Just Teach One

JTO: Rosa; or, American Genius and Education

Les Harrison
Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

Rosa; or, American Genius and Education, was a natural fit for an upper-division course on the rise of the novel in the United States. Rosa served as our transition from novels published at the close of the eighteenth century to a cluster of novels published in the 1820s. As such, students in the course came to the novel having previously read Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791/94), Foster’s The Coquette (1797), Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), and Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799). We covered the text in three, 50 minute class meetings.

At the close of the last class meeting prior to starting discussion on Rosa, I situated the text within the larger JTO project with a discussion of historical recovered texts and the changing canon of early American literature (students had previously read a chapter in Davidson’s Revolution and the Word). The class expressed excitement at reading something “new” and left with the directive to focus on passages that felt new or different from previous texts while looking for passages to include in their reading journals.

Most of the first day’s discussion focused on the character of Ms. Charmion. Students found her a “welcome change” and a “breath of fresh air” in contrast to previous female protagonists encountered in the course. Ms. Charmion’s status as an independent woman of means lead to a discussion of business women in the Early Republic, with two or three students drawing comparisons between her depiction and that of Sarah Kemble Knight as described in the Norton Anthology’s excerpts from “Madam Knight’s Journal.” Numerous students had selected for their reading journals the passage describing Ms. Charmion’s habit of bedtime reading where, “having arranged her house-hold affairs as was her common practice, she took up a volume of essays selected from the works of Benjamin Franklin” (14b) Enthusiastic students, not yet aware of Ms. Charmion’s backstory, were eager to position her as a female Franklin. Discussing the novel’s positive view of the nation’s emerging cities, the class lingered on Mrs. Charmion’s visit to the dry-goods store where she observes, “the busy and polite attentions of the young gentlemen who attend in the stores. Obliging and complaisant, these youth advance their own reputations as well as the interest of their principals, and diffuse to all around them pleasurable sensations” (10b). A lot of class time went to analyzing the female gaze in this scene as Mrs. Charmion seems more interested in the young gentleman than in any particular piece of merchandise.

Students who had not read ahead on day one expressed disappointment in the second class meeting upon discovering Ms. Charmion’s backstory as the prideful Dorinda Morvin. “So we’re back to punishing disobedient women,” was one student’s take on the situation. Showing little interest in the very specific social satire contained in the Francis Figary passages, the class’s attention turned to the introduction of Sol and his subsequent examination by the committee of London nobles and scientists. The class contrasted the general humaneness of Sol’s depiction in the novel with the seemingly inevitability of Native v. European American violence on display in Brown’s Edgar Huntly. A couple of students did note that Rosa’s author seemed to “want it both ways” by having her emissary of Native Americans hail from Peru as opposed to a nearer native tribe.

When introducing the novel, I had mentioned Rosa’s inclusion in The American Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (2015), as noted in the JTO introduction to the text. Students had been on the lookout for episodes which might have led to the novel’s inclusion in a survey of early gay and lesbian literature. Heading into the final day discussing the novel, many thought that the fifth chapter, in which Richard Orvaine flees Baltimore, eventually falling into the company of a counterfeiter, was going to present some obvious passages for a potential queer reading of the text. When nothing that could be explicitly labeled as homoerotic occurred between the two men, the discussion turned to possible coded language in the passage that might have pointed to “illicit” sexual behavior. A number of students focused on the significance of the villain’s namelessness and, more richly, the fact that he was a counterfeiter. The class was then able to contrast the false friendship and illicit publication offered by the counterfeiter with Richard’s eventual introduction to a circle of virtuous, older male friends after he arrives in Boston. Ultimately, the bulk of the class seemed unconvinced by the queering of Orvaine’s relationship with the counterfeiter.

Having recently finished Edgar Huntly, students were not terribly surprised when the familial relationships between several previously disconnected characters were revealed at the novel’s conclusion. More concern was expressed over the late revelation that Sol had previously worked as an overseer on a plantation, making his status as a positive portrayal of a Native American character in early American literature even more problematic. Students also expressed disappointment over the lack of attention paid to the novel’s titular character, Rosa, with several students noting her complete passivity throughout the novel.

As an instructor, I definitely plan on including the novel in future courses. While some students criticized the novel’s “disorganized” plot, the numerous ways in which the text worked against the grain of previous Early American novels were, for the most part, appreciated by the students. Within the context of a course on Early American novels, in addition to providing a welcome complication to the numerous marriage-plot novels of the era, the character of Sol provided a nice starting point for early novelistic depictions of Native Americans which were developed in the next two novels on our syllabus, Child’s Hobomok (1824), Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), and Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827).



Rosa and the Role of Female Education in the Early Republic

David Lawrimore
Idaho State University


I taught Rosa, Or American Genius and Education in “Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1860,” a sophomore-level course designed primarily for English majors as well as majors in our secondary English education program. Overall, students were especially receptive to this text compared to other early American novels I’ve taught in the past. I attribute this to the thread of mystery that runs throughout the plot—something that kept them more engaged than a standard seduction narrative—as well as the satire of newspapers, gossip, and other social elements that students found immediately relatable. Online responses and class discussion included a variety of topics relevant to the study of early American literature: race, gender, education, print culture, gossip, canonization, and others. However, the topic that received the most traction—likely due to the wealth of English education majors in the course—was the interaction between gender and education.

We read and discussed Rosa over three 50-minute class periods during the middle of a unit on post-revolutionary American literature. We read the text after Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” and before selections from Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Rosa fit well between these two texts, as they all are deeply interested in the role of womanhood and education in the early national period. In fact, Rosa’s consideration of education is, in many ways, a foil to Murray’s arguments about female education. Students had just read Murray’s arguments for the inherent intellectual equality of women as well as their need to be educated in topics beyond the domestic sphere. Thus, they were poised to compare these points to those topics addressed in Rosa.

In the initial discussion of Rosa’s opening chapters, I asked students to compare the novel and Murray’s essay, and they were quick to point out a number of similarities. In one online response, for example, a student noted the “feminist leanings” of the author, mentioning both Mrs. Charmion’s mental acuity as well as women’s roles as moral guardians. After this initial discussion, I worked to create some space between the novel and Murray’s essay by asking students to compare Murray’s thoughts on the role of education to the role of education in Rosa. Specifically, I called students’ attention to the following quote from Rosa:

Education is the legitimate conservator of good morals. Not, however, that branch of it alone which goes to the banishment of ignorance, and the introduction of science and the arts; for experience has woefully taught us, that knowledge is no precautionary guard against vice and crime. It is parental, domestic education, which is the fortress of virtue, and which may be pronounced almost impregnable to the assaults of vice. (17)

This quote helped students recognize some of the differences between Murray and Rosa, as well as to refine our class’s consideration of the role of education more generally. Students noted that Murray’s suggested “curriculum” (geography, astronomy, natural philosophy) was perhaps more in line with what Rosa calls “science and arts,” and that Rosa advocates for a different, moral “curriculum.”  This distinction helpfully opened up a parallel discussion in which the class debated the role of education and whether the job of educators is to teach “knowledge” or to offer a “domestic education” that instills morality in their students.

