Commonplace


Just Teach One

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 1804 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 16 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.

Teaching Ira and Isabella: or, The Natural Children. A Novel, Founded in Fiction

Gretchen J. Woertendyke
University of South Carolina

 

I structured my Critical Methods and Literary Theory doctoral seminar this fall around “secrecy” – a concept I have been considering for long enough, now, that I was eager to have fresh eyes and different energy focused on its expansive reach. Our working definition of the term was capacious, ranging from the abstract (secrecy as communicative networks surrounding cultural crises, negative space, practices of concealment and revelation), to the historical (secrecy societies, the underground railroad), to the literary (secret histories, the way fiction reveals itself to readers), and finally, to investigations into the ways secrecy informs race, sexuality, and nation. In our focus on fictionality and form, and especially how “secrecy” seduces readers through various narrative guises, Brown’s novel founded in fiction produced insights that resonated throughout the semester.

Brown’s strange fragmentary narrative, rhetorically blunt about sexuality and love, but prefaced by satire, undermined the tone and purpose of the preceding works we read in surprising ways. Ira and Isabella concluded a sequence of “fictions” that began with Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and was followed by Foster’s The Coquette. Poe’s wonderfully self-conscious Preface initiated our conversation about fictionality, truth, the marvellous, fables, romance, and the exposé, to say nothing of the “novel”. [sic] It was not until we read Brown’s Preface of Ira and Isabella, however, that students noted the lack of irony, and grave tone, of Poe’s Preface, in which he destabilizes meaning similar to the way the white shroud envelopes Peters and Pym at the novel’s conclusion. In contrast, Brown’s Preface reads much more transparently as satire, a hilarious ribbing of writers, styles, readers, and critics. The quantification of the literary and arbitrary metrics seems a scathing view of armchair (and professional) critics. But we decided collectively that our favorite lines are the following: “There is one truth concerning novels,” Brown’s Preface claims, “which in our time is pretty well established; none I presume will controvert the authenticity of my remark, that the foundation of these elegant fabricks is laid on the passion of love. I except the wonderful history of Robinson Crusoe.” [sic]

After drawing parallels between the Brown’s playful comments concerning truth and authenticity in his novel founded in fiction and Defoe’s history, I asked students to consider what he meant by fiction’s roots in love. This line of inquiry produced two strands of discussion: the first made comparisons between the middle place of love, as that which is and is always becoming, and fiction that represents possible worlds not yet existing but requiring conjectural thinking. And the second notes the departure from Foster’s seduction novel, as frankly embracing female sexuality rather than hiding, silencing, and ultimately condemning it.  Ira, in fact, loves Isabella precisely because of her openness and allure; Eliza’s coquettishness is preyed upon by Sanford, is subject of policing by her female relations, and the reason for her secret death. Students were struck by Isabella’s dynamism and mobility compared to Eliza’s stasis; but equally struck by the disjuncture between Brown’s Preface, which seems to announce his ridicule of melodrama and romance – and the very romance, melodrama of the novel proper. This contradiction imitates the internal conflicts seen clearly in debates of fiction – history, and novel – romance, those staged by Poe, Foster, and Brown in distinctive ways. Brown’s narrative might best be understood as a comedy, a social world of chaos and resolution, and a departure from Poe’s tale of terror and Foster’s seduction novel. Reading Ira and Isabella brought out the conventions of the former texts brilliantly, highlighting the various paths taken by early writers in the United States playing with European literary forms. Brown’s text works extremely well to suggest the foundational preoccupations of the period especially for graduate students already invested in understanding the way literature works across various interdependent scales of meaning.  As a class, we concluded that Brown’s opening claim of the Preface clarified its disjuncture with the novel: “I would freely give any sophist the best of my two hats to satisfy my mind in one thing.” So speaketh the Prophet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Observations on Ira and Isabella: Or the Natural Children, A Novel (1808), by William Hill Brown

