Just Teach One

Rosa; or, American Genius and Education (Anonymous, 1810)

Fall 2017 – Just Teach One no. 11
Prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College & The CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)

Title page from the American Antiquarian Society’s copy of Rosa; or, America Genius and Education. New-York: Printed for the Author, by Isaac Riley, 1810. It is inscribed: Miss Jane Cowenhoven, Flatbush. [catalog record]




Rosa; or, American Genius and Education (Anonymous, 1810)
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Though published in New York by Isaac Riley, the anonymous 1810 novel Rosa almost certainly emerged from the Baltimore literary scene.  Baltimore had experienced dramatic growth in the preceding two decades.  Its population in 1790 was just over 13,000, ten years later it had doubled to just over 26,000, and by 1810 it had almost doubled again to just over 46,000.  By 1810 it was one of the three or four most important commercial cities in the United States.  Yet with cultural and banking institutions centered in Philadelphia and New York, Baltimore did not rise to great prominence in publishing.  Newspapers had boomed, certainly: in 1790 the city had two newspapers, in 1800 four, and during 1810 about seven newspapers appeared in the city.  But many of these papers struggled to survive–the 1810 Baltimore Recorder apparently lasted for just one issue, while the Baltimore Scourge lasted just a few months–with literary magazines faring little better.  The decade from 1800-1810 saw roughly ten periodicals published from the city, most of them with a focus on literary culture, but few survived for more than a year.  1807 alone saw the failure of the Observor, Spectacles, the Moonshine, and the Baltimore Magazine, and the major success of the decade–The Companion and Weekly Miscellany–did not last a full three years.  This uneven development may explain why a novel focused on Maryland and dedicated to the wife of a Maryland political figure would appear in New York’s more thriving literary scene.

Like many other early US novels, Rosa serves up satire after satire, much of it focused on literary culture broadly understood: from essay-writing, novel production, wordplay, political essays, reading habits, and salon-produced poetry to legal language, newspaper writing, coffee-house discourse, fashion norms, and criticism.  Mr. Derwent and his protege Richard clearly aspire to a refined and cautious version of literary culture, perhaps best expressed by Mr. Derwent’s admonition that any essay should be set aside for a decade to determine if it warrants publication.  Mrs. Charmion is an active participant as well, at the same salon gatherings as Derwent and a regular and careful reader, devoting hours to literature each night before sleep.  The novel’s subtitle promises a focus on education, and at one point in Chapter 2 we’re told that the most important mode of education is domestic, that of parents giving their children a moral education.  But the novel’s details suggest otherwise–most of the cultural education occurs through non-parental institutions, and the plot is constructed in such a way as to thwart parental significance or, as with the surprise ending, to demonstrate parental failures. Indeed, Rosa is a noticeable exception to the commonplace trope in early US fiction of privileging nature over nurture; within this text social and ethical values are learned behaviors and have no inherent connection to heredity. That shift from the traditional family unit to different forms of mentoring, mostly same-sex alternatives to mother-father child-rearing, signals one of Rosa’s major departures from earlier US works.

The Maryland locale also means that the novel has a very different and overtly discernible focus on race than many of its northern counterparts.  The most striking illustration of this is the Sol subplot which begins in Chapter 4 and looms ever larger, undermining forms of racialist thinking here associated with Europe while taking a much more expansive view of the western hemisphere in imagining an Incan warrior drawn to the American Revolution.  The novel’s surprise conclusion reaffirms this view, which must have been particularly powerful when it was reprinted, by M. Carey and Sons, in 1836–after the Jackson Administration’s 1830 Indian Removal Act and the 1830s’ forced removal of southeastern Indians associated today with the Trail of Tears.  At the same time, the novel assumes a society in which the enslaved are omnipresent, and in which, for instance, the divergent legal status of Mrs. Charmion’s servants conforms to racial categories: her chambermaid, white, can give testimony, while most of the other servants are enslaved and thus have no such legal authority.  Rosa’s author also notes, in Chapter 3, the journalistic tendency to sensationalize events with racial references–combining, in one instance, the terms “fire,” “girl,” “constable,” and “negro.”   Political controversy about slavery’s persistence and expansion had increased tremendously with the Louisiana Purchase just a few years earlier, and was increasingly politicized in the years leading up to the War of 1812, with the Democratic Party more or less electorally dominated by pro-slavery forces, while New England, surveyed in Chapter 5, essentially became the last preserve of Federalism.  This growing regional split corresponded to the growing tensions between Napoleonic France and Great Britain, which would culminate in the various Wars of 1812–the US war against Britain, and the massive Continental war that ended in Napoleon’s defeat.  The novel registers this split with repeated contrasts between French and English cultures, especially in chapters 1 and 5.  This context may help explain Mr. Derwent’s warning to Mrs. Charmion, that “he will treat you with respect when you treat him with contempt”–a seemingly odd maxim in a novel about “American Genius” or education.  In Rosa’s universe, however, differentiation from the boorish, the enslaved, and the European all seems entangled with contempt and respect in ways different from decades before.


Suggestions for further reading

While Rosa; or American Genius is cataloged in both Oscar Weglin’s groundbreaking bibliographic compendium Early American Fiction, 1774-1830 (1913) and Lyle Wright’s slightly more robust compilation American Fiction, 1774-1850: A Contribution Toward a Bibliography (The Huntington Library, 1969), neither index registers any information beyond publication details. Perhaps the earliest critical engagement with the novel appears in Henri Petter’s The Early American Novel (Ohio State University Press, 1971), in which Petter suggests that Rosa “rather recklessly employed a mixture of fictional elements” even as it “is above all concerned with aspects of education” (74-75). Declaring the overall plot “implausible,” Petter concludes that the novel “is structurally very awkward,” perhaps because “the author” was “trying to counterbalance the essential seriousness, if not solemnity, of his concern over the American practice of education” (76). In an essay entitled “Trends and Patterns in the US Novel, 1800-1820,” Ed White offers the most detailed consideration of Rosa by positioning it as among a handful of important early American novels published around 1810; see The Oxford History of The Novel in English:  The American Novel to 1870 (Oxford University Press, 2014). Tracing how the novel evaