievances with her society’s unrealistic expectations for women, it ultimately damns Eliza for following her muse. Only when she is dead can readers take her up in unalloyed sympathy; she was too troublesome alive, especially in retrospect, once her “advanced age” has been revealed. 

Almost from the outset, Ira and Isabella takes issue with this plot and exposes it as contrived and manipulative. Ironically, the despite cardboard flimsiness of Brown’s plot and setting (worth talking about in its own right: it reminded me so much of Stephen Crane!), the characters seem a bit more human than those in Foster’s novel, less representations of an idea and more complex, confused, thoughtful people walking around in the world. Students were especially surprised by the way in which Isabella was idealized as naturally graceful and radiant with inner beauty even as she was also so clearly a frank, confident independent spirit. So too was Ira a breath of fresh air after The Coquette: here was a meek, amiable, steady, honest man who was not a minister! They found his seeming disinterest in passion/romance fascinating, and we had an interesting discussion about whether the novella’s portrayal of Isabella’s desire as “awakening” Ira sexually might be seen as contributing to or countermanding stereotypes about women. At one point, Isabella suggests to Ira that lust is natural, that it is tied to her womanhood! Regardless of the politics of this claim, it is clear that Brown’s story is not one of “seduction” as commonly represented. The slapdash style and dizzying pace of revelations are designed to mock the seduction novel as a ridiculous sham masquerading as a moral digestif. We returned to the title page and preface as we discussed this possibility and talked about how it offers guidance to the reader and comments on the expectation to look for guidance in a preface at the same time. Here too, Brown’s coyness appeared ripe to read as commentary on narrative convention. 

 There is, of course, the overt marriage plot, complicated after the ceremony but before consummation by the revelation that Ira and Isabella may be siblings. Strangely, though, the possibility of incest doesn’t seem to matter all that much to anyone in terms of how they live their lives. The narrative moves forward through a series of conversations in which rotating players debate a question or term (plot is revealed in this way, so that “the state of things” changes based on who gains the opportunity to speak). The nature of “love” is central to a number of these conversations, and in true Gothic form, characters repeatedly suggest that human efforts to delineate different types of love for different relations is frustrated by love’s refusal to abide by artificial channels and definitional boundaries. Knowing this, individuals playfully don various relational titles (“father,” “sister,” “friend,” “nurse”) only to transgress them. This is a comic rather than tragic treatment of star-crossed lovers, and yet Brown doesn’t abandon a moral purpose for literature. If anything, he suggests that the lie previous writers have been telling about what happens to women and men who “transgress” does more harm than good. By refusing to picture individuals continuing on in the world (as they do) after affairs and pregnancies, bankruptcies and lies, Brown argues, novelists fetishize unrealistic expectations and invariably set Americans up for “failure” the second they open their mouths or enter a room.  

While The Coquette is the easier sell for an American literature syllabus, I had to do a bit of dancing during discussion to bring it to life for students. With Ira and Isabella, both of my sections entered the room buzzing about the craziness of the story. They wanted to unpack it, to laugh about its ridiculous, to discuss whether anyone else thought the Doctor had the hots for Isabella. As I asked them questions about the shape and style of the story, especially in comparison to Foster’s, they began to ask pretty complex questions about narrative structure and purpose of their own accord. I’m really glad I added the text to the syllabus. 

Defamiliarizing Generic Expectations

Rachel Trocchio 
University of Minnesota 

Benevolence comes early in “A Journey to Philadelphia” – the first sentence has our narrator “resolved to address” and “offer such little services” as he can to an inmate of Philadelphia’s prison – and I was keen on using the story to introduce the topic to my pre-1800 survey. Essential features of the novella lent itself to the task, chiefly, its brevity and its content: minor but satisfying rebellions against parental authority, murder mystery, mistaken identity. The setting, too, was apropos. I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. Philadelphia is the nearest major city (perhaps, too, Lancaster shared something with our protagonist’s rural home), and this proximity to my students’ “real life,” I hoped, would make the text more immediate – hardly a negligible advantage, given how daunting it can be to get students excited about the period. Other reasons for the story’s applicability had to do with the distinct aims of my course, which I had titled “Unsettling Early America” in order to foreground two issues that we, as a class, would take up. First: by the 1620s European diseases had so decimated America’s Native populations that the Pilgrims found themselves walking quite literally on the bones and skulls of the dead. How, then, did we come to identify the Pilgrims not with American catastrophe but with America’s founding? Second: as an adjective, “unsettling” has significant affective and literary dimensions, meaning that it can describe the feeling we get from something we read. What texts unsettle us, and why? “A Journey to Philadelphia,” concerning an Anglo-American man’s ill-favored move to the city, would not be obvious help to the former question. It would be, I anticipated, with the second, and I had accordingly positioned the text before Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly in our schedule of reading. From the localized benevolence we saw between the narrator and protagonist in “A Journey to Philadelphia,” we could move to explore how the concept expanded to “treat” race and culture in Brown’s novel.  