Patrick Erben
University of West Georgia

I taught the novella as part of an upper-level early American literature course that focused thematically on a variety of fears and pathologies in early American life and letters, from white vilifications of indigeneity to xenophobia to the fear of powerful women (and their depiction as either monstrous or fallen). The larger unit, entitled “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” in which I embedded the reading and discussion of Ira and Isabella, spanned topics and texts such as Anne Hutchinson’s court proceedings and Winthrop’s journal entries about her, the Salem witchcraft trials, Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Benjamin Rush’s “Thoughts Upon Female Education,” and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Thus, by the time we read I&I, students were already initiated into many of the standard tropes of and warnings against seduction, rakes, fallen and monstrous women, innocence destroyed, and so forth. However, students did not expect and in many ways missed, at first, the often farcical and ironic ways in which the novella handles these issues. Everything we had read so far, especially The Coquette, though constructing a multi-vocal discourse, nevertheless functioned in a straightforward mode. After a good bit of discussion and reading out loud some passages for tone, the class realized that perhaps Brown’s approach was more akin to a “Borowitz Report” article than the emphatic rhetoric of The Coquette, which, though potentially dislodging normalizing scripts, may still be read as a well-meaning word to the wise.

Pedagogically, therefore, the “failure of expectations” resulting from reading and discussing I&I actually worked well. Students’ appreciation began with noticing the self-consciously cheeky title page by-line “Founded in Fiction.” They also rather quickly recognized and analyzed the novella’s play with types such as Lorenzo and Florio as the worldly friends leading the upright (or uptight) Ira into discovering his “natural” desires; the matronly nurse who merely replicates the gender scripts of the absentee patriarchal overlord, Dr. Joseph, and Mr. Savage as a somehow always happy-go-lucky philanderer. The students also noted the subverted script of female desire punished as refreshingly different.

The appreciation students gained for Brown’s spin on standard tropes of early national fiction, however, remained more on a cognitive level; to put it differently, no one really ended up loving the piece. For one, students noted (and I think they’re right), the brilliant craft of Hannah Webster Foster’s Coquette makes I&I appear as a flippant experiment. Beyond this aesthetic objection, students couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the motives of the many speeches and plot twists that drive the up-side-down seduction story. More bluntly put, for some students Brown’s novella was not the sophisticated critique of the seduction novel and its often reactionary gender politics they would have hoped for. Rather, they felt that passages like Mr. Savage justifying his seduction of Lucinda by claiming that the agency was all hers (“It was vain to remonstrate, for I, like all gentlemen in my honourable situation, had accustomed myself to comply with all the whims of my mistress.”) or Isabella arguing in favor of following one’s desire (“Why then abandon our inclinations prompted by reason and nature, to follow the footsteps of what caprice and ignorance may call duty?”) felt more like wishful projections of a patriarchal subjectivity. What better way to avert the judging eye of a virtuous society than assigning the driving force of illegitimate sexual desire to a woman and joining the results of illicit sex (Ira and Isabella) into a happy marital union? What did not sit well with the class— attuned to the voices empowered by the #MeToo Movement—was that Brown countered the moralizing, finger-wagging, and victimization of the mainstream early national gender scripts with a fantasy casting men as the pseudo-targets of female sexual desire in a scenario that self-servingly vindicates male sexual gratification and grants moral absolution.

On a very different level, the text’s embeddedness in the JTO website and exemplification of the benefits of textual recovery was probably the biggest pay-off in teaching it. My class’s two substantial assignments centered on archival research: a multimodal project documenting their recovery of an archival text and a research paper foregrounding the ways in which archival recoveries can help reframe standard narratives in American literary history and criticism. I gave the students I&I to read without explaining up front that it was part of the JTO project, only to reveal afterwards what it is. I then discussed with them the larger JTO website and used Duncan and Ed’s exemplary framing as an example for the productive possibilities of recovery work. In this context, they cared less whether I&I should hold a place in the canon/curriculum of early American literature but were intrigued by the depth and breadth of knowledge about early American generic and cultural ideas accessible through archival research and recovery. Ultimately, including I&I in the course helped students to feel more empowered as critics and as researchers.

 

 

Making Sense of Ira and Isabella’s Generic Confusions

Jon Blandford
Bellarmine University

For the last several years, I’ve incorporated a Just Teach One text into the Early American  survey course I teach in the fall.  Rather than simply add another reading to an already overstuffed calendar, I use the Just Teach One selection as an instrument with which to prompt students to interrogate the limits and the logic of the survey course itself.  More specifically, I assign a semester-length project in which I ask students to make a case for what the Just Teach One text contributes to our understanding of the literature and culture of the period that we might not see in the more canonical material we cover in the course.  Why would we want to read a text like Ira and Isabella in the first place, and what can recovering a seldom-read novel from more than two centuries ago teach us about not only how and why literary historians assign meaning and value to different texts, but also how our definitions of meaning and value shift over time?

