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Just Teach One

Desire and Didacticism in Ira & Isabella

David Lawrimore
Idaho State University

I taught William Hill Brown’s Ira & Isabella in “Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1860,” a sophomore-level course designed primarily for English majors. Though the plot’s complexity required we spend some extra time cataloguing the novel’s events, revelations, and twists, this complexity also challenged the students to think more deeply the relationship between sentimental literature and didacticism.

We read and discussed Ira & Isabella over one class period during a unit on post-revolutionary American fiction. Since Brown is best known for writing Power of Sympathy (1789) and because Ira & Isabella is a mirror image—if not a satire—of that work, I initially planned to pair the two texts. However, the brisk pace of the survey class made following this plan difficult. As a compromise, I dedicated the class before Ira & Isabella to a miscellaneous cluster of Brown’s other works. These included the sentimental short story “Harriot; Or, the Domestick Reconciliation” (Massachusetts Magazine, 1789); the anti-Shaysite poem “Shays to Shattuck” (Massachusetts Centinel, 1787); and the verse fables “Two Hares and a Monkey” (Boston Magazine, 1806) and “The Educated Indians” (Boston Magazine, 1805). I assigned “Harriot” in order to introduce students to a more “traditional” sentimental tale, the type that Ira & Isabella upends, and I assigned the poem and verse fables to key students to Brown’s social conservatism. This background reading was helpful. In fact, “Harriot” ended up serving as the prototype of sentimental literature which we referred back to not only in discussions of Ira & Isabella, but also of The Coquette and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of Ira & Isabella’s complicated plot structure, I began our discussion with a short activity that helped review novel’s order of events. I divided students into pairs and provided each pair with a handout that listed the novel’s fourteen major plot points in random order. (A version of the plot points, in correct order, is below). I then asked the students to place the events in correct order. This short activity, which took less than 10 minutes, was a helpful way to assess how much they followed the narrative arc; it also helped ground the discussion in the flow of the text.

Class discussion was wide-ranging, but two topics remained at the forefront. First was the extent to which many of the female characters were presented as sexual beings. Students were quick to point out Isabella had the “blush of wantonness” (12) and that while Mr. Savage believes he is seducing Lucinda during the flashback at the novel’s end, she was the one who had, in fact “laid a snare” for him (27). I asked students to compare these women to the women in “Harriot,” who align more closely with the standard portrayal of white women as guardians of virtue. They noted that the women in Ira & Isabella were different from the women in “Harriot,” but there was some disagreement over whether Brown was praising or cautioning against Isabella for her sexual desire and Lucinda for seductive savvy. On the one hand, the women seem to be enacting the advice of Ira’s two “bad friends:” Lorenzo cautions that women are simply using men for security (true of Lucinda) and Florio encourages indulging sexual desire (true of Isabella). On the other hand, Lucinda and Isabella both live “happily ever after.”

And this moral inconsistency formed the basis for the second part of discussion. Specifically, students found it difficult to pin down the novel’s moral center. This is due, in part, to how much the novel teases and then reneges on whether or not Ira and Isabella are brother and sister: we first believe they are not brother and sister; then we believe they are; then we are told they are not again. In a similar manner, different characters advise Ira and Isabella, and this advice is based on false evidence, ignored, proven wrong, or, in the case of Florio, deemed so repulsive that it actually convinces Ira to do the opposite of what is advised. All of this is to say that it is exceedingly difficult to pin down the didactic message of Ira and Isabella. Does the novel punish or reward obedience to authority? Are women who follow their sexual desires models or cautionary tales?

Unfortunately, as students were beginning to work through these questions, a fire drill cut the class was cut short. While I was disappointed that this kept our debate from reaching a resolution, it may have been better that the discussion was left open ended. Indeed, the lack of resolution seems to be the point of Ira & Isabella. While Brown knew how use literature to convey a moral message (see his verse fables), this is clearly not the goal of this novel, which instead seems interested in a kind of Derridean play. Ultimately, this irresolution provided a helpful counterpoint to more traditional and didactic sentimental tales, demonstrating that literature of the period may be written for enjoyment as well as to convey a moral message.

 

Ira & Isabella Order of Events

Ira and Isabella introduced and described as orphans

Ira recognizes his sentimental attachment to Isabella

Ira converses with Lorenzo, who tells Ira that all women are in it for themselves

Ira and Isabella decide that they will marry

Isabella’s nurse discourages the marriage of Ira & Isabella

Isabella has a conversation with Dr. Joseph, who reveals he is Isabella’s father

Dr. Joseph dies

Ira and Isabella decide to marry against the advice of Dr. Joseph and the nurse

The nurse reveals that Ira and Isabella are brother and sister

Ira has a long conversation with Florio regarding passion and virtue

Ira and Isabella decide they will not remain married and discuss the importance of virtue

Mr. Savage reveals that Ira is his son

Story of Mr. Savage’s seduction of Lucinda

Everyone lives happily ever after

Sentimental Fragments Project

Patricia Bostian
Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

This spring, I taught a 4-week compressed degree section of ENG 231, American Literature I. We are a large community college with six campuses, both rural and urban, and a large online campus. This course was taught online.

To prepare for the project, which was due at the end of the four weeks, we discussed sentimentalism and the American approach to death in the 19th century, including the practice of death photography. This material was discussed in conjunction with Poe’s depiction of death in his stories.

We also read selections from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. So, even though this was a short term, students had a good introduction to sentimentalism, its characteristics, and its various functions and uses in different genres of 19th century literature.

The project itself was necessarily a brief one. [The video referenced in these instructions is available on YouTube: This video was produced in 2016 for The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century, a MOOC offered by Dartmouth College on edX.org. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwApTf_IBaU&list=UU6o3dK_4MVvobHtQpH3oaiQ&index=61 ]

For this project, you will be reading a selection of fragments that appeared in newspapers and magazines in the 19th century.

The genre of sentimentality was lauded and derided for the same reasons: “It was ideally suited to incite feelings in readers” and “to direct those feelings toward projects of social betterment.”