In execution, this plan did not do, because of a difficulty at once basic and profound: we could not adequately discuss benevolence, because we got stuck on matters of plot. Now, by this point in the semester my students had read “true relations,” sermons, poetry, captivity narratives, court records, slave narratives, and sentimental novels, finding their way with increasing confidence and skill through the stylistic as well as material difficulties that these genres present. A short story, I imagined, would be easy going. What I did not account for was that “A Journey to Philadelphia” would not be immediately recognizable to them as such. As it happened, where I found the story brief, they found it impacted, had difficulty following who was speaking when, which story was nested within which, how the serialization worked. This confusion meant that we had to do a fair bit of summary in class. Practically, this was mundane work; but pedagogically, it was revelatory, because it required me to appreciate the formal complexities that I was asking my students to tackle. Over twenty-eight pages, divided across five weekly installments, we learn of the events that doomed the prisoner, Saunders, whom we met at the story’s opening. These are an absolute tangle, involving a shadowy enemy, two mystery women, assassination attempts, apprenticeship to a watchmaker (who happens to be father to one of the women), Saunders’ trial and conviction for the other woman’s death, his moment on the gallows, a last-minute reprieve, and the surprise existence of a look-alike, which explains everything. 

These are not slight twists. They are, as I have said, imbrications that bear on how we read, for example, the relationship between Saunders and Carnell (Saunders’s enemy), or Saunders and Carson (Saunders’ double), or Carnell and Carson. My largest takeaway in teaching the short story, then, is a recognition that we are – that I am, in any event – more inadvertently apt to grant “formal complexity” to other of the genres we teach, and a reminder that, in contradistinction to that habit, a story such as “Adelio’s” may best be used to defamiliarize rather than to anticipate a genre. In the future, I will teach the novella after Brown. 

Onlookers, Rescuers, and a “Melancholy Witness”

Rachel Trocchio 
University of Minnesota 

Benevolence comes early in “A Journey to Philadelphia” – the first sentence has our narrator “resolved to address” and “offer such little services” as he can to an inmate of Philadelphia’s prison – and I was keen on using the story to introduce the topic to my pre-1800 survey. Essential features of the novella lent itself to the task, chiefly, its brevity and its content: minor but satisfying rebellions against parental authority, murder mystery, mistaken identity. The setting, too, was apropos. I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. Philadelphia is the nearest major city (perhaps, too, Lancaster shared something with our protagonist’s rural home), and this proximity to my students’ “real life,” I hoped, would make the text more immediate – hardly a negligible advantage, given how daunting it can be to get students excited about the period. Other reasons for the story’s applicability had to do with the distinct aims of my course, which I had titled “Unsettling Early America” in order to foreground two issues that we, as a class, would take up. First: by the 1620s European diseases had so decimated America’s Native populations that the Pilgrims found themselves walking quite literally on the bones and skulls of the dead. How, then, did we come to identify the Pilgrims not with American catastrophe but with America’s founding? Second: as an adjective, “unsettling” has significant affective and literary dimensions, meaning that it can describe the feeling we get from something we read. What texts unsettle us, and why? “A Journey to Philadelphia,” concerning an Anglo-American man’s ill-favored move to the city, would not be obvious help to the former question. It would be, I anticipated, with the second, and I had accordingly positioned the text before Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly in our schedule of reading. From the localized benevolence we saw between the narrator and protagonist in “A Journey to Philadelphia,” we could move to explore how the concept expanded to “treat” race and culture in Brown’s novel.  

In execution, this plan did not do, because of a difficulty at once basic and profound: we could not adequately discuss benevolence, because we got stuck on matters of plot. Now, by this point in the semester my students had read “true relations,” sermons, poetry, captivity narratives, court records, slave narratives, and sentimental novels, finding their way with increasing confidence and skill through the stylistic as well as material difficulties that these genres present. A short story, I imagined, would be easy going. What I did not account for was that “A Journey to Philadelphia” would not be immediately recognizable to them as such. As it happened, where I found the story brief, they found it impacted, had difficulty following who was speaking when, which story was nested within which, how the serialization worked. This confusion meant that we had to do a fair bit of summary in class. Practically, this was mundane work; but pedagogically, it was revelatory, because it required me to appreciate the formal complexities that I was asking my students to tackle. Over twenty-eight pages, divided across five weekly installments, we learn of the events that doomed the prisoner, Saunders, whom we met at the story’s opening. These are an absolute tangle, involving a shadowy enemy, two mystery women, assassination attempts, apprenticeship to a watchmaker (who happens to be father to one of the women), Saunders’ trial and conviction for the other woman’s death, his moment on the gallows, a last-minute reprieve, and the surprise existence of a look-alike, which explains everything. 

These are not slight twists. They are, as I have said, imbrications that bear on how we read, for example, the relationship between Saunders and Carnell (Saunders’s enemy), or Saunders and Carson (Saunders’ double), or Carnell and Carson. My largest takeaway in teaching the short story, then, is a recognition that we are – that I am, in any event – more inadvertently apt to grant “formal complexity” to other of the genres we teach, and a reminder that, in contradistinction to that habit, a story such as “Adelio’s” may best be used to defamiliarize rather than to anticipate a genre. In the future, I will teach the novella after Brown. 

Onlookers, Rescuers, and a “Melancholy Witness”

Lisa West 
Drake University 

I taught “A Journey to Philadelphia” in a lower-level English seminar, “Approaches to American Literature pre-1900,” that included majors and non-majors, first years to seniors.  Other texts included WielandThe PioneersThe Hidden Hand, and The House Behind the Cedars, and the overall focus was on community-building, family dynamics, and how fiction addresses social issues.  I found this short fiction extremely teachable and a fantastic companion to Wieland. Students enjoyed writing on it and many included it in their final writing project. Students were quick to note connections with Wieland, with many assuming the author had read the Brockden Brown novel and had it in mind.  They noted how arch villain Carnell seemed like Carwin (even in the sound of the name); they saw connections in the narrative frame (although they noted that “Journey” relied less on the device of a single narrator); they saw similar threats initiated by “strangers” or by the notion of mobility in general; and they noticed similar ways first person narrative accounts engaged in conjecture, white lies, and omission of the truth. They felt that both texts were invested in how a community controls its borders and enforces who is an insider or outsider. We had some generative discussion on the narrative frame.  They felt that the outermost frame, the writing by “Adelio,” made it seem less subjective than Wieland’s device of using Clara as both protagonist and controlling narrator.  While Wieland also includes multiple voices, they found the voices here less constrained by the overall narrative situation.  They also noted how this novella made institutions like prison or court more palpable presences than in the Brockden Brown novel; reading both texts made them notice the domestic, insular focus of the novel even more.  

After an initial discussion about connections to Wieland and the narrative frame, I offered several prompts for students for a 15-minute in-class writing exercise, and they were most interested in three: whether “reason” was promoted as the ultimate value in the text; the role of onlookers or bystanders; and the issues surrounding spouse abuse, mental health, and suicide. One student articulated that Saunders does NOT act reasonably by running away, hiding his identity, and not mentioning the suicide he thinks he witnesses, and that acting more “reasonably” in these areas might have changed his fate.  Another noted that while “reason” was valued, the text engages with issues such as abuse, depression, or uncertainty that cannot be effectively addressed by reason alone.  For the onlookers prompt, students engaged in lively discussion about today’s moral lessons – tattling doesn’t solve issues; be an active bystander – and the way the text handles the multiple instances of eavesdropping, watching, and spectating. One student claimed that the text values ACTIVE intervention.  When Saunders rescues the “struggling female” (6) from kidnapping, he physically prevents harm and is rewarded, first by an apprenticeship and then by marriage.  However, less direct forms of intervention are not so well rewarded. The fishing witnesses basically “tattle” to the state when they report what they saw.  Removed and after-the-fact, their reporting could not save the woman but could only seek retribution and state, not individual, remedy. Another student commented that the act of eavesdropping drives the plot – there would be no story if Saunders had not witnessed Susan Warfield jumping off the cliff or if the fishermen had not witnessed his presence at her fall. Even the outermost narrative frame relies on Adelio listening and bearing witness to a prisoner.  Students contrasted the centrality of these moments of witness with actual events themselves: Saunders’ journey to the city, some of the creepy actions of Carnell, etc.  In other words, what we think of as action, plot, gets subordinated, most students believed, to watching, retelling, thinking about what one should do with what one has seen.  

Perhaps the most vehement responses from the class related to issues of gender and agency.  One student remarked how at first she was impressed that the society in the text valued an unknown woman enough to prosecute her death rather than deem her expendable, but, as she read further, she felt the society failed to demonstrate a more lasting interest in Susan, for her mental health, likely abusive marriage, etc. were not deemed socially significant in and of themselves. Some students felt women had a voice because it is the account of Susan that solves most of the issues, and it is her presence that saves Saunders from death., i.e. she is able to save him whereas he was not able to save her. Yet the story values her only for her role in staying the execution.  Readers wanted to learn what would happen to her: would her husband make good on his threat to kill her? What would happen to her for her role in the novella’s events? 

Students overall found Saunders “believable” and did not want to question the outermost frames of the story.  They were interested in how different perspectives entered the narrative and how what seemed reasonable to one character might seem very different to someone else.  They were deeply invested in the role of social forces and institutions, especially the law.  I will teach this novella again with Wieland. I feel that it is short enough but complex enough to be a good midterm or independent assignment.  Students were really excited to apply what they learned in reading the Brockden Brown novel to this text, and I feel it was effective largely because the students could figure out how to approach it without my coaching.  I do think that without the experience of reading a text like Wieland, they would not have had such a foundation from which to consider the multiple perspectives, misunderstandings, deceptions, and narrative uncertainty that make this novella such a fascinating read.  

Reading for plot holes?

Siân Silyn Roberts 
Queens College 

In my upper division undergraduate courses on early American literature, it’s usually the case that I have to spend a proportionately high amount of time making the material accessible and comprehensible to my students, before we can even broach the task of analysis.  Even the most enticing texts (Ben Franklin, Poe) are often encountered as alienating and difficult to parse.  I think this is one of the reasons why I enjoyed teaching A Journey to Philadelphia so much, and why my students seemed to enjoy it more than anything else we read this semester.  It was the first text where they felt fully authorized to inhabit and own their confusion.  Once they twigged to the fact that their confusion was not the result of their own incomprehension, but a constitutive part of the text, they relaxed into this tale more than any other reading this semester.  It was hugely successful.  I’ve taught a lot of the JTO texts, and this is by far and away my favorite so far, and not simply because it’s one of the first examples of early American fan fiction.  Its playfulness, intertextual self-awareness, and critical sophistication made it an especially fun addition to our readings.   It’s earned a permanent place on my syllabi (the only thing I would change was its placement: we read it before Edgar Huntly, because it happened to fit into the syllabus that way; in future, I would definitely place it after we had read any CBB).   

I decided to make a game out of the tale’s indecipherability.  Accordingly, maintaining the pretense that the story was going to be submitted to realist rules of comprehension, I asked them to identify places in the text that felt “familiar,” insofar as it deployed some conventional rhetorics (sympathy, sensibility, the sublime, etc.) that they had already encountered this semester.   We talked about the tale’s focus on excessive interiority (anticipating Edgar Huntly), and the idea of a philosophically aware text.   

I then gently asked if anyone had spotted any plot holes?  Usually my students are reticent about answering a question like this (I think because they worry that they risk exposing some lapse in their reading attentiveness), but a few students broke the ice.  Once I started agreeing with them, other students felt authorized to join in, and suddenly it all came tumbling out: why was Emelia abducted by Carnell, and what was she doing in the middle of the country when her father lives in the city? Who the heck was Carnell anyway?  Why did Susan try to kill herself?  What was in that letter?  Who was the young man in the inn who threatened to kill her?  Was he the lover that was mentioned?  In that case, who was her husband?  In short, whaaaat?  By the end of our reckoning, it felt like a happy riot in the classroom, as they realized that they had been taken for a ride.  I even showed them parts of an email exchange between me and Duncan, as we tried to figure out the stakes of such incomprehensibility.

I’ll be very interested to hear how others tackled this aspect of the story.  For my own purposes, I took it as an opportunity to introduce the metonymic maneuver Armstrong and Tennenhouse identify in their most recent book Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example (UPenn 2018) as anamorphosis.  This term, taken from art history, situates early American readers in “a polycentric world” (163), challenging the concept of a dominant authoritative center.  As Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain it, anamorphosis helps explain the formal peculiarities (gaps, ellipses, repetition, episodes, redundancies, etc.) characteristic of much early American novelistic writing, and which JtP’s author seems at pains to place center stage.  As Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain it, what may seem unintelligible (and this holds true for a castle in Connecticut in Mitchell’s The Asylum, say, or Clithero’s mysterious visitant in chapter 3 of Edgar Huntly) is actually recast as deliberately disorienting, constitutively unresolvable information that fosters a peculiarly American form of dialectical thinking.  What early critics of American fictional writing dismissed as evidence of authorial inferiority is actually a formal politics: “as antagonistic to the very idea of “form” as such a narrative process may seem, the metonymic method in this fecklessness resulted in a form of novel …[that] invariably conjoined incompatible perspectives of the same event to make a composite reality” (163).  That is, anamorphosis engages (and often negates) the idea of a dominant perspective by making a viewer or reader take contorted positions (often literally) to see something accurately.  The mental contortions the author makes us do at the end of JtP is much the same, insofar as he/she seems to be constructing a composite reality, where no single perspective seems to predominate.  In other words, I argued that the story takes issue with the realist principle that multiple perspectives can be reconciled around a single, monolithic “truth.”   This certainly seemed to be the principle on display in the trial scene, and the fact that the title of a “memoir” is at odds with the three different narrators (this also hints at the problem of dominant perspectives, and the impossibility of a single authoritative narrative).  The eccentricity of the text, writ large at the story’s end, actually invites a kind of democratic mode of reading that creates a polycentric world, predicated on unknowability, where no single view can incorporate or explain all the information available to us.   

We arrived at these ideas by first watching a video that demonstrated the principle of anamorphosis (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhuUhaNIWLQ), and then I gave them a copy of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.  We talked about its famous skewed skull, and the visual puzzle such distorted information creates and the viewing contortions it invites.  I then asked them to bring this principle to bear on Journey to Philadelphia, by suggesting that its indecipherable details likewise invite a shift in perspective that require mental contortions by the reader.  In this way, we thought about “confusion” as a democratic principle, which turned out to be a really fun way of wrapping this story up.  Will teach again! 

Teaching A Journey to Philadelphia: or, Memoirs of Charles Coleman Saunders

Dan Walden
Baylor University

I taught this novella as the last text of an advanced undergraduate seminar on American literature of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the 1804 publication fell a little outside the bounds of the rest of our readings, it worked well as a capstone to our semester-long discussion about the nature of providence on the American psyche as well as depictions and power dynamics of gender in the public sphere. And while the earlier chronology of our class meant that we did not read a Charles Brockden Brown novel—the influence of which on A Journey to Philadelphia is palpable—I think this was actually beneficial because it allowed the class to discuss the novella on its own merits rather than through its resemblance to Brown’s works.

The texts that led the class into this novella focused on gender’s relationship to domesticity and politics at the end of the 18th century—Abigail Adams’ “Remember the Ladies” letter and John’s reply, Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” and selections from both Charlotte Temple and The Coquette—and so the students expectedly keyed in on the gender dynamics in the novella. But what was unexpected was the way in which my students intensely responded to the novella’s opening conflict. Baylor has had recent and very public issues with sexual assault and my students found a clear analogue in the scene where Saunders saves Emilia from being attacked at night by Carnell. My students found this scene highly problematic, both in light of the recent Baylor scandals and the general cultural failings surrounding sexual assault that have been highlighted by the Me Too movement. There were two particular details that my students discussed at length: the first was the objectification of the assault victim by her erstwhile protector who says, “the momentary view I had of her features awakened sensations of a new and unaccountable kind; the first wish they produced was, a desire to behold again, the object which had excited them.” My students were very troubled by the implication that in the process of preventing an attack, Saunders was immediately attracted to the woman in danger, and one student even noted that he specifically refers to her as an “object” in the passage. The second detail occurs immediately after the first: when Saunders prevents the attack and Carnell begins to flee, Saunders claims, “I had no right to detain him, I had accomplished my object; but now a new one accompanied my attention; I hastened to search after the female.” My students were very sensitive to the fact that Saunders, while considering himself a “hero” for saving Emilia, feels no need to detain Carnell for the attack. In fact, the claim that Saunders felt he had “no right to detain” Carnell had clear connections to contemporary understandings of rape culture and the blind eye turned towards men who commit crimes against women. Students found parallels between this passage and events like the Brock Turner sexual assault case, where the young white man was found guilty of sexual assault but given a lenient sentence.

While this scene—combined with the fact that Saunders does eventually become Emilia’s suitor—engendered the most discussion, it made the students sensitive to other examples of the power dynamics of gender throughout the text, such as Saunders’ questionable decision not to track down the friends of the woman he assumed had committed suicide and the subversion of the male-savior trope that occurs when Susan Warfield returns just in time to stay Saunders’ execution for her murder. Additionally, students were interested in Saunders’ motivation for fame and the connection to contemporary social media culture, but the dynamics of power and sexual assault were far and away the most engrossing topics for discussion.

I was impressed at how well my students dug into this text and connected it to contemporary topics. It was definitely not a light text to end the semester on, but it was a worthwhile one, and I will be interested to see if using A Journey to Philadelphia in other courses and paired with other texts, yields similar results. I’m most interested to see how reading this in conjunction with Brown’s novels—particularly Wieland—changes or enhances the discussion.

Questions of Canonicity in the Classroom

Zach Hutchins
Colorado State University

Although the fifteen masters-level students who read both Wieland and A Journey to Philadelphia with me in a survey of American literature (from beginnings to the present day) were too polite to say so explicitly, I think that most of them believed the time we spent on this anonymously-authored novella would have been better allocated to another, more famous text. But their objections to the text sparked a lively discussion about what we choose to read and how we decide whether or not specific texts merit the attention of scholars and students, a discussion which—from my perspective—more than justified our collective investment in A Journey to Philadelphia.

Survey courses necessarily foreground questions of canonicity: Which texts helped shape the zeitgeist of a given place and epoch? Which are representative of a culture’s dominant sensibilities? Which enable students to see the breadth and diversity of its constituents’ views? But because there are so many famous and aesthetically rewarding and critically engaging texts that we might argue students need to read, debates about what to include on a given syllabus often begin with the assumption that we must choose between two authors of significant renown, between Jonathan Edwards and Samson Occom; Phillis Wheatley and Philip Freneau; Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson; or James Fenimore Cooper and Lydia Maria Child. We may even acknowledge, in class, the opportunity costs of including a specific text—the book that we almost taught in its place. However, in my experience we rarely speak with students about the vast body of texts that we never even considered for inclusion on a syllabus: the enormous archive of rarely-read works that projects like Just Teach One aim to make accessible.

During the class session we devoted to A Journey in Philadelphia, I gave students a sense of just how many texts we weren’t reading by bringing in physical copies of all three volumes of Lyle Wright’s bibliography of American fiction published between 1774 and 1900. Flipping through these tomes gave students a better sense of just how much material the survey winnows out of their consciousness, re-positioning A Journey to Philadelphia as a representative of the massive amounts of material we have largely excluded from the literature classroom and the canon. Framing the novella in this way prompted students to ask whether the text was meant to be literary in the first place. Although it reads like an ode to Brockden Brown’s novels, the author clearly thought of this piece as something more than his or her tribute to a popular contemporary. As evidence of the unknown author’s ambitions, I pointed students to the scene in which Charles Coleman Saunders seats himself in a moonlit glen to ponder the beauties of Homer’s “celebrated night-piece,” describing the moon in the language of Alexander Pope’s Iliad (8).

“What,” I asked, “is Homer doing in the middle of this story? Why bother alluding to classical literature in a text whose plot and whose protagonist seem so massively underdeveloped?” As students wrestled with the insertion of these lines, I noted a second passage on the same page, in which A Journey to Philadelphia seems to re-work Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet:

I saw a young woman at no great distance from me, in her hand she held an open letter; her movements were wild and irregular, she would look on the letter, and then on heaven. . . . Suddenly she exclaimed, I can bear this torture no longer, and rushed toward the river; I started from my seat, and flew to prevent her; I seized her but she eluded my grasp, shrieked, and leaped into the water! . . . in a moment of despair and insanity she had put an end to her existence. (8)

This succession of allusions was, initially, disorienting for my students, but they eventually drew several conclusions about our novella and the larger questions of canonicity that I had introduced at the beginning of our discussion.

First, the presence of Pope and Shakespeare in what modern readers might characterize as Brockden Brown fan fiction drove home to students the ubiquity of belles lettres in the early republic. They observed that the passage from Pope and the tribute to Shakespeare might have functioned as a sort of shorthand for readers—most of whom would have known the Iliad and Hamlet intimately. For such readers, who know that Hector’s reveling beneath the moon is but a prelude to his tragic death, the lines from Pope actually fill in the plot of A Journey to Philadelphia, which might seem underdeveloped to modern eyes. Saunders, looking up at the moon like Hector, is clearly en route to his downfall. Similarly, the appearance of an Ophelia figure might have encouraged readers to think of this narrative drama as a commentary on the rotten state of early American jurisprudence, rendering the personal political. In this way, canonical texts—Hamlet and the Iliad—provide a thick cultural context within which the novella is embedded, allowing readers to render a hastily sketched plot in three dimensions.

Second, they noted that this conflation of Homer, Shakespeare, and Brockden Brown worked at some level to establish a new canon, in which American authors took their place alongside the icons of classical and British literature. Recalling our earlier study of Wieland, they noted that the incorporation of Homer within A Journey to Philadelphia builds upon its predecessor’s strategy of linking American institutions and fictions to classical precedents. Similarly, Saunders’s entry into Philadelphia, which recalls the iconic arrival of Benjamin Franklin in that city, works to establish this stereotyped character, like Ophelia, as an archetype.

Students reported a new and enlarged understanding of Wieland after reading A Journey to Philadelphia, but none of them was willing to make the case for its inclusion on future syllabi, much less in some larger canon of American literature. Yet all agreed that reading the novella gave them a better understanding of Wieland’s case for canonization; if nothing else, straying from the beaten path gave them a sense of how and why that path came to be established, along with what they might find if they should ever venture off it, into the wilds of Wright’s bibliographies, on their own.

The Archival Terror in A Journey to Philadelphia

Steffi Dippold
Kansas State University

“The time may come,” conjures the strange and beguiling narrator of the long-forgotten A Journey to Philadelphia; or, Memoirs of Charles Coleman Saunders, “when what is now hidden from human eyes will be disclosed—and then, my friend, when the grave shall hide me from the world, you, I trust, will do justice to my memoire.” A Journey was published in 1904 under the pseudonym “Adelio” but characteristic echoes of Charles Brocken Brown mark every turn of a sentence. And as so often with Brockden Brown, Coleman Saunders’ lugubrious and bumpy account is filled with faltering attempts to rationalize what happened in the haunted countryside of his sequestered upbringing. The gothic short story comes with awful weather, a potentially murderous nemesis, and a mysterious damsel in distress. Wrongful imprisonment, ruminations about death and doom, and manipulative carryings-on abound, inspiring students in my graduate “The Art of the Archive” class this spring to devour the nail-biter (barely over 60 pages) with delicious abandon. The ominous A Journey was a truly enthralling read in part because it offered a much needed respite from a series of theoretical interrogations about the construction of our repositories and their biases and silences (reaching from Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library” and Sigmund Freud’s “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad” to excerpts from Jacques Derrida’s, Archive Fever, Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire, and Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain).

The at first seemingly unrelated shift from complex archival theory to sensational gothic worked extremely well. Framed within Common-Place’s “Just Teach One” rubric, promoting the recovery of neglected and forgotten texts, A Journey prompted students to question the logic and limits of our literary and academic canons. In which ways, that is, do our reading expectations, teaching requirements, and professional anthologies promote a meager, highly selective archive of textual standards and weed out the luscious, feral overgrowth of alternative narratives? In addition to exemplifying abstract ideas in concrete textual form, A Journey provided weirdly wonderful pleasures and opened up its own dark archival queries. After all, the spine-tingler is very much a story about contested knowledge, biased records, and control over the documented past. Ambiguities multiply not only because the uncanny text celebrates uncertainties due to Coleman Saunders’ own tenuous grip on the puzzle pieces of the plot. But in addition to the insomniac memoirist we also have an unreliable frame narrator, of murky origins and prone to unexplained absences, who eerily mirrors our efforts to understand where things started to run afoul in Coleman Saunders’ life. Whom should we trust in this unnerving double-act of twisted exegesis and blinkered recovery that merely render past events ever more elusive?