Much of the conversation about the Just Teach One text takes place online in posts that my students author for our course blog.  In these posts, students raise questions about the text, make interpretive claims, and respond to each other’s insights and perspectives.  Toward the end of the semester, they pull everything together in a more formal paper that incorporates both their own close reading of the text and material from the blog, and then, on the day they hand in that paper, we devote the entire class period to discussing the novel and what they learned from the project more generally.  The one major change I made to this assignment for last fall was to ask students to use one of their four blog posts to research and introduce a potentially relevant historical context.  In the past, students have really only brought in contexts that we had otherwise discussed in class, and, given that part of the point of this project is to give students a chance to be the experts, I wanted to address this deficiency without doing the work for them.

A number of students took up the charge to research relevant historical contexts by looking in particular at gender and sexuality in the late eighteenth century.  These students found that both gender norms and attitudes about sexuality were somewhat more fluid in the late eighteenth century than they had assumed, a useful context within which to examine the novel’s two titular characters.  Thus we have Isabella, whom one commenter on the blog deemed a “more feminist Juliet,” both rejecting the traditional authority Doctor Joseph represents and playing the role of “fair teacher” (24) to Ira, who looks to her for guidance. Several students also noted how Lorenzo and Florio act as foils to Ira, embodying ideas about what it means to be a man that, by contrast with Ira’s virtuous devotion to Isabella, the novel casts in a negative light.  One of these students argued that Ira and Isabella is perhaps more relevant today because of its implicit critique of what, in our current cultural vocabulary, we might call “toxic masculinity.”  And yet, as others observed, Ira and Isabella doesn’t neatly conform to our twenty-first century expectations about gender either.  While we see Ira venturing out into the world, Isabella, for all her “independent spirit” (14), remains relatively isolated, her only interactions (other than with Ira) coming in the form of dialogues with a surrogate mother-figure (the nurse) and a long-absent father (Doctor Joseph).  Similarly, although it may be refreshing to see Lucinda (unlike, say, Charlotte Temple) go unpunished for acting on her sexual desires, it is perhaps less satisfying from our present-day vantage point that Doctor Joseph and Mr. Savage, two powerful men who because of that power are are able to cover up their bad behavior, face no consequences for their actions (This is to say nothing of Mrs. Savage, who is described early on as “someone whose intrinsic merit rendered her worthy of the elevated and important sphere in which she moved” [9], and then for all intents and purposes disappears by the end of the novel).

To me, just as interesting as our conversation about the extent which refused to meet our expectations about gender categories was another conversation that emerged on the blog about how difficult it is to fit this novel into a tidy generic category.  Much like norms related to gender and sexuality had yet to calcify in the eighteenth century into the more rigid identities legible in later texts, so too, my students discovered, had the early novel yet to take on its more recognizable later form.  Hence the messy multiplicity of Ira and Isabella, a novel that, among other things, adapts tropes and conventions from comedy, tragedy, and didactic fiction without being reducible to any one of these genres.  It is a text, as one student put it, that seems like it is “trying [. . .] desperately to be both new and traditional at the same time.”  Noting its similarities both to Romeo and Juliet and to Oedipus Rex, if Ira and Isabella is a tragedy, my students and I asked, then whose tragedy is it?  Neither Ira nor Isabella are tragic figures in the sense that their character flaws and actions precipitate the bad things that (in their case, almost) happen to them, and neither Doctor Joseph nor Mr. Savage seem to express any remorse for their choices and the effects those choices have on others.  Along similar lines, although the novel occasionally ventures into didactic territory, any larger lessons are murky at best, as is any interpretation of it as a political allegory.  Ira and Isabella’s youthful self-determination almost gets them into an incestuous relationship, and although that conflict is resolved, it is resolved through a deus ex machina, rendering their autonomy and agency beside the point and calling into question whether the young nation they represent can be trusted to choose its own logics of affiliation.  Lastly, while it is tempting to read Ira and Isabella as following the lead of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by flirting with tragedy before finding its way to a comic resolution—complete with marriage and the promise of future happiness—Brown’s novel is, unlike Midsummer, notably unfunny, its objects of ridicule or satire (to the extent that there are any) unclear.