Sentimental fiction was also rejected because it popular. If a genre appealed to the masses, then surely it could not be considered “great” literature. After all, what do the masses know of literature. Low brow literature (or popular culture) aims at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment value, and this is how sentimentalism was viewed by scholars until, as the video states, the 1980s.

Sentimentalism was characterized as a “mawkish, simple-minded form of emotional excess brought on by overindulgence in the tender emotions of pathos and sympathy.” In other words, the author’s aim (particularly less skilled authors) was to create works that played on the readers’ emotions with exaggerated, pitiful scenes of human hardship.

One of critic Jane Thompson’s complaints was that sentimental fiction was not taken seriously in the university because it was written by women. Thompkins argues that the language of sentimentalism was an attempt to provide a woman’s point of view of the world around her—a point of view not valued by (mostly) male scholars.

However, a new concern has been raised in 21st-century scholars. We are beginning to understand that race is not a biological “thing.” Contemporary scholarship argues that race is socially constructed by our views. Literary critics are arguing that the use of sentimentality, particularly by abolitionist authors, contributed to the idea of race being a real marker of the differences between groups of people in ways that have not been positive.

Scholar Saidiya Hartman wonders if the point of sentimentalism was to make people feel better about themselves, rather than move them to help ease the plight of others. In other words, readers could tell themselves that they were moved to feel sympathy for the pain of others, and that sympathy was enough—they had done their job.

How does the sentimentalism of the fragments you have been provided play a “role of promoting projects of social and cultural reform”? Is this even a valid goal of literature? If sentimentalism does not serve any reform goals, but is its purpose?

Address these questions in a formal essay of a minimum of 1200 words (excluding the Works Cited page), using at least three of the fragments in the provided collection. You must also reference the provided introduction to Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.

The project submissions were much better than anticipated with such a short time period for conclusion. Students addressed different aspects, some focusing on death, others on gender, and some on the emotionalism of the fragments. Students seemed to find the fragments interesting, but more scaffolding of the Thompkins reading would have been helpful. I am assigning this project again in an 8-week section this summer.

A Sentimental Encounter . . . with Genre

Peter Jaros
Franklin & Marshall College

It was with some trepidation that I slotted the Sentimental Fragments into my syllabus for a 200-level course on Early American Literature: the course was already packed with a mishmash of genres, and adding another felt like pushing my luck. Still, I imagined we could use a bit of respite between the last two long works in the course: Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. As it turns out, wedged between these two novels, with their own investments in sentiment, sensibility, and sensation, the Fragments yielded a curious pleasure.

The novels we were reading required careful tracking of narrative detail—Who was whispering to whom in the arbor? Who heard which voice when? What would he say when he heard what she said? So it was with disoriented freedom that we plunged into these serial fragments, which disposed of plot so cavalierly, spilling out backstories of lost loves and lost fortunes, or abjuring them altogether in favor of ecstatic ellipsis in order to get to the good parts: the large blue orbs, the trailing tresses, the loosened grasp, the single tear.

They loved it. They hated it. They were disoriented.

What was interesting was the thing I hadn’t quite anticipated: there is a real pleasure in the sudden rush of getting to know a genre, get disoriented by it, titillated by it, a little bored by it, privy to its in-jokes and rolling eyes at its clichés. With eighteenth-century poems or novels, I often struggled to get students to drop their preconceptions derived from 21st-century texts. But with these sentimental fragments, I got to watch them build an understanding of genre without my anxiously policing it all the time.

They also tried less hard than usual to know what was going on all the time. Why was Maria’s dear, lost Henry denied the rights of a decent interment? Why was Polydore driven to suicide for betraying the lost Maria (no—different Maria)? Why was “Sentimental Fragment,” featuring Lucilla and William, reprinted so many times? Because the fragments were themselves so sparse, even—especially?—in their oversaturated affect, there was less of the usual shame of “I should know the answer so I’m just going to look down.” Perhaps it arose from the heady freedom from named authors and well-constructed plots—that is, freedom from expecting unity or coherence. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that the fragment is a lovely medium for developing one’s negative capability, even if not in quite the way Keats imagined. We knew that we were missing information, that were supposed to be a little lost. And that let us ask questions a bit better.

While I offered students a bit of background on the changing meanings of sentiment, sensibility, and gender in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and pointed out a few fragmentary objects—from portrait miniatures to antislavery medallions to letters—that became particularly invested with sentimental value, the real fun began when I turned students loose in small groups: pick a fragment that particularly entranced you, repelled you, confused you, or reduced you to tears” and devote some time to observing its formal and generic features. With a different genre—a “higher” genre, like an unfamiliar poetic form—such open-endedness might have been daunting, but there was something quite inviting about the collection of fragments that allowed students to trust their instincts with the texts they’d surveyed. They knew the habits, the tricks, the moves of this form, and they were smart about the ways they were mobilized.

The insights and hypotheses flowed, but what really surprised me was the way that the fragments opened up the affective range of class discussion: students expressed sympathy with abandoned victims of seduction (and reserved special rage, particularly after reading The Coquette, for blithe seducers); they expressed boredom and exasperation at the same tired tropes trotted out again; they offered knowing shrugs when a charitably dispensed coin was supposed to efface the preceding three pages of heartbreak; they rolled their eyes at the ways a misty and elliptical plot could nonetheless police gender roles with painful clarity. So: the sentimental (and antisentimental) tone of the conversation that ranged from fragment to fragment—a range that followed us into the delights and exasperations of Brown’s Wieland in the class sessions that followed—that was the surprising payoff of this mystery bundle.

Literary form, gender, social media, memes, and more!

Mary Caton Lingold
Virginia Commonwealth University

When I first began writing this reflection, I planned to lament that my students weren’t as interested in the formal elements of the “Sentimental Fragments” as I was. But as I sifted through my recollections of our class discussions, it became clear that they had grasped concepts of form, only in ways different, and maybe more interesting than I had intended. While I tuned into the Sentimentalist (capital S) tropes and formulas throughout the narratives, the students were more keen to make correlations between these readings and modern sentimental (little s) media cultures, and social media, in particular.

I included the “Sentimental Fragments” in an upper division survey on early American Literature to 1820 and we discussed the JTO selections over two 50 minute class periods. The material brought a welcome shift in length and tone in a course that was primarily focused on heavy questions of colonialism, empire, and race. Just before reading the “Sentimental Fragments” we had completed a lengthy unit on the US and Haitian revolutions. These conversations prepared students to think creatively about form – they compared the two nations’ declarations of independence, then we read Leonora Sansay’s epistolary Secret History, a novel that is quite fragmentary in its own right. We had also read the Twitter account @lebarondevastey, created by Marlene Daut, that serializes excerpts of the early Haitian thinker’s political and historical writing. The students commented on the pleasurable nature of reading an early American author’s work in Twitter form, explaining that it is “more digestible” that way. These observations spilled over into our reading of the relatively bite-sized JTO material, which in turn helped the students to think about Twitter and other social media platforms as our own era’s form of serialized, and often quite sentimental media culture. For instance we discussed squeezing ideas into limited characters in the same way that periodical editors would have had to squeeze (and stretch) literary content to fill out their publications, one of the utilities of the sentimental fragment, as we learned from  the enormously helpful introduction by Duncan Faherty and Ed White.

We digested the fragments in two chunks, focusing on the Introduction and first half in one class, followed by the last 10 fragments. This worked well because it enabled students to read the second set with the insights of our first discussion in mind. In my own reading of the fragments, which were completely new to me as a genre, I kept noticing the constant descriptions of weeping. While I’m familiar with the tearful mode of many a deathbed scene in a Sentimentalist novel, I found the almost cartoonish depictions of weeping in the “Sentimental Fragments” peculiar in their lack of effect. Rather than making me feel weepy as when a beloved character dies, the fragments depict characters weeping “I wept the tears of briny sorrow” (11) over and over again, often over a corpse whom we’ve had no chance to come to care about. As I shared these observations with the class, and we tried to imagine how these textual moments might have been received differently for early American readers, we found ourselves thinking about meme culture and the way that the repetition of gifs and images of characters and scenes today functions as a shorthand for all kinds of sentiments. In short, the “Sentimental Fragments” challenged us to think differently about the way we read and write in fragments in our moment.

The class’ favorite fragment, by far, was “Sentimental Perfumery,” which functions as a beauty advertisement for all the things a goodly sentimental woman should have in her toilet, including “Innocence.—A white paint, which will stand for a considerable time, if not abused. Modesty:–Very best rouge, giving a becoming bloom to the cheek,” and my favorite, “Tears of Pity:–A water, that gives lustre and brightness to the eye” (10-11). While some of the literary techniques in the packet felt somewhat ineffective to us as modern readers, this particular fragment’s play with sentimentalized beauty norms felt quite familiar to those of us well-acquainted with modern cosmetic industry. The overlaps between this mock advertisement and the actual advertising in today’s cosmetic industry were too obvious to ignore. I once used a facewash unironically called “Purity” by a brand that also sells a signature moisturizer, “Hope in a Jar.” Students drew the class’ attention to Youtube humorists who have satirized these trends mercilessly, including this mock make-up tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HZuFmX0p5g) which lampoons the self-helpy messaging by telling viewers to use a facewash called “honesty” because “I feel like it gets rid of all those lies we tell ourselves.” This hilarious satirical contouring tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zJaaLXZwmsU) takes it a step further, as the creator Sailor J quips, “Make-up is for women who want husbands — contouring is for women who want to leach the souls of their dead lovers, and collect the inheritance of their ex-boyfriends who disappeared under mysterious circumstances” As you might imagine, these discussions bridged beautifully into our next and final reading of the semester, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, to which students brought sharp inquiry into questions of gendered literary form and female agency.

One of the things I most liked about teaching the JTO text was that because I was less familiar with the material it allowed for a certain kind of openness in the classroom that made space for a transhistorical discussion. I’m generally very focused on giving my students historical context for the works we read, especially since the history of early America is so vital for understanding our world, but I think it is also productive for students to have the opportunity to bring what they know and understand about the world to historical texts from their own perspectives, and the “Sentimental Fragments” occasioned that beautifully.

Fragment as Methodology

Mary Grace Albanese
SUNY Binghamton

 

I taught “Sentimental Fragments” in a U.S. Literature to 1900 survey course. Although most of the students in the course are English majors, many still struggle with basic methodologies in literary criticism: close reading, historical contextualization, and generic analysis. I found “Sentimental Fragments” an extremely useful way to parse out various critical approaches: for example, the very title of the collection brings together the generic (sentimental) and the formal (fragments); and, as an anthology of early U.S. print culture, it also allows students to discuss the material aspects of transatlantic cultural production; contextualize the collection in its sociohistorical moment; and interrogate the politics of contemporary critical anthologizing.

I began by asking the class to define a “fragment” and the possible effects it might have on readers. We came up with a number of answers: some students suggested the fragment celebrates incompleteness, others argued that fragments imply an ideal whole exists elsewhere. We also thought about the fragment in relation to the collective: does it suggest, for example, a unified social body? Or does it register social unrest? We then considered the affective connotations of the fragment: shock, violence, confusion, and questioned why this affective range might be prevalent in an era of migrations, both forced and voluntary. We also thought about the fragment in relation to material culture – the fragment as document or incomplete authentication. I also introduced the students to the 18th-century French genre of the “poèsies fugitives”: together we close read these fleeting, fugitive and fragmented textual remains.

We then widened our scope to consider the generic dimensions of sentimental fiction. This fit in nicely with our prior week’s reading Secret History, in which we discussed how sentiment and sensation constructs and maintains racist hierarchies. And it also set us up for the week’s following reading of “Theresa”, where we discussed the ways in which the tale subverts and redefines white sentimental familial structures. (We also thought a bit about the epistle and installation as fragment in Secret History and “Theresa” respectively.) Furthermore, by situating “Sentimental Fragments” into a transnational, and specifically Haitian, lineage we were able to dwell on the political and ethical stakes of sentiment: who is allowed to have, feel, or distribute sentiment? Who is excluded from the discourse of sentiment?  What does it mean to be moved – in all its senses – and who gets moved and how across Atlantic economies? We were also able to tie these questions into prior readings of declarations/acts of independence from the United States, Haiti, and several Latin American republics.

Finally, we used “Sentimental Fragments” to address the material and transnational aspects of print culture. We traced the publication histories of these fragments to examine their paratexts, as well as their complex routes of reprinting and circulation in the Americas.  Again, this positioned us extremely well for the next week’s discussion of “Theresa”, a story which is very much in dialogue with the paratext of its publication venue Freedom’s Journal. In the future, I would be keen to push this aspect of the course farther. Instead of guiding students through pre-selected images of newspapers, I am planning to assign them something along the lines of a  “history of a newspaper page.” I will ask students to independently research a single page from a 19th-century publication. This assignment will ask students not only to examine an installment or fragment within the context of its original publication venue, but to delve into that context, tracking down the other news reports, fiction, advertisements, prices, authors, images, and print technologies that appear on the page. This kind of assignment will denaturalize the anthology (or modern edition), introduce students to important archives and databases for historical research, and allow for close readings both textual and visual.

 

Thinking about the Conventions of Popular Literature and Sentimental Fiction

Melissa Adams-Campbell
Northern Illinois University

 

This semester my early American literature students (mostly English majors with a couple of Honors students from other disciplines and a history major) spent considerable time thinking about popular literature and sentimental fiction. They had previously read three digitized dime novels (one together and two on their own) as well as Susanna Rowson’s little-known first American-authored novel, Trials of the Human Heart (1795) before ending the semester with JTO’s “Sentimental Fragments.” In this respect, they were fairly well primed to consider this fascinating assemblage of emotionally-charged texts; however, they were far less certain about what to do with the fragment as literary form.

In approaching popular early fiction or texts outside of the canon, I have found it useful to assign students to pre-read excerpts from the introduction to Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.  Giving students some time to consider how literary canons are formed, how and why some works of literature are deemed “great,” how those standards have evolved over time, and how and why we might want to read other things is truly a worthwhile classroom endeavor.  JTO has inspired me to do much more of this kind of work in my classrooms.  My fellow JTO blogger Jon Blanford offers a practical account of how to get students writing formally and informally about these issues here.

We began with a short discussion of the goals and purpose of JTO, after which I asked students to work in small groups to create a list of conventions in sentimental writing. They were encouraged to draw examples from “Fragments” as well as Trials, which we had just finishedStudents were instructed to consider: character types and character names; plot devices; any specific repetitions of diction across these texts as well as more generically describing the kind of diction employed, sentence styles, punctuation, etc.; mood / tone; any other noteworthy observations.

After reporting these findings we had a large group discussion about the fragment as literary form, beginning with simple questions: What is a fragment? What does a physical fragment of text look like?  From there we explored literary fragments as purposefully created “pieces” of a larger missing or absent whole: How does a literary fragment work?  What does it do? How does it work as a form? Why would an author wish to write in this form? [Note: I had planned to talk about “Sentimental Fragments” and other Romantic period fragments and “found” texts of this era, but I skipped this part of my lesson to ensure ample time for our concluding activity.]

After this preliminary thinking, we combined our growing knowledge of the fragment as form with our previous understandings of the emotional work of sentimental conventions. I asked, what is the relationship between the short length of these pieces and their highly charged emotional style and content?  What are some differences between encountering these short pieces in an early American periodical mixed in among news, editorials, poetry, advertisements, etc. versus reading a dense sentimental novel in two volumes such as Trials? Finally, how might we compare the many reprintings of these fragments (as noted in the headnotes) with today’s viral media consumption (are these the equivalent of cute kitten videos)?

Because we had spent a considerable part of the semester thinking about the “cultural work” (ala Jane Tomkins) of popular literature and other writing with “designs” on the reader (in Tompkins’ sense of the term) such as abolitionist slave narratives by Equiano and others, we had a good discussion about whether or not sentimental literature produces social change, or to use today’s language, effects social justice.

Students generally allowed that sentiment could produce social change, while I pointed how certain fragments (especially the first two) rendered relief for the poor a personal duty enacted in a case by case situation rather than advocating for any systematic social welfare system or institutional safety net.  Is the language of individual action inspired by right feeling the same as social justice? Why or why not?

Finally, I returned students to their small groups for what I hoped would be a fun closing activity. I asked each group to collaboratively write their own sentimental fragment incorporating elements from their previously constructed lists of sentimental conventions and knowledge of the readings.  Students could choose to write a straightforward sentimental fragment or a satirical one such as the last excerpt included in the JTO collection.

My students were a bit reluctant to take on the task of creative writing, but there was a LOT of laughing going on during the ten minutes they had to write.  One group set their fragment in a contemporary setting, and effectively brushed bits of contemporary language up against Romantic period sentimental diction.  Another set their modern day tale around a patient dying in a hospital.  Others went for stereotyped character descriptions of “golden ringlets” and hyper-feminized women characters; while yet another group started their story collectively and then each took a turn writing a sentence without sharing their individual contributions until the end.

We spent a few more minutes reading these spontaneous creations out loud and talking about what we learned as writers of sentimental fragments.  I asked, what sentimental conventions did you engage in your story? What emotions did you hope to inspire in readers of your fragment (beyond the initial laughter!)? How easy was it to write a fragment once you understood the conventions?  This activity confirmed how much students had learned about how sentiment works by actually producing a sentimental work for themselves.

In hindsight I would probably spend two days on these texts (my classes are one hour and fifteen minutes each), beginning day one with the list of conventions and the collaborative write-your-own-fragment activities, saving the more serious discussions of form, Romantic period literary connections, and questions of social change for day two (although I can also see the benefit of reversing this order).  Overall, my students and I had a lot of fun discussing these texts; I would definitely teach “Sentimental Fragments” again.

 

“Sentimental Fragments” alongside Early American Novels

Bonnie Carr O’Neill
Mississippi State University

When I included “Sentimental Fragments” in a Master’s seminar on the early American novel, I knew I risked their being overshadowed or swallowed up by the longer works that were our main focus. But in using the fragments, I aimed to deepen the students’ understanding of sentimentality. Given our own culture’s premium for irony, students are perplexed by the unflinching earnestness of sentimental texts. “Sentimental Fragments” helps resolve this pedagogical challenge as it illustrates that sentimentality is a discursive mode with wide cultural appeal to both men and women and in popular media. As a bonus, my students welcomed the fragments as a refreshing change of pace from novels.

The fragments punctuated a unit in which we covered classic seduction novels: William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. In addition to these works, the course included several picaresque novels, each of which occasionally use sentimental conventions for satiric effect. To help students understand and recognize sentimentality, I provided a refresher on the distinction between sentiment and sensibility, drawing on Janet Todd’s framing in Sensibility: An Introduction. Moreover, throughout the semester, students supplemented their literary reading with selections from Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word as well as criticism of specific novels, which they selected themselves.

Since the course was a graduate seminar, I kept things pretty loose and let the discussion develop organically. Nonetheless, our discussion of the fragments tended to cover several key topics: the fragment as a form; the discursive markers of sentimentality; and thematic relationships between the fragments and our other readings. In light of our seminar’s focus on novels, my students were inevitably struck by the fragment form. They appreciated the break from the sustained narratives we had been reading; they felt that, in focusing on individual scenes, the fragments were powerful and, as one student put it, surprisingly modern. They connected the brevity of the fragments to the epistolary structure of some of the novels we were reading. Epistolary novels, like the fragments, are “not bogged down by description” or exposition; they are “efficient,” my students said. At the same time, students were conscious of the fact that the fragments had been extracted from periodicals, and they wondered what more they could learn by reading the fragments in their original contexts, alongside other texts. In a different sort of course, I would like to try an archival project in which students track down the source periodicals and reflect on just these matters in a brief paper or presentation.

The brevity of the fragment form tends to concentrate the effect of the sentimental language and tropes. Sometimes, unfamiliar language and unclear contexts made the texts opaque to my students, but when the sketches worked, they were powerful. Or, as one student said, the sentimental sketches are “very much in your face”—not subtle. They noted the use of allegorical names and doublings of characters, as well as a certain performativity of the dialogue. This last observation led one student to comment that “virtue is performative”—helpfully connecting sentimental language to themes of virtue, appearances, and intentions that we had been tracing through our discussions of works like Franklin’s Autobiography and Charlotte Temple. Likewise, the students played with the fragments’ juxtaposing natural settings with apparently unnatural events. They reasoned that, if virtue requires individuals’ control over themselves—their appetites and their actions—the performative sentimental style suggests the limits of that control, the influence of nature over human artifice, as overwhelming emotion leads to a verbal outpouring. This effect is heightened, my students noticed, in works like number 12, where the doubled figure of the young girl stretches one’s expectations of reality and intensifies the emotional experience. In the specific context of our readings, students formed a useful comparison to The Power of Sympathy where Worthy’s perception of nature shapes his understanding of events.

I can imagine that in an undergraduate-level course, I would have to help students recognize these features of sentimental writing and build on those observations, but graduate students were able to connect them to thematic and philosophical concerns of both the fragments themselves and the course as a whole. My students wanted to link the fragments to themes of cultural identity that figured into our discussion of the novels. Again, the compactness of the form seemed significant: students thought the fragments’ concentration of effect was somehow “American.” Here, I parted ways with them, highlighting the transatlantic sources for the JTO packet. From this point, we were able to revisit longer readings, like Charlotte Temple, that challenge a monocultural understanding of literary and cultural identity.

While “Sentimental Fragments” fulfilled the pedagogical purpose I had in mind, I regret that it did not serve a greater critical function in my seminar. My students did not choose to write about the fragments or reference them in their papers, and although I included them in our exams, students did not build on their initial readings. These results suggest that the fragments were, indeed, overshadowed by the novels as I thought they might be. But including them in the graduate seminar had other virtues. It helped refresh my own approach to teaching sentimental texts and literary form. My students gave me a renewed appreciation for the versatility of sentimentality: its adaptability to varying subjects and forms, they suggested, is key to sentimentality’s popular appeal. The fragment form magnifies sentimentality’s efforts to convey felt experience as the union of language and philosophy that is not quite a union of body and mind, nor of head and heart. For my students at least, the texts’ incongruities, or “weirdness,” prevent that kind of integration, but also make sentimentality recognizable as a literary discourse rather than alienating and contrived effusion.

Lust, Passion, and the Body in Sentimental Fragments from Early US Publications

Margaret A. Toth, Associate Professor of English, Manhattan College
Sydney Kukoda, Senior, English & Education major, Manhattan College
Alexzandra Tsamisis, Junior, English & Education major, Manhattan College

 

This spring I taught The American Novel to 1914: Lust, Passion, and the Body at Manhattan College. In the class, we examined such issues as how sexual desire is treated, how queer identities get defined, how affective states like passion are discursively mapped onto bodies, and how early and 19th-century U.S. fiction writers were already theorizing about the modern concept of intersectionality. While the course focuses on the history and rise of the novel as an art form in U.S. culture, I thought it would be productive to assign the Sentimental Fragments in the first unit of the course, “Sex, Seduction, and Sentiment.” The first major work we studied was Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), and the fragments, I reasoned, would help introduce and contextualize key concepts that would be in play throughout the text, including the themes of lust, seduction, betrayal, and loss, the importance of familial bonds, and—given the course’s focus—the sentimental genre’s use of the body and its physical responses toward various narrative ends. Ultimately, I was unable to fit the fragments into that early unit, so instead I assigned them at the end of the semester as a way of encouraging students to review all the novels we had studied. They were invited to submit an optional, extra credit paper on the fragments in which they identified common narrative themes and formal patterns and drew connections between the fragments and the works we examined.

As I anticipated, students used the fragments to further their understanding of Rowson’s text. But they also applied the pieces to other major works from our course, particularly Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite (date unknown)[1] and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900). In what follows, two students, Sydney Kukoda and Alexzandra Tsamisis, and I together reflect not just on the fragments’ value for contextualizing a contemporary work like Charlotte Temple but also on how the tropes within the fragments appear in the later works. In other words, the fragments are an effective pedagogical tool for understanding late 18th and early 19th century novels, but that is not their only value; applied to a later work like Howe’s The Hermaphrodite, they can reveal the potential of sentimental tropes for writers seeking to disrupt normative identity constructs.