Pairing A Journey with archival theory and not with the expected repertoire of the uncanny and the terrors that lurk in the human psyche felt both liberating and productive. Rather we approached the compact short story as a rich evidentiary and hermeneutic conundrum that challenged students to think beyond the supernatural surface about structural organization and the careful parading (and withholding) of information. Much of our class discussions, then, traced the various recording systems folded into A Journey like gothic matryoshkas. Formally a jumble of unreliable texts, a manuscript memoir, eye-witness accounts, gossip, and a final time-leaping self disclosure nestle here within a larger equally unstable frame. Who authored which fragment and why? Can any firm grounding be recovered from such layering of slanted records? And should we even desire an antidote to the malaise that has infected storytelling here? Or, as my students suggested, is uncertainty the ultimate unspoken terror and point of this self-reflective archival noir? Prophetically A Journey warns us that truth has come down to an enticingly absent presence. Remember Coleman Saunders’ glum vision stresses that the reader must “do justice to my memoire” even though “the grave shall hide me from the world.”

Just Teach Place: Philadelphia Writers and Writing in 19th-century America

Lisa M. Vetere, Associate Professor
Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ

I taught this semester’s selection in a graduate course with the very general title of “Nineteenth Century American Literature.” Given such a broad title, as well as my reluctance to use canonicity as the course’s organizing principle, I usually chose to shape such courses around a specific inquiry topic. Fortunately, it turned out that this semester’s “Just Teach One” selection, “A Journey To Philadelphia: Or, Memoirs Of Charles Coleman Saunders. An Original Tale,” provided my course with a theme. It recalled to me my desire to teach George Lippard’s Quaker City once again to Monmouth’s graduate students. Thinking of these two texts together, I of course stumbled upon the theme of the writers and writings of nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Using theories of place and space in literature to spark our discussions, we explored a series of works both canonical and “classic”: some familiar texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Harriet Jacobs; some increasingly studied writers such as Leonora Sansay, Richard Allen, Frank Webb, and Rebecca Rush; and some rarely read (maybe deservedly so) narratives such as Mary Clark’s 1838 criminal confession, The Memoirs of the Celebrated and Beautiful Mrs. Ann Carson. We ended the course with a day trip to Philadelphia to experience the place for ourselves through the new lens of literary history.

On our very first day of class, I assigned “Journey to Philadelphia” and paired it with a documentary on the city’s history. First we spent fifteen minutes on an in-class writing about the ways in which the culture, history, and environment of the “first city” shaped our understanding of this piece of nineteenth-century periodical fiction. As a class, we came up with a number of fascinating ideas. Our discussion began with our collective confusion about the plot. We spent a good deal of time just trying to figure out some of the basics: who was this villain Carnell and why was he persecuting Charles Coleman Saunders? Why was Carnell harassing Emelia along the banks of the Susquehanna? How did that relate to the attempted suicide of Susan Warfield, who was alleged to be married to someone with the eerily familiar name of Carson? All this effort to distinguish one character from another provoked a discussion of doubles. As I asked them to think about Philadelphia’s role in the “assemblage” of a literary text, we started to examine the “affect” created by the literary device of the double. Someone in the class linked this confusion with the disorientation and anonymity felt in cities, especially when visiting for the first time. Then we talked about the “sensorium” of urban spaces in general, and with Philadelphia’s in particular. We talked about the relationship between country and city more generally, but the documentary brought to our minds William Penn’s plan to make Philadelphia “a greene country towne,” where urban and rural could be more seamlessly—and healthfully—integrated. This led us to consider the role of “nature” in the text, especially its rivers and precipices, as enabling the violence and crime of the novel. Another student drew parallels between “Journey to Philadelphia” and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Like Ben Franklin, Charles Coleman Saunders had an ambition to achieve more than his father, and both characters used the city of Philly to facilitate that social mobility. There is also the last name “Saunders,” which of course brings to mind Franklin’s “Poor Richard.”

All throughout the semester, we identified the formative value of place—for architecture, ecology, psychology, law, politics, behavior both human and non-human, and therefore with writing and literature. Philadelphia’s geographical location at the crossroads between north and south fueled many a productive conversation about many a nineteenth-century American text.

I am very grateful to have participated in the “Just Teach One” program. On the evening of that first class meeting, our discussion was lively, thought-provoking, and creative. We talked nearly non-stop for three hours, with every student in the class participating. “Journey to Philadelphia” provides an accessibility in both content and form that worked as an effective and affecting introduction to the course topic. Not only would I use the text again; I’m considering writing about it myself. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, Duncan Faherty, and Ed White for creating, supporting, and running a program that provided me (and my students) with such a memorable semester.

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