Ultimately, we decided as a class that Ira and Isabella is interesting not in spite of these apparent failures, but precisely because of them.   It offers a rich example of an author experimenting with the possibilities of fiction, trying out ideas while also bringing in established elements and plot devices that might make the novelty of the form more palatable to readers.  It helps us see how the novel as a genre, like early America itself, was still very much in the process of trying to define its identity and parameters, cobbling together disparate parts into a whole both recognizable and radically new.

 

 

 

Ira & Isabella and the Problem of Incest

Helen Hunt
Tennessee Tech University

I taught Ira and Isabella as part of a core class for majors in early American literature. I usually teach Charlotte Temple, which I love to teach for it interrogation of consent and display of sentimental masculinity. However, this semester I decided to replace the two classes I spend on Charlotte Temple with Ira and Isabella. I thought that Ira and Isabella’s critique of the seduction narrative would work best when students read an example of just such a text, and since I didn’t have time to teach both Charlotte Temple and Ira and Isabella, I decided to pair the later with another Just Teach one offering: Amelia, or the Faithless Briton.

I started with Amelia, or the Faithless Briton and quickly discovered that what I found impressive about the text—Amelia’s determination to bring her wayward husband to account and her bravery to pursue him across the Atlantic alone—fell flat with my students. Unacquainted as they were with the common plot of the seduction narrative in which Amelia would have been consumed by shame far earlier and died before doing any of those things I appreciated, they found her story dramatically unjust, and they refused to see it as any sort of representation of women’s agency.

They appreciated the happy ending of Ira and Isabella far more. There were a number of things that cultivated their goodwill in this text. They approved of the way the text embraced Isabella’s more relaxed approach to love and were satisfied by Lucinda’s frank sexual desire (and refusal to die). They laughed at Ira’s notions of false delicacy, picking up on how the story gently ribbed his skepticism of his own erotic desire. They laughed with Florio, noticing how, though he appeared foolish, he also managed to highlight the absurdity of Ira’s sentimental ideals.

We couldn’t escape the text’s treatment of incest, which turned out to be the most important part of our entire discussion. We talked about the prevalence of incest as a theme in early American fiction, and how it could indicate fear that the process of sentimentalism, founded in attraction to likeness, is fundamentally perverse, or the disconcerting loss of traditional markers of identity in the new republic in which anyone could be appear to be anyone at any time (and a man may smile and smile and still be a villain). In this sense, the way the story seems to cheerfully lay aside the threat of incest seems to suggest that these fears should not be taken too seriously.

However, what my class really embraced was how the story’s apparent dismissal of the threat of incest was, itself, a sham. Ira and Isabella may not be related by blood, but their likeness remains. Not only were they raised together by the same nurse, but they are so similar that “some persons imagined they looked alike” (12). So when the narrator explains that they are “propelled together by the irresistible force of nature,” it seems as though likeness is the thing that still irresistibly joins them. In this sense, their union still seems to indicate that morality based on likeness is potentially perverse. But even more disturbing is Doctor Joseph’s behavior, which my class seized on. They pointed out the possessive and sexualized edge to his relationship with Isabella, as he delights in her beauty and imagines the pleasure he has missed (and hopes to enjoy in the future) with her. They identified how the language of paternal sentiment sounds quite a bit like the language of a lover when he claims her as his daughter, which he uses to bar her from marrying Ira. What’s most remarkable here, though, is that close reading of the end of the text reveals that Doctor Joseph is not Ira’s father, and he knows it. This blew my students’ minds. If he’s not saying that Isabella can’t marry Ira because they are related, then why in the world is he demanding they part? Their conclusion: he wants her for himself. I think they are right: Doctor Joseph does want Isabella for himself, and his desire reveals the erotic possessiveness at the heart of patriarchal paternalism. So while Ira and Isabella may set aside the threat of incest in one dimension—between unwitting siblings—it reveals a more pervasive, and more pernicious—threat of obscene paternalism, which harmonizes with the story’s wider critique of misogynistic seduction conventions.

In the future, I am definitely going to keep teaching Ira and Isabella, making space for it alongside Charlotte Temple, because that’s a pairing worth keeping. I may also add it in to a general education American literature class that I teach. It would work well with Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” and it’s a very digestible length.

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