The comparison between “knowledge” and “domestic education” continued in later classes. In particular, students bristled at the description of Mrs. Charmion’s education of Rosa in Chapter VI, where Charmion “inculcates” in Rosa the way to be an agreeable woman who easily “attracted a crowd of suitors” (58-9). Students pointed out the problematic nature of this “moral education.” One student noted how this education was simply how to be a “better wife.” And, relatedly, another pointed out that it is clear that this is a particularly “female education,” that men would never have to be taught such things.

Indeed, by the time students had finished reading Rosa, there was a general consensus that the work approached education in a manner different from Murray. In order to solidify this point, I asked students to consider the work’s subtitle: “American Genius and Education.” By this point we had a solid conception of the education in Rosa as domestic, moral, and specifically feminine. We thus returned to the text to better understand “genius.” We accomplished this through a description of the only person identified as a “genius” in the text, Richard. Specifically, I asked students to consider Richards’ essay “On the Art of Thinking” (27-8) and the narrator’s description of Richard in Chapter V. Using these portions of the text, students were quick to point out the inequality in the term, especially upon revisiting the following quote: “for it is not true, (however flattering the conceit my be to the mass of mankind,) that nature, in regard to intellect, has created all men equal…” (28). Moreover, they noted that Richard’s first education was an “accumulation of knowledge,” more similar to the “arts and sciences” than to moral education. Thus, students were poised to discuss the inherent differences between education and genius, and one student asked if any of the women in the novel could be considered a genius. Ultimately, this question reached to the heart of the comparison between Rosa and “On the Equality of the Sexes,” and opened up a space to more broadly discuss the limitations of women’s roles as moral guardians in the early republic, where women were empowered but only in a limited capacity.

In sum, Rosa has the potential to be a particularly engaging and generative addition to an early American literature survey course. It is particularly fruitful as a companion piece to Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” for they both open up a lively debate about the place of education and women in the early republic. Moreover, it helped my class, comprised of a large number of education majors, to think about their role as future teachers, especially whether or not it is the job of teachers to instill a “moral” education in their students.

Reflections on Teaching Rosa for “Just Teach One”

Marion Rust, Professor
University of Kentucky Department of English


My students were somewhat taken aback that I had thrown Rosa; or, American Genius and Education into a graduate seminar on “Disenfranchised Voices in Early American Literature,” dominated as the syllabus was by non-fictional self-narratives from Thomas Shepard’s congregant conversion narratives to Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict.  Based on the varied, disjunctive and fragmentary nature of the material we had been working with up to this point, the subgeneric montage of the novel struck them as familiar. But a disappearing blazing sword metonymized into a mattress occupied by a genderless crying body; narratorial reflections on proper modes of sympathy; attractive fifty-year-old women with complicated pasts; discussions of proper reading practices that include a dog-kicking self-styled male sentimentalist; lampoons of barely literate reporters and the popular gazettes they stoked; brilliant, penniless suitors; Peruvian Incan household dependents and their long-lost daughters: all wedged awkwardly into the barest semblance of a marriage plot?  This particular assortment struck them as fanciful to the point of excess (proviso: anyone who had read Wieland seemed relatively at ease with the flaming sword). I think the students decided that I was testing them by taking narrative fragmentation from the texts we read to the syllabus itself, thereby calling upon their ability to discern pattern not only within recalcitrant works but also between them. And in a sense, this is true. Lobbing a deliberate zinger into an otherwise traditionally coherent syllabus just to see what happened betrayed a certain Jane Tompkins A Life in School attitude on my part. I also happen to love the Just Teach One project and couldn’t wait any longer to contribute, especially as administrative responsibilities continue to chip away at the number of classes I teach in any given year. Finally, let us not forget the names! Roaster, Ecstacy, Charmion, Laetitia Lively, Squire Fist and Justice Ample, to say nothing of “Sturdy” for the most important slave character: what’s not to love, or loathe?

Not a single student seemed to hold this experiment against me, and it is tempting to continue inscribing one text that is “not like the others” onto future graduate seminar syllabi.  Here’s what one participant wrote after class: “Rosa — let me tell you — was a real hoot. It can feel like a mosaic of disparate and at times contradictory parts, like a quilt pieced together with patches that were designed by people who didn’t know what the rest of the team was working on.” At the same time, were I to teach Rosa again, I would go further in class to salve the chaos that the reading experience engenders. I might begin with the theory the book ends with regarding environmental racialization and the true nature of nobility, a topos that appears throughout the narrative both explicitly (note that “Count de Buffon” makes an appearance) and in the person of a central character (short answer: Peruvian Indians can be anything they wish, but “negro domestics,” as in slaves, not so much). I think this approach would help make sense of the novel in the context of the course as a whole, which was dedicated to figuring out what disenfranchisement meant and means, how those so categorized in their time managed to write and publish, and what their innovations offer that would remain otherwise unreachable.  Is it coincidental, I might then ask, that an author whose greatest pleasure seems to be lampooning popular print culture so as to inculcate reading practices that could put the balance between reason and feeling back on the right footing might also find worthy the question of “whether the natives of the American continent are as acute and vigorous in their intellect as the natives of Europe, and whether they are as susceptible of mental improvement”? This discussion could lead us into a topic of currently broad and ever generative critical interest: how did 19th-century authors and their audiences figure the relationship between reading and citizenship? (“As people gather socially, literature plays a central role,” wrote another student who appreciated the novel’s depictions of “coffee-house publication society.”) What can these figurations reveal to us that might have lain dormant during the period of initial publication?

The third element of this text I would emphasize in future courses would be an incoherent if enduring fascination of my own: the author’s continual return to the topic of the mind.  Ruminations on proper forms of emotionality and the obsessive scrutiny of certain characters’ psychic states even during seemingly ordinary moments compelled me like nothing else in the book (cf. the aforementioned 50-ish woman of means, trundling along in her carriage, to whom we are introduced in the book’s opening pages). I’m not sure what I make of this yet, but there’s something Jonathan Edwardsian about it, and I want more.

The above “next time I teach it” rubric imagines an entirely different graduate seminar than the one we just finished. In said imaginary class, I intone just enough to exert seamless control over the substance and direction of every 2.5-hour meeting.  The table does not crowd the chairs up against the walls, keeping personal space at a premium and necessitating a carefully planned entrance and exit on the part of all. The students have done perhaps a less thorough job of preparing, such that their dialogue remains a little less lively and little more focused on, ahem, my ideas. Do I want such a course? Never. Legroom and fire exit safety aside, we had a great time and learned a lot, perhaps in that order. Teaching Rosa made me a beginner again. Which only shows how far the students of ENG 750 had already come.


Satire and /as Education

Jon Blandford
Bellarmine University


As I’ve done with previous installments of “Just Teach One,” I used Rosa to invite the students in my Early American survey course this fall to engage in some critical reflection about the value and limits of the survey itself.  And, as I did the past two times I participated in the project, I prompted that critical reflection by making the JTO text the subject of both a series of posts my students contributed to our course blog and a formal paper in which they I asked them to make a case for the possible significance of incorporating this recovered text into a course such as ours.  What might Rosa allow us to see about the culture and/or literature of the period that we don’t see in the more canonical texts we cover in the survey?

Rosa was a particularly fortuitous selection for my purposes.  Although my survey is designed for majors, students outside the major can take it as well in order to satisfy their gen ed literature requirement.  For whatever reason, I had a larger than usual number of non-majors in the two sections of the survey I taught this fall, including several from my university’s school of education.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these students were eager to examine what Rosa might show us about how Americans in the early nineteenth century saw education. These students—along with the other non-majors in the class—also provided an interesting perspective on the larger questions about literary history and the logic of the survey course that I use the “Just Teach One” project to help pose.  Less aware of and invested in the canon than students in the major tend to be—they haven’t read Rosa before of course, but they haven’t read Hawthorne or Melville before either—the non-majors in my class didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be reading a text like Rosa instead of some other, more celebrated text.  At the same time, as anyone who has tried to get non-majors to keep up with a heavy reading load can no doubt confirm, undergraduates who haven’t chosen to specialize in studying literature tend to be less inclined to take for granted the value of doing so, especially with respect to difficult texts from an historically distant period.  This lead to a rather lively discussion of why early nineteenth-century readers might have read a text such as Rosa, and why reading it now might matter to us, including those among us (i.e., my students) who don’t identify as antiquarians.

Much of our conversation on the blog and in class focused on the novel’s representation of education.  More specifically, we talked about how the shared emphasis in the Rosa and Richard plots on the importance of non-parental adult mentors and the surprise revelation of Rosa’s parentage—with its implication that education should be accessible to everyone—can be seen as anticipating the emergence of common schools later in the century, as well as efforts to provide education to women and people of color in particular.  And yet, as more than one student suggested, this egalitarian impulse might be undercut by the fact that Rosa is revealed not just to be of Incan heritage, but from a “royal” lineage.  My students also noted the differences between Richard’s and Rosa’s educations. Where Richard ventures out into the world and learns moral lessons through experience, Rosa’s education takes place out of sight in Mrs. Charmion’s home, and focuses on subject matter traditionally gendered feminine—sewing, “domestic economy,” learning how to sing, dance, and play musical instruments for the entertainment of guests at “private parties,” etc. (58).  What’s more, Rosa’s education not only differs from Richard’s , it sets her apart as well from her mentor Mrs. Charmion, an independent woman whom we’re told “had not enjoyed perfectly the benefits of a school,” and who, like Richard, learned through “experience drawn from her intercourse with the world” (5).   Perhaps, we speculated, as education becomes more available to women in the nineteenth century, that same education also becomes more narrowly circumscribed.  I admittedly don’t know about the history of women’s education to answer that question, but, were I to teach Rosa again, I would definitely want to explore that context further.

Another thread that emerged from my class’s analysis of the novel had to do with the relationship between the text’s main plot and its various satirical episodes. As one student observed in an early post on the blog, Rosa is conspicuously absent from much of the novel that bears her name.  Instead, we’re introduced in the first few chapters to the likes of Richard and his critique of gossip, Mr. Ecstacy and his phony sentimental poetry, Francis Figary and his tabloid news—nineteenth-century “clickbait,” one of my students termed it—and Squire Fist and his brutish, self-interested pursuit of justice.  With the exception of Richard, these and a host of other curiously named characters appear only fleetingly so that the author can make some satirical point or other.  While for some of my students, these episodes appeared disconnected from the main plot, others pointed out that Squire Fist is described as not being able to write and Francis Figary as being “illiterate” (20, 22), and that the targets of satire could for the most part be seen as the kinds of thing against which a good education is supposed to guard.  A well-educated person, they argued, would be less likely to be seduced by either bad sentimental poetry or misinformation spread through gossip and newspapers, and also better prepared to make smart decisions for themselves and promote the common good.

Although this interpretation might be complicated by the fact that the novel mentions the well-to-do and presumably better educated as among the purveyors of gossip and consumers of Francis Figary’s spurious journalism, the relationship it posits between literary education and the cultivation of rational-critical faculties usefully linked our discussion of Rosa back to our discussion of republican print publicity earlier in the term.  Looking at Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Federalist Papers, we had considered how the late eighteenth century imagined a community of citizen-readers who would participate in the public sphere through the medium of print.  Later, looking at fiction in the early nineteenth century, we had talked about anxieties regarding reading as an activity increasingly done in private and for pleasure.  With these two earlier discussions in mind, I pushed my students to think about how Rosa might be positioning itself and fiction more generally as a means of public education, and about how satire more specifically might be a particularly effective instrument in this respect, combining as it does edification and amusement.  Unlike sensational news stories or scandals that capture the public’s interest, satire promises to put entertainment to good use by aligning what is interesting to readers with what is in readers’ best interest to know.  And if novels and satires such as Rosa were part of the informal pedagogy of the early national and antebellum U.S., maybe they have lessons to teach us today about what people then thought was worth learning, lessons we might not learn were we to confine our own literary education within the more formal parameters of the canon.




Budding Genius and Introductory Literary Studies

Caroline Woidat
State University of New York—Geneseo


I taught Rosa; or, American Genius and Education in a section of the required gateway course for undergraduate English majors, minors, and concentrators. The course aims to help students “develop a working vocabulary for analyzing texts and relating texts to contexts; understand the theoretical questions that inform all critical conversations about textual meaning and value; and participate competently, as writers, in the ongoing conversation about texts and theory that constitutes English as a field of study.” The subtitle of my course, Reader & Text: Marginal Spaces, is explained as follows on the syllabus:

In this section, we will examine the marginal spaces of literary production—that is, the space in which critics engage with texts, and the role of marginalized voices and traditions in shaping our understanding of “literature.” Readings will include early American women’s, Native American, and African-American literature that has been recovered by scholars from the margins of literary history, for example, together with diverse contemporary writers whose work complicates genre and foregrounds the complex social, political, and economic dynamics involved in literary creation and interpretation.

Students encounter critical and theoretical essays addressing the questions of why we read, how we read, and what we read, and they practice their interpretive skills with weekly short writing assignments throughout the semester.

I have previously included readings from Just Teach One in the course because the site works so well to explore these issues, but this was the first time that we read a JTO text concurrently with other participating classes and that students were required to write about the text in a 5-page analytical paper. Both proved valuable in providing students an opportunity to go beyond reading about textual recovery to actively engage in the process themselves. With a new awareness of the scholarly work involved in selecting and editing texts like Rosa for classroom use, my students gained the sense that they were breaking ground with their own readings of the novel and arguments for its value. Reader & Text emphasizes the interpretive skills of close reading, a prerequisite for upper-level courses that demand more research, contextual analysis, and engagement with other critics. Given the relative lack of scholarship on Rosa compared to the abundant critical materials for other texts on our syllabus, students assumed more confidence as they strove to develop original interpretations of the novel. Some of their anxieties as budding undergraduate scholars faded with the knowledge that Rosa hadn’t already been widely explored and discussed, and that their critical skills and voices were important to its study.

This is not to say that students were always comfortable reading Rosa as they attempted to understand and analyze the text. They thought the text was difficult at times and often demanded rereading given certain stylistic elements such as long sentences, a non-linear and complicated plot, inset narratives and essays, and contemporary allusions and satire that are hard to recognize. After their initial reading of the novel, students found some of the subplots “pointless,” the inclusion of Richard’s literary efforts confusing, and the conclusion too unrealistic and like a “soap opera” with its “over-the-top” weaving of narrative threads into a neat resolution. They described the narrative as lacking focus, going off in various directions, breaking the fourth wall, and challenging readers to look for patterns that might connect seemingly “random” elements in the novel. I compiled a running list of their first impressions during class, using them as springboards for further discussion about changing literary aesthetics and critical approaches—considering, for example, varying cultural demands that literature be moral, educational, entertaining, realistic, etc. Students appreciated the complexity of characters like Sol and Mrs. Charmion but were disappointed by Rosa’s lack of development beyond an allegorical figure. Given all their criticism and questions concerning the novel’s construction, I encouraged students to embrace the opportunity in their analytical essays to make sense of what they saw as problematic formal and thematic elements.

We discussed Rosa during one 100-minute class period and devoted more time in several subsequent classes to developing their individual paper topics, thesis statements, and outlines in smaller workshop groups. During this process, students continued to explore compelling issues in Rosa, particularly the tensions between the novel’s conservative and progressive treatments of social inequalities based upon gender, race, and class. Students were drawn to theme of nature vs. nurture raised by the novel’s multiple narratives of adoption, coming of age, and social mobility. They explored Rosa’s participation in American myth-making with these rags-to-riches and Pygmalion stories, and with its metafictional concern with writing, publishing, and sensationalism in mass media. The novel offers an intriguing, timely historical perspective on national debates concerning “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and what makes American “great.” In the end, students were unsure whether the novel’s satire functions to ridicule the notions of American superiority asserted in its conclusion. To what extent is the novel celebrating American values over European ones, and to what extent does Rosa critique America’s inflated sense of its cultural advancement as ironic and hypocritical?

After students finished the paper assignment, we revisited their thinking about Rosa and its value as a course text. The novel is well suited for the study of narrative form and techniques, and it complemented other texts on our syllabus with nonlinear plot lines (including recent works by contemporary authors). Students observed that Rosa pairs well with Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, and that reading Foster’s epistolary novel first (or, I would add, another early American seduction novel like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple or JTO’s edition of Amelia) might enhance their interest and understanding Rosa. In an introductory course, students would benefit from more class time tracing the convoluted relationships and plot lines, perhaps with the creation of a character chart and family trees. Rosa’s complexity challenged students but ultimately provided a rewarding experience as they crafted a rich variety of topics and interpretations in response to the many questions this novel generates.

Just Teach One: Rosa

Sarah Schuetze
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Introduction to American Literature I


Rosa is a kinetic novel—the characters are on the move, but so is the narrative. The often bumpy shifts between characters, point of view, and conflict call attention action and activity though could be read as narrative gaffs. But as a cultural artifact, Rosa reflects the movement of its urban setting and a nation (and national identity) in flux. Therefore, when I decided to teach Rosa, I wanted to highlight what I think of as the novel’s kinesis and help students appreciate the value of motility in a novel. To do so, I made the novel part of a three-novel sequence and designed a series of in-class discussion activities to emulate this.

In my Introduction to American Literature I survey, I put Rosa between Hannah Foster’s The Coquette and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. While Rosa’s narrative is more rambunctious than the others, it fit into my established reading schedule quite easily.

The three-novel sequence I assigned allowed us to build on multiple themes—including the novel form, popular readership, idealizations of gender, national allegory, anxiety over sincerity, characterization of indigenous peoples (not in The Coquette) mixed-race characters (same), the im/possible future for characters who defy normative standards of gender and/or whiteness, and much more. Thus, these topics became moving topics that traveled from one novel to another and back again as we revisited them.

For instance, reading Rosa helped students better understand the gender imperatives Eliza Wharton resisted and Alice Munro exemplified in The Coquette and The Last of the Mohicans, respectively. Although Rosa is the title character of Rosa and the focus of gossip and investigation throughout the novel, she remains a tangential character. The fact that Rosa was an object of action/movement rather than an agent of her own actions/movements didn’t sit well with many of my students, especially since there was no plucky (albeit doomed) counterpart as in the Foster and Cooper novels. Instead, readers encountered a character who is exceptional for her passivity—and in a rollercoaster of a novel, this stands out.

The author suggests that in the midst of change and motion, stability can be found with Rosa, an educated, moral, and passive young woman. What’s revolutionary about this is the fact that the young woman seems to be of mixed race. So in suggesting her as an ideal, the author challenges the racial divisions that undergird the narrative. Then again, are we seeing an ideal woman, American, or an ideal mixed race individual? The novel’s position on race seems to be as kinetic as the rest of it.

Focusing on movement also provides a helpful way to frame the discussion of Sol, native person from South America. Sol is introduced as a moving figure—one who has traveled across the Americas and actively fought in the Revolutionary War. However, this action predates the central events of the novel (even the flash-back chapters).  When the Charmion family is young, Sol is described as an “invalid” notable for his “romantic valour,” which speaks to his past (35). If this were the only version of this character we encountered, we might read this as an example of the “vanishing Indian” narrative as Sol’s vigor was over. However, at the end of the novel, we learn Sol has been traveling the world and has married Mrs. Charmion’s daughter, a white woman. Like the sun he is named after, he comes back in full force. Once again we’re left to wonder at the author’s revolutionarily optimistic view of a mixed race America so different from other novels published in this time.

On its own, Rosa challenged my students’ expectations in its use of humor, portrayal of urban settings (especially Baltimore as opposed to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia), engagement with popular print culture, depiction of gossip, inclusion of Sol as a native South American character, and a mixed race character with the potential for a positive future. This last point offers a positive contrast with the tragic fate of Cooper’s Cora.

A unique feature of Rosa is the gaming/gambling chapter, which helped me come up with a way to enact the notion of kinesis in a large (45 person) discussion without devolving into (too much) chaos. In the chapter, readers almost travel from table to table, from character to character. Thus, I created a “round-robin” of games/activities (included below) that drew upon various features of the novel.

For the discussion, I printed out the instructions for each activity and spread throughout the room. Before we began, I had students pick one of the mannerisms (included below) displayed in the novel and adopt it for the duration of the round-robin exercise. Some were better sports with this than others, naturally. Then, students circulated in groups from one activity to another—choosing which to go to next and negotiating other groups. The diversity in activities allowed students to engage with particular features of this novel that would not necessarily come up in the discussion of The Last of the Mohicans (next in our novel sequence).

Through this immersive experience with the novel’s investment in movement, students gained a better sense of the culture the novel comes from where people, ideas, and material goods moved or were moved and the nation and national identity was being shaped and reshaped. This helps makes sense of the ambiguities in the novel and helps to unsettle the providential narrative of the nation’s history as an untroubled, linear path.


Works Cited


Cooper, James Fenimore. Thea Last of the Mohicans. 1826. Dover Thrift, 2003.

Foster, Hannah W. The Coquette. 1797. Oxford UP, 1987.


Round Robin Activities:

  1. Design a game about Richard and his adventures in Philadelphia and the snares he gets into.


  1. Read and perform one of the following (and check it off—don’t pick one another group member has already chosen):
  • The essay piece (7)
  • and maybe the vindication of gossip (29)
  • the poporendum (18)
  • the newstory about the fire (24)
  • the lawyer’s statement (25)
  • Sol’s defense (38-)
  • harangue in Frenchtown on way to Philadelphia (43), that’s a jenny scene at the inn in Newton (45) spyglass (56)


  1. Come up with a gossip-like piece of writing about the vice of card playing among women (a source of disgust for Mr. Derwent and Richard), or the meeting of Rosa and Richard (either the first one or the indescribable one mentioned on 63b), or Peerwell’s scheme on 64.


  1. Long lost relative! Map out the family connections revealed at the end.

Then come up with some possible textual “parents” for this novel by seeing how and where it might relate to other things we’ve read and other things you’ve read in other classes.


  1. Evaluate the novel by the standards in the novel on page 28.


  1. Evaluate the characters and actions based on Franklin’s list of virtues (pick a character card and a virtue card at random).


  1. List all the geographic places named in the book.


  1. Write a Figary-style news story about one of the following:

The woman and her maid (55)

The counterfeiter (52)

or The women who stays to play cards when there’s a sick child at home (61)


  1. Play a game of 18th-century Balderdash! using the cards provided. Pick one card. Each group member should come up with a feasible definition for the term.


  1. Discuss 1-2 of the following passages. Check off ones you discuss. Pick an unchecked one for your first discussion. You can pick any checked or unchecked ones for your second discussion (if there is time).
  • Description of Charmion on 5B,
  • Power of women on 11B,
  • C concern with scandal 16,
  • Education and morality 17,
  • Interest in strange or uncommon 23a,
  • Novel reading 28,
  • Captivity 37a,
  • Sol’s speech 38b-,
  • Genius 41b-,
  • Attainment of riches 51b,
  • Heart of Rosa and intellect of Richard 62a-62b, Rosa’s apology 64b,
  • Sol and Barbarina 65,
  • You know nothing of ‘Lunnan” … 66a,
  • Derwent’s disclosure 66a,
  • Sol’s arrangement of Rosa’s meeting Mrs. Charmion 67a,
  • His arrangement of the fire 67b,
  • Richard’s response to the news 68a
  • Last paragraph 68b


  1. Discuss how progressive this novel is or isn’t. Be specific about what is informing your response to the question.


  1. MADLIB! Come up with examples of the following words and fill them into the designated spots in an excerpted passage from the book.


  1. Noun ____________________
  2. Past tense verb ____________________
  3. Past tense verb____________________
  4. adjective____________________
  5. type of person or behavior____________________
  6. adjective____________________
  7. adjective____________________
  8. geographic region
  9. proper name
  10. profession
  11. past tense verb
  12. noun ending in –tion



A Description of the [5. Type of person or behavior]


Among all the [1. noun] that naturalists have [2. past tense verb], I have never [3. past tense verb], either in hieroglyphics or [4. adjective] writing, the delineation of a [5. type of person or behavior]. This omission is somewhat [6. adjective] too; because, as far as my [attribute] extends, the [5. type of person or behavior] is a native of [7. adjective] [8. geographic region] of the globe, and neither Count [9. proper name], nor any other [10. profession] upon animated nature, could have [11. past tense verb] without incurring the [12. noun ending in –tion] of negligence.


  1. Discuss what America and Americans signify in this book.



Adopt one of the mannerisms of the characters:

Frequently shug and give simpering smiles

Shouts randomly: that’s a jenny!

Be like Mrs. Mordaunt— “her understanding condemns what her fancy had impelled her to utter the moment before—she has rendered herself capricious and inconsistent in behavior” (58)

Be like Miss Flirt who “plays the coquette” (58)

Be like Mrs. Charmion—always reminding the need of being extremely cautious not to confide to strangers her sentiments or her opinions

Give excessive high praise

Give sudden and enormous professions of friendship

Be influenced by envy and revenge

Demonstrate prudery

Boast of prowess

Show arrogant presumption

Show a brain completely overrun with notions of own importance

Show ignorant arrogance

Be a pert and flippant pretender

Have a constitution of great excitability,

Make distressing exclamation of “oh! And “ah” like volcanic fumes

Have ravings of despair

Tremble as if sick and speak with a tremor

Demonstrate timorous bashfulness

Howl and lament

Looking at other people with a spyglass (use a piece of paper rolled up into a tube)


Rethinking our Ascendant Narratives About Canonicity

Thomas Koenigs
Scripps College


I taught Rosa as the final text in an upper-level undergraduate seminar on “The Early American Novel.” The class had sixteen students, mostly junior and senior English majors from across the five Claremont colleges. Most of the students had little, if any, familiarity with early American literature and were taking the course to fulfill a pre-1900 American literature distribution requirement for the major. Rosa was the final novel for the course and we spent two class sessions (one hour and fifteen minutes each) on it. In this sense, Rosa was the exception in a class that had progressed chronologically up to this point. Other than The Female American, the vast majority of our classes had focused on US novels from the 1780s through the 1830s. But when we turned to Rosa, we had just finished with a final mini-unit on mid-19th century fiction (The Heroic Slave, Ruth Hall, and Behind a Mask) that I included in order to encourage students to draw connections across different periods. For this reason, Rosa provided both a chance to return to many of the issues that we had discussed in the early national novels and an opportunity to draw connections between early national and mid-century US fiction.

At the beginning of the semester, I had told the class about Rosa and the JTO project. I was upfront about the fact that I had never read Rosa before. I had pitched this as an opportunity for shared discovery, and in particular, I wanted us to consider together how this rarely studied novel might either fit into or trouble the different throughlines we had traced in the more canonical novels that we had read together. By placing it at the end of the semester, I wanted to simulate how scholarly recovery and rediscovery require us to rethink our ascendant narratives and theories of a given period or genre.

With a semester of early US novels behind us, the students had no trouble putting Rosa in conversation with earlier readings. One student posited an interesting distinction between Rosa and the other novels we had studied: whereas we had read a number of novels that had sought to educate readers, Rosa was, this student suggested, the first novel that we read that was about education and it seemed uniquely interested in pedagogical theory. Other students, however, were quick to point out that this latter description could describe a lot of early US novels: although not as explicitly as Rosa, many of the texts we had read earlier—students mentioned The Power of Sympathy, Female Quixotism, and Wieland—used their narratives to intervene in debates about educational theory. This led to a wide-ranging discussion on various sub-topics related to education raised by Rosa: thinking back to Female Quixotism and Wieland, we discussed the role of parents (and alternatives to parents) in education; thinking back to The Algerine Captive and Sheppard Lee, we thought about the relationship between education and picaresque narratives; and thinking back to Kelroy and The Coquette, we thought about the role of innocence and experience in competing theories of education, especially female education.

As I suspect the connections between Rosa and these other early US novels will come up in others’ reflections, I want to especially mention how my students connected Rosa to the mid-century novels that we had just finished. Reading Rosa shortly after Ruth Hall allowed us to juxtapose the very different representations of literary and print culture in the two books. This pairing also allowed us to discuss the very different conceptions of authorship presented by the two books. I must admit that I had not anticipated this synergy and I wish that I had budgeted more time—and prepared more background material—for this part of the discussion. The students were especially eager to discuss the inclusion of Richard’s essays and sketches within Rosa, as this stood in such stark contrast to Fern’s decision to withhold all of Floy’s published writings from Ruth Hall (even as she includes readers’ letters to Floy). We tried to unpack what these divergent formal strategies reveal about these fictions’ accounts of the print and literary culture of their respective moments. We also touched, albeit briefly, on the different role that satire plays in each novel.

Perhaps more surprisingly, my students were also eager to compare Rosa’s remarkable ending with the ending of Alcott’s sensational thriller Behind a Mask. The students saw a tension in Rosa’s resolution: in a novel that, as Faherty and White note in their introduction, privileges nurture over nature and deemphasizes the traditional family as the site of education, the various revelations of secret kinship and connection struck the students as potentially undermining the text’s emphasis on the malleability of identity. They contrasted this ending with how Alcott’s conwoman heroine, Jean Muir, stages the revelation of a fraudulent hidden aristocratic identity as a means of securing a marriage with a rich and titled older man. Although the class ultimately reached few conclusions, this pairing led to a lively discussion of the relationship between class, education, performance, and identity in these fictions published a half century apart.

Finally, I want to note the prominent role that Rosa played in our end of semester discussion. For our final class, we read chapters 3 and 4 of Davidson’s foundational Revolution and the Word. I had waited to introduce Davidson’s influential argument until the final session, because I didn’t want this argument to frame the students’ initial encounter with these texts. Rather, I wanted to students to draw on their now considerable reading in the early US novel, as they grappled with Davidson’s foundational account of the genre. (The students were generally persuaded by Davidson’s argument about the novel and education, but they were more divided on her claims about the social egalitarianism of the early US novel.) I was struck by how often students referred back to Rosa in our discussion of Davidson, both because it offered some of the most explicit meditations on the questions of education raised by Revolution and the Word and because, as the students noted, its hemispheric and transatlantic plotlines reveal some of the limitations of Davidson’s national focus.

I really enjoyed teaching Rosa and I could easily imagine teaching it again. But even more than this, I really enjoyed the JTO experience more generally and I hope that I will be able to teach other JTO texts in the future. (Given the small size of our department and coverage requirements, I don’t often get a chance to teach classes that focus specifically on early US literature, so this was an exciting opportunity for me.) Students told me they felt both excited and empowered by the thought that they were reading a text that hadn’t been exhaustively studied and I think it gave them a greater sense of the dynamism of literary historical study than any other single reading they did over the course of the semester.

The Deliberate Construction of an “American” Voice

Amanda Stuckey
York College of Pennsylvania


Our class read Rosa in LIT 313: The American Novel, an upper-level seminar designed for English majors. The class was structured to encourage students to think critically about what exactly makes a novel “American.” Throughout the semester, we explored many angles of addressing this question, from accounting for a novel’s historical context, its reception history, its author’s background, and its geographic settings. Rosa posed some challenges to this question, especially in its anonymity, its often-erratic plot lines, and its diverse cast of characters. In the end, however, Rosa helped us think about the ways a novel’s “American-ness,” in theme, in composition, or in form, may be the result of an author’s deliberate construction of an “American” voice out of the chorus of voices and literary materials within the text.

We read Rosa right after finishing up Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and in initial online responses and classroom conversations we discussed the two novels together. In particular, students’ responses seemed to center on the differences in narrative voice found throughout the novels; whereas one student noted the “moralizing voice” of Rowson’s narrator, she also suggested that Rosa seems to “mimic a moralizing voice,” perhaps as satire. One student even speculated that “Charlotte Temple is the kind of book Rosa is satirizing.” Our conversations diverged from Charlotte Temple, however, when students noted the “intertextual literary pieces” and what one student observed as the “fight to identify what was American literature” that seemed to distinguish Rosa from Charlotte Temple and that connected Rosa with more contemporary texts we would read later in the semester, even those as seemingly dissimilar as our final reading, Junot Díaz’s 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

When we moved from comparative readings to thinking about Rosa as an “American novel,” we found it necessary to sketch out a very rough map of the characters – and the author’s – peregrinations throughout the text, taking note of the connections made and paths crossed across the novel’s varied geographic and literary terrains. We had created a similar networked map of our overall syllabus during the first day of class, and we found that Rosa charted some of the same geographic spaces of “America” as represented in overall class readings. What stood out to us in particular about Rosa, however, was the way in which the lives of the novel’s diverse cast of characters mimicked the diverse forms, voices, and content of early nineteenth-century literatures. Rosa proved to be especially useful in understanding the early American swirl of print culture, as students immediately noted “the power of the media” as well as the “insatiable hunger for the flowery, the embellished, the sensationalist” that perhaps “represents the absence of a unified American literary culture at the time.” In this way, Rosa allowed us to discuss both the various forms of early U.S. print culture as well as the audiences that were consuming it.

Emily Goff, one of my LIT 313 students, became particularly interested in the mysteries surrounding the novel, and I asked her to reflect on her own experience with the novel in this post. She also completed her final project on the novel, linked here


Emily writes:

Sitting in a college classroom, a space constructed by both fixed and fluid pedagogies, in the 21st century and discussing Rosa, a text with meta-pedagogical layers to it, made me aware of the ever-unfolding struggle to uncover what an authentic American education is. The anonymous author grappled with the question, to be sure, and even explicitly stated how important real-life experience is, above all else, in the shaping of one’s mind and educational background. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the anonymous mastermind behind even the narrative voice; he or she must have been aware of the inevitability of educational institutions in this country, so, throughout the novel, there is an emphasis on characters’ responses to many different influences.

Richard does carve out his own path for himself, indeed, despite his problematic circumstances and heritage, but there is this undeniable, even timeless American-ness to him as a character at all points of his journey (which is the spine story of Rosa, really). His unfailing determination, as a student and writer in nineteenth-century America, to expand his knowledge and skills resonates with me, as a student and writer in twenty-first-century America. I realized, as simple as this may sound, that Americans are individual people, first and foremost. American education, regardless of the era, is about figuring out how to do more than simply exist amidst the mosaic of human voices. American genius is that development of striking individuality that somehow harmonizes with that of the person next to you, and the person next to her, and so on. The author teaches society how to teach something seemingly un-teachable: the art of being a unique American while still belonging to a nation whose principles are deeply entrenched, yet whose levels of diversity increase by the day. We cannot and should not stop the flourishing of all sorts of voices—that would defeat the purpose of having a democracy that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press among many other liberties—but we can try to teach the art of at once celebrating and satirizing elements of the literary landscape. What emerges from an engagement with that creative challenge is freshness, a distinctly American genius.

Education is a lifelong journey of the mind as it attempts to sift through the chaos and establish an informed, but unique vision. It is an evolving mindset, in the end, from which there springs not only critical thinking but also creative, energetic work. Our class imagined that the decidedly well-read author was someone who enjoyed walking through the streets, gathering inspiration and weaving together the varying influences in the air. Everyone’s voice mattered then; everyone’s voice matters now. I felt incredibly empowered during this discussion, as I am always trying to figure out ways in which I can connect all of the valuable knowledge I’ve gained from my years of schooling with my passion for writing within a large diverse community of Americans (and human beings, of course). As it turns out, education is that fusion within the self; it has rough edges and confusing elements, but it is American because of that courage to do something risky and unique with all of the pent-up energy. Ultimately, Rosa has become more than a mere story to me; I treasure it as a quirky manifesto.


Rosa in the early American Survey; or, an Experimental Journey

Nicole C. Livengood, Associate Professor of English
Marietta College


“Odd,” “chaotic,” and “confusing” were some of the words that my early American survey students used to describe Rosa during our debrief of their thoughts on the novel.  Their one-word assessments were not dismissive.  In fact, many noted that having an actual plot was refreshing after our march from the literature of settlement through the Revolution. However, that plot was disorienting, more of a zig-zagging precursor to the Romantics than a logical reflection of the Enlightenment era we were leaving behind.

Their disorientation was fitting.    One reason I chose to teach Rosa was for the chance to experience a new text along with my students.  Thus, while I had read the novel and determined some key concepts and connections—such as its interest in female education and Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes”—I did not have an agenda or a pre-established framework for presenting the text.  As a result, our reading of Rosa was somewhat scattershot.  We considered Rosa as a didactic text that expanded Judith Sargent Murray’s concerns with female education to the education of men as well; analyzed the characters as types; and had an intriguing discussion of the relationship between the Peruvian Sol’s speech (Chapter IV) and William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Phillip.”

 Our eclectic foray into Rosa meant that we did not have a sustained examination of the novel.  However, one of the rewards of our experiment was that students made unique connections between it and other texts.  These, in turn, have provided me with new frameworks for teaching Rosa.

The first framework focuses on women’s education and empowerment in the new nation. Students noted compelling intersections between Rosa, Elizabeth Stoddard’s “Lemorne v. Huell,” and Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit.” For instance, they observed that all three texts were concerned with women’s need for self-knowledge.  Some noted that Stoddard’s character Margaret and Rosa shared socioeconomic disadvantages and had wealthy benefactors.  The difference, for them, was that Margaret epitomized Margaret Fuller’s claims that women are limited by lack of self-knowledge and self-ownership.  Rosa, by contrast, sought to develop intellectually and individually.  Others noted that the author of Rosa clearly focused on the development of women’s voice, and (assuming the author was a woman) saw narrative experimentation similar to that of Fuller.

The second framework focuses on the concept of journeys.  I had an aha! moment midway through our discussion of Rosa, as the class struggled to understand Richard’s story (told primarily in Chapter V) on its own and in relation to the novel.  My aha! moment was this:

That Richard’s story reflects the structure and themes of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Part I.  The more we puzzled through Chapter V, the more I saw that Rosa’s author affirms Franklin’s concerns about the instability and uncertainty of the early United States.  Richard’s journey northward is a geographic reversal of Franklin’s, and as Young Orvaine is tempted, duped, and humbled he must learn to think critically about those he encounters.  His story emphasizes the instability and uncertainty of the early United States, and is a microcosmic look at early Republican concerns regarding personal integrity, authenticity, and social legitimacy in an upwardly mobile, geographically expansive society.   These concerns are evident in the novel’s preoccupation with gossip, insincerity, and—especially—ne’er-do-well Mr. Figary’s alternative facts,  each of which resonated with students in the context of twenty-first century media and culture.

Alas, my aha! moment came too late.  I had not assigned the Autobiography, Part I and my students understandably failed to see why I was nerding out at Rosa’s (seemingly deliberate) engagement with it (as well as other Franklin texts…especially “The Way to Wealth”). However, later in the semester they noted that Rosa’s concerns for truth and authenticity extended into the Romantic Era.  They signaled out Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” as texts with structural and thematic similarities to Rosa, particularly regarding the inability to truly know others.

I look forward to teaching Rosa in future survey courses.  It’s a refreshing way of introducing students to the literature of the early Republic.   I will work to provide more deliberate structure by pairing it with Franklin’s Autobiography, Part I as well as Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality.”  Combined, these provide multiple and flexible entry points into understanding Rosa and its unique cultural moment.


Reading Rosa in an American Literature Survey

Lucas Hardy
Youngstown State University


My American Literature I students read Rosa, or American Genius and Education for the final day of the fall 2017 semester. Readings for this survey class came primarily from the Norton Anthology, ninth edition, and spanned from Cabeza de Vaca to Walt Whitman. The class consisted of sophomores and juniors; some were English majors and others English Education/Integrated Language Arts majors. We had addressed the revolutionary and early national periods midway through the semester, with focus on Franklin, Equiano, and Crèvecoeur, in particular. I was doubtful that Rosa would be met with excitement, given that I had assigned the text for the final day of class, and since we had left the eighteenth century weeks earlier. I was delighted to find, however, that the novel was enthusiastically received. In a class of 20 students, almost everyone shared insight during our discussion. Part of their readiness to talk about the text was likely owing to the fact that they were required to write short reaction papers in which they worked to situate Rosa among the texts and topics we had discussed for the past 15 weeks (the questions they were asked to consider are included below in this post). Three primary discussion strands emerged in their papers and in class: the question of authorship, the closely connected problem of authenticity, and the issue of sympathy and sentimentality.

The first remark in class came from a student who had remained quiet for much of the semester. She and those who quickly joined the conversation noted that Rosa’s anonymous authorship caused a heightened sense of indeterminacy in their reading. For this reason, they agreed, the novel was fun to read. It hadn’t occurred to me before her observation, but nearly all of the reading we had done to that point was preceded by a substantial discussion of authorship and biography (due partly to the material provided in the Norton and partly to my own introductory remarks each day). Without knowing the identity of Rosa’s author, they were unsure where and how to begin the act of interpretation; if the writer wasn’t clearly biographically motivated by the topics we had so vigorously discussed—religious identity, free or slave status, or even his or her classification as a canonical literary figure, for instance—then what, exactly, mattered in the text?