–M. Toth

 

The Sentimental Fragments complemented our course themes of lust, passion, and the body in several ways, primarily by portraying the repercussions of sex outside of marriage, the loss of virginity or purity, and sexual and emotional rejection. One common set piece in the fragments features a woman facing the consequences of losing her innocence to a man out of wedlock, and, as such, there are clear connections to the titular character’s experiences in Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. For example, “Maria, A Fragment; Founded on Fact,” could have been lifted right off the pages of Rowson’s novel. It describes the shock, grief, and physical deterioration Maria endures upon learning that her seducer, in whom she has invested a “misplaced confidence,” is “perfidious” (“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Both Maria’s situation and the language used to described it bear a striking resemblance to Charlotte Temple. Echoing Charlotte’s belated understanding of Montraville, Maria thinks, “But who could have suspected that villainy possessed the bosom of one, whose every look, every action appeared the offspring of the purest virtue—of the most tender sensibility?” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Maria also, like Charlotte, laments the pain she has caused her parents and sinks into death while in the act of supplication. Moreover, Maria’s lover, like Montraville, repents his actions. Kneeling “by the side of the angel whom he had corrupted and destroyed,” he “sigh[s],” “rave[s],” and “bitterly” weeps before ultimately taking his life by “plunging” his sword into his “breast” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9). Montraville also falls on his knees at Charlotte’s grave, begging Mr. Temple to kill him: “Here is my bosom. I bare it to receive the stroke I merit. Strike—strike now, and save me from the misery of reflexion” (88). However, Mr. Temple refuses, reasoning that a life of painful deliberation is a more apt punishment, and Montraville “to the end of his life [is] subject to severe fits of melancholy,” routinely visiting Charlotte’s grave (89).

In this and other similar fragments, the authors attempt to reach the audience on a highly emotive level and draw forward bodily reactions such as tears, gasps of shock, and the feeling of being faint. This isn’t limited solely to the seduction tales—for instance, “The Poor Old Man—A Fragment” similarly displays intense emotion and invites the reader to partake in it. But this narrative move is particularly effective in the seduction fragments, as it advances their overtly didactic goals: in other words, these are cautionary tales with clear lessons about pursuing illicit erotic desires. The didacticism emerges in slightly different ways in other fragments, including “Elinor, a Sentimental Sketch.” Here Elinor relates a tale of grief to an auditor—the narrator of the fragment—before dying. The narrator, a male, responds by falling “on the earth beside her corpse” and sobbing. His final reflection—“I was a man—and I gloried in my tears!—” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 17)—teaches readers, irrespective of gender or sex identity, that emotional responses are morally beneficial. This recalls the mini-episode in Charlotte Temple when Mr. Eldridge recounts his tragic familial history to Mr. Temple. When he weeps and then expresses shame for being unmanly, Mr. Temple responds that “the truly brave soul is tremblingly alive to the feelings of humanity” (13). In other words, the fragments, as with Charlotte Temple, remind us that sentimental tales, especially cautionary seduction narratives, are pedagogical tools designed not solely for young female readers. They also teach their male readership about proper conduct, honor, and the ethical merits of affect.

Indeed, while not exclusive to the sentimental genre, literary devices like dramatic irony, hyperbole, allegory, and personification all get expertly employed in both the fragments and Charlotte Temple to create intense emotional investment on the part of readers and thereby effectively convey their lessons. A perhaps more subtle lesson imparted in the fragments has to do with inaction or indecisiveness, especially in the face of temptation. Marion Rust, in “What’s Wrong With Charlotte Temple?,” persuasively argues that Rowson’s novel is less a racy seduction tale motivated by Charlotte’s “lust” and more an account of her tragic inability to make clear decisions: “far from depicting Charlotte’s overweening desire, the novel portrays the fatal consequences of a woman’s inability to want anything enough to motivate decisive action” (496). We see a similar logic at work in the aforementioned “Maria” fragment, when Maria warns her reader, “May she have it impressed upon her mind that ‘she who hesitates is lost’” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 9, emphasis original). The fragments, then, beautifully, but perhaps not surprisingly, help illuminate the themes and didactic impulses at work in late eighteenth-century novels like Charlotte Temple or Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797).

We also, and more surprisingly, identified several connections between the Sentimental Fragments and later works, including Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars and Howe’s The Hermaphrodite. These novels disrupt the sentimental genre’s typical valorization of whiteness (Chesnutt) and heteronormativity (Howe), making the parallels to the earlier fragments all the more compelling. Since scholars have usefully identified, and complicated, nineteenth-century African-American writers’ complex engagement with sentimental tropes[2], we focus here on Howe’s underexamined text. A remarkable and even radical mid-nineteenth-century exploration of sexual identity, Howe’s novel is narrated in the first person by Laurence, an intersexual individual whose cold and abusive parents determine to raise them male.[3] Howe accords Laurence traits of both a hero and heroine—often couching her descriptions within the discourse of sentiment—with the ultimate goal of exploding binaristic, and highly restrictive, sex and gender categories.

Laurence presents as male for most of their life and feels most—though never fully—at home in that identity. Midway through Book 2 of the novel, they determine to pass as a woman, but under duress rather than by choice. While the disguise accords Laurence protection from their father, who is seeking to locate and institutionalize them, Laurence clearly feels discomfort in their new role. Howe captures this conflict through an extended militaristic metaphor: “What will you say to me, fair reader, if I present myself before you in feminine masquerade, stockaded with buckram and cotton, hanging out the veil, that feminine banner of deceit, upon a tower . . . some six feet in height, and with a wide moat of emptiness between the outer curtain of my entrenchments, and the inner inexpungable [sic] fortress of myself” (130). In this disguise, a type of armor that paradoxically protects Laurence’s “inner self” while alienating them from it, Laurence stays as a guest at the home of their friend Berto’s three sisters. The women’s clothing remains intolerable to Laurence well into Book 3, until the moment that they shed it. “Disencumbered” of “foreign” trappings, Laurence allows their chest to expand and takes “unfeminine strides” across their room. Once Laurence puts back on their former male garb, they and Berto wildly trample upon and incinerate the female clothing, the “bondage of petticoats” (187) that serves as clear symbol of women’s social imprisonment throughout this part of the novel.

While Laurence’s rejection of “femininity” occurs at an overt level in these passages, Book 3 also performs more subtle—and contradictory—work, namely, Laurence’s alignment with one of Berto’s sisters, Nina, and, indirectly, with many of the female figures in the Sentimental Fragments. Nina, like multiple women in the fragments, is deeply devoted to a man who has traveled overseas and is presumed dead. By the time Laurence visits the household, she has slipped into a type of catatonic state in order to commune with her absent lover. In an ekphrastic episode, Laurence and the sisters read a manuscript—embedded in full by Howe—about a similarly devoted woman, Eva, who has lost her true love, Rafael. All of these characters—Nina in the novel, Eva in the manuscript within the novel, and figures like Maria, Elinor, Delia in the fragments—represent steadfast devotion and loyalty as well as a sort of pastoral spirituality. As they tend their lovers’ graves, they become one with the natural world around them, with Eva, for example, befriending a dove, and Maria, in “Maria—A Fragment,” sheltering a robin in her windowsill that eases her “sorrows” and listens to her “enumerate thy master’s virtues” ((“Sentimental Fragments,” 8). These characters often risk becoming social pariahs, viewed as witches (Eva), wild or feral (Elinor), or mentally unsound (Nina and Delia). But both the novel and the fragments send a clear positive message about a love so pure and deep that not even death can overcome the bond shared by two true lovers.

Laurence spends the entire novel painfully and even agonizingly alienated from others because of their sex and gender identity. And yet these sentiments about love and spiritual connections that transcend the physical world are ones that they respond to in profound ways. In fact, of all the other characters in the novel, they feel most akin to Nina, who is “so deaf, dumb, and blind of body, so far-seeing and intelligent of soul. Dream-rapt, isolated from the actual world, half corpse, half angel . . .” (158). Therefore, while Laurence despises the outward guise of femininity, they feel an intense affinity with the feelings expressed by this familiar female archetype of sentimental fiction. In fact, this is just one of many ways in which Howe demonstrates that gender is a social construct and works to break down gender and sex binaries. At the end of the novel, when the dying Laurence is examined by a doctor, Howe’s revolutionary project is at its most forceful. Berto and his sister Briseida insist that the doctor say whether Laurence is “most masculine or most feminine” (194), with Berto claiming Laurence as a man and Briseida claiming Laurence as a woman. The siblings make their cases based on stereotypes of gender that are common in sentimental fiction. Berto, for example, states that Laurence has “stern notions of duty” (194), while Briseida says that Laurence’s “modesty,” “purity,” and “tenderness of heart”—not to mention their frequent blushing and crying—“belong only to a woman” (195). The Medicus, however, responds that he “cannot pronounce Laurent[4] either man or woman,” but “shall speak most justly if I say he is rather both than neither” (195). Howe’s mobilization of sentimental tropes in various (and occasionally incongruous) ways have been building toward this climactic moment, a moment in which an authoritative figure—it’s no accident that a doctor makes this radical pronouncement—refuses to label Laurence.

Studying these fragments in our course allowed us to work with more materials that demonstrate how concepts such as seduction and the body’s somatic responses were reflected in early U.S. literature. The fragments also allowed us to see how the novels we examined with were both rooted in and occasionally ahead of their time.

 

NOTES

[1] This unfinished novel was rediscovered and published in the twenty-first century. Gary Williams estimates that Howe began it “in the winter of 1846-1847” (x).

[2] See studies by Francis Smith Foster, Hazel Carby, Claudia Tate, and P. Gabrielle Foreman, among others.

[3] We decided as a class to use the generic pronoun when referring to Laurence. Laurence is intersexual, meaning that they were born with both male and female sex characteristics.

[4] Howe occasionally refers to Laurence as Laurent, especially in the later sections of the manuscript.

 

WORKS CITED

Howe, Julia Ward. The Hermaphrodite, U of Nebraska P, 2004.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple, edited by Marion Rust, Norton Critical Edition, 2010.

Rust, Marion. “What’s Wrong with Charlotte Temple?” Charlotte Temple, edited by Marion Rust, Norton Critical Edition, 2010, pp. 493-509.

“Sentimental Fragments from Early US Publications.” Prepared by Duncan Faherty and Ed White. Just Teach One. Web.

Williams, Gary. “Speaking with the Voices of Others,” The Hermaphrodite, U of Nebraska P, 2004, pp. ix-xlvi.

Sentimental Fragments, Absence, and “Writing” Issues

Lisa West
Drake University

 

I taught “Sentimental Fragments” in Writing Seminar,  a course that serves both as a lower-level gateway to the major and as fulfillment of the general education writing-intensive requirement. Typically, students in the course range from first-year English or Writing majors to seniors who have avoided taking their writing requirement.  This section had students in Pharmacy, sciences, business, journalism – and a few English or Writing majors.  It was a varied group. This course must approach issues of concern to writers, but faculty are free to teach it with different emphasis.  I teach it as an academic writing course that focuses on establishing one’s voice within a larger critical conversation rather than as a creative writing course.  I  focus on peer workshops, revision, and one or two key issues in literary studies, such as the “death of the author” debate or questions about the role of readers in literary study. I was a bit concerned about teaching this text in a course that was not focused on sentimentalism or the 19th century, but I thought it would be a good way to introduce issues related to embodiment (or how writing does/does not engage the body) and reader-oriented rather than author-oriented interpretation.

We began the course with an Ann Dean essay on scribal and manuscript conventions in Benjamin Franklin’s early writings.  We read “Sentimental Fragments,” some Franklin short pieces, and the “Account” of Makandal previously used in Just Teach One for the first unit.  Their first paper applied ideas from the Dean essay either to one of the Just Teach One texts or to current use of social media by political figures.  More students wrote about current social media, but I think the “Sentimental Fragments” worked well in connection with their sense of social media, emojis, the desire to cause an emotional response in a reader, etc.  (I will note that they did not think of “Sentimental Fragments” as political – but they did think they could work in conjunction with more overly political writings in a periodical by shaping a reader’s emotional state, etc. And they did note that the fragments often were didactic on moral grounds, suggesting certain moral stances as being better than others.)