I was intrigued to find that in the absence of a clear authorial voice presiding over the novel, students turned to Dorinda Charmion, the character they deemed the protagonist (despite the book’s title), for answers. She quickly became a personality from whom they could draw meaning. Since they had become so accustomed during the semester to finding connections among authors, they used Charmion to meet the same ends. The first and most interesting connection to our past reading was made, to my mind, when a student remarked that she saw reflections of John Winthrop and the “Model of Christian Charity” in Charmion’s benevolence toward Rosa. I agreed there was an echo of Winthrop in her generosity, but I was compelled to ask how, at the same time, Charmion and the world depicted in the novel would fail to meet the demands of the “Model.” Very quickly students remarked on the absence of religion—predestinarian religion, in particular—in the text. This observation became a means to consider how deductive assumptions about authorship might be made. It was obvious that religion was not an important topic in Rosa, so presumably the author was not affiliated with a strict religious movement, they reasoned. (The exception in the text, of course, is the Quaker who saves Richard Richardson/Orvaine from jail in Philadelphia). Most importantly, the idea that “some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection,” as Winthrop would have it, is antithetical to the theme of social mobility in the novel (82). Characters move up and down in class throughout, and they are largely self-made, students noted (which is signified also, they found, by the occasional references to Benjamin Franklin in the text). We agreed, at least provisionally, that even as those ideas of sympathy found in Winthrop’s “Model” seem to run longitudinally through early American culture(s), notions of ethics and morality ascribed to sympathetic concern had changed over time.

The sentimentality that emerges in the novel reflects eighteenth-century European ideals of fellow-feeling far more than it echoes American Calvinist notions of spiritual belonging. While we did not read sentimental novels this semester, some students had gained exposure to the genre in other courses, and I had mentioned several examples and talked a bit about the tradition when we read Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and other texts from the period. The class members were torn as to whether Charmion’s support for Rosa was a purely altruistic act or one motivated by a sense of socially-motivated responsibility. The majority seemed to agree that given her prominence in her social circle, and inspired by Mr. Derwent’s tutelage of Richard, she was acting—if even subconsciously—out of socially-constructed moral duty, rather than natural human compassion.

Several students segued from this discussion to think about the ways in which Mrs. Charmion and Rosa each emblemize different parts of the debate about genius and education mobilized in the novel. “Nature had indeed done more for [Mrs. Charmion] than education…Her mind was naturally acute and discriminating, but she had not enjoyed perfectly the benefit of a school,” the reader is told early in the text (5). Rosa, on the other hand, is educated formally, both in school and in society. “Mrs. Charmion spared no pains nor expense in her education,” we learn (57). Students were unsure why, if Mrs. Charmion had enjoyed a comfortable life after being raised in a less formal manner, she might be so committed to nurturing Rosa in a different way. The idea surfaced that views about education had changed with the advancement of Enlightenment thought in America. By the time Rosa was in Charmion’s care, there were new, stricter expectations for how a young woman should be trained. Another student wondered about differing attitudes toward education in rural versus metropolitan settings; Mrs. Charmion came of age in the country, but she raises Rosa in Baltimore. Rosa’s race also registered in our conversation about education. Mrs. Charmion was reared with little education, yet she is a member of Baltimore’s cultural elite. The Peruvian Rosa, on the other hand, apparently requires substantial academic and social instruction to reach the same status. One student concluded that Rosa’s formal education was perhaps necessitated by her lower (or mostly unknown) class, more than her indigenous identity.

The notion that Mrs. Charmion, a white woman, is naturally endowed with an “acute and discriminating” mind that permits her to “make close observation of the rules of society” contrasts the idea that Rosa, who is Native American, requires education in a classical sense. Students were perplexed, however, because the novel didn’t appear to be consistent in its suggestion that, in eighteenth-century terms, race and ethnicity were indicators of genius; Rosa’s father, Sol, demonstrates the opposite of what students observed in the education of Rosa. It is Sol’s genius that allowed him to learn about European history and the history of American colonization by reading independently. In fact, in his audience with dignitaries in London, Sol aims specifically to prove that “the natives of the American continent are as acute and vigorous in their intellect as the natives of Europe” (38). Sol’s impressive knowledge of history and persuasive arguments about Native American genius prompted numerous students to assert in their papers and in class that the author may him or herself have been a person of Native American decent.

The sentimental tradition emerges most clearly in the novel in the character of Richard Richardson/Orvaine, who takes a sort of “sentimental journey,” as students observed, from Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York to Boston and back home to Baltimore. They became especially attuned to the novel’s more satirical qualities through Richard’s travels, especially when he recommends that the author of Views by Starlight change the name of the book and attribute it to an acclaimed European writer, rather than an American. The class took this scene as an ironic rejection of European literary superiority—a theme reinforced by Mr. Ecstacy’s vulgarization of the Shakespearean sonnet form earlier in the novel. Richard’s travels through urban centers of cultural and intellectual importance are full of corruption and folly, yet his blunders are constantly rectified, in most cases by his witty and clever demeanor. The tacit message, students identified through both Sol and Richard, is that true genius will allow one to prevail over unexpected and adversarial circumstances.

In their short papers, student after student remarked that they “really enjoyed” Rosa, and some mentioned that it was their “favorite reading of the semester.” They deemed the novel funny, odd, and (despite its unclear authorship), easy to connect with other texts we had read. I was intrigued to hear from multiple students that in several ways, the novel seeemd to predict later nineteenth-century literary texts. We had just completed Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener and Whitman’s Song of Myself the week before. More than a few students found the unstable identities of the novel’s characters to emblemize a new sort of shifting American personality embodied in Melville and Whitman. And while student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, many tended to agree with Henri Petter’s analysis, cited in the editors’ introduction, that “the overall plot is ‘implausible’” and that the novel “is structurally very awkward” (2). They grumbled en masse about their frustration with the text’s disjointed assembly—especially the idea that we’re led to believe that we’ll follow Rosa’s coming-of-age, but we leave her for much of the novel to follow Richard, and it’s not really clear why. They were annoyed also by the novel’s didactic character names and its generally unimaginative set of philosophical ruminations (especially Richard’s satiric musings on “The Gossip”).

For my part, the experience of teaching Rosa revealed the advantages in assigning anonymous texts, and so I hope to include this and other similar works on future syllabi. Students, I learned, will explore ideas more feely and make creative connections with course material when less ponderous attention is given to authorship and biography. My only disappointment in class came when I inquired about the character of Francis Figary, the “illiterate [and] naturally cunning” freelance “gatherer of facts” who was “acquainted with the prevailing taste of the times for extravagance” (22). While I read all manner of connections to the current crisis in America of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and media bias in Figary’s professional conduct, students had not identified him as a character of importance. Where I had hoped a sustained conversation about early news culture, media markets, and American journalism through the centuries might ensue, the attempt to talk about these topics through Figary fell flat.

Included below are questions students were encouraged to consider in their short response papers:

  • How would you situate Rosa among the other texts we’ve read this semester? Which writers we’ve read appear to be in conversation with the topics and themes present in the text?
  • What are the implications of reading a literary text by an anonymous or unknown author?
  • What is “genius” as it’s characterized in the text? With what sort of “education” is the text concerned?
  • How do themes of race, class, and gender emerge in Rosa?
  • In what ways does this text engage eighteenth-century notions of nature, sentimentality, manners, and morality?

Works Cited:

Rosa, or American Genius and Education, New York, 1810.

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Puritans in America, edited by Andrew Delbanco, Harvard UP, 1985, pp. 81-92.


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