Fragmentary Seductions

Ben Bascom
Ball State University

In Spring 2018 I taught a pre-1800 American literature course for undergraduates that I titled “American Seductions.” In the course description, I explained that “[t]here are a lot of seductive narratives circulating in our present moment about pre-1800 North America: that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the continent; that the Pilgrims who left Europe in the 1620s paved the way for the 1776 colonial separation from Britain; and that the United States as an early nation had a coherent identity, one that we would ostensibly recognize today.” Following those points, I elaborated that we would “examine how those myths were produced and why they have maintained such a seductive allure to the present day.” I jumped at the opportunity to utilize something new from the Just Teach One initiative, even though I didn’t know what the texts would be prior to writing up the syllabus, nor how they might fit, but I imagined the proposed “Sentimental Fragments” would have something to add by way of the course’s conclusion. After 15 weeks reading Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, and Lemuel Haynes, among others, I was pleasantly pleased by the breadth of literary possibilities that inhere within this collection of fragments, and found them to be both accessible and summative for a course that delves into the seduction plot in early America.

I framed the class with the idea that many of the cultural myths that generally signal as “American” have a dubious origin in the two centuries predating the ostensible U.S. nation, hence the course’s emphasis on seduction as a trope. I had begun the semester with an essay about the cultural uses of the seduction trope and narrative in the early national U.S. by historian Rodney Hessinger. His essay, “Victim of Seduction or Vicious Woman?: Conceptions of the Prostitute at the Philadelphia Magdalen Society, 1800–1850,” demonstrates that popular fiction drew upon the seduction plot in order to address “tangible social problems” such as “[b]ooming rates of bastardy and premarital pregnancy, coupled with a growing geographic mobility of male youth” (201). More importantly, however, this essay exemplified what Jane Tompkins has called the cultural work of sentimental narratives (which Duncan Faherty and Ed White suggest for further reading), specifically allowing them to see how figurative tropes imagine and shape social and cultural relations. In this manner, my students were prepared to engage with the sentimental fragments in terms of their sociopolitical function—or, in other words, what the fragments intended to accomplish culturally.

Prior to reading the “Sentimental Fragments,” our major works had been Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, Jeffrey Brace’s memoir The Blind African Slave, and Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. In this way, they were more familiar with longer narratives that followed the lives of singular individuals, so the very nature of the fragments was different aesthetically from everything we had done in the semester; even so, they made connections between these longer works and tropes in “Sentimental Fragments.” I split the fragments into two days, reading 1 through 11 on a Tuesday and the rest on the following Thursday. Prior to the first day I explained to the students that these short anecdotes and vignettes were some of the more popular literary forms in the early United States, and that they are generally standalone pieces, and I asked them to draw upon the literary forms and character types we had spent the semester studying. This background encouraged them to recognize the seduction plot as foundational for Number 7, which showcases the “perfidious Polydore” seducing an “innocent, unsuspecting girl,” thus leading to her death. Additionally, they felt clued in when they read Number 11’s meditation on love when Clara is measured against a “coquette [who] would have affected anger at such a declaration” (12). In Fragment 15, students imagined the declamations against “the seductions of love” and the contorted syntax of “the cruel picture of a mother; who forced an innocent bleeding victim to the altar of prostitution” (18) as resonant revisions to what they assessed as the moral propriety of The Coquette. Their discovery of other—more didactic and perhaps vitriolic—responses to the gendered problem of seduction provided them with a deeper sense of the cultural value of the seduction plot and its many iterations, which then enabled them to reframe the context surrounding the longer works of fiction we read.

At first, however, most of my students resisted what they saw as the moral didacticism of the “Sentimental Fragments,” explaining that they felt the pieces broke all the fiction-writing rules that they had been trained to appreciate. Sensing this initial resistance, I had us as a class reread the opening fragment, which narrates an individual who visits a family to offer a charitable act. Certainly, we all agreed, the goal of this “sentimental thought” was to inspire a sense of feel-good politics around charity. We then did a conventional symptomatic reading of the text, where we assessed that Mrs. Linton is perhaps not in severe financial need (considering her class position), and how the proposed musical performance at “Theatre Royal Covent-Garden” would be more about the displaying of giving than actually solving the economic circumstances of the widowed woman with her young children. Along those lines, I suggested to them that the most accessible literary device may be what the piece doesn’t share—specifically, in how it implies the mother has withheld information to her children about their father’s death. Although the fragment personifies “Justice,” “Charity,” and “Avarice” in ways that my students found off putting, they ended up focusing on the evocative final image: “It rained. I called a coach—drove to a coffee house: but not having a farthing in my pocket, borrowed a shilling at the bar” (4). When we focused on this image of rainy weather, students saw how the fragment drew upon conventional sentimental tropes that they could recognize.

At the end of our discussion, I asked students to pick one of the fragments and make an argument about what they thought the story sought to achieve in terms of its cultural work. The students drew upon textual evidence to determine what their chosen fragment seemed poised to accomplish. To put an added twist to this in-class work, and since I had many creative writers in the course, I then had my students write an additional concluding sentence that would either move forward or undercut what they saw as the overall point of the fragment. This led to a fascinating intensification of sentiment in Fragment 2 with one student following-up the final sentence with this: “The old man left having never seen the contempt in the wife’s eyes, exhaustion in the man’s limbs, and abandonment in the children’s hearts.” Contrarily, one student subversively concluded Fragment 6, transforming the protagonist in ways that dramatically shift the reading: “Alas, but this picture of virtue Maria, whose cold hand still clasped upon the avian specimen with that tenderness she showed it in life; the lady of the brothel came into the backyard and scolded her for sleeping in her labor.”

Hessinger, Rodney. “Victim of Seduction or Vicious Woman?: Conceptions of the Prostitute at the Philadelphia Magdalen Society, 1800–1850” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 66 (1999): 201–222.

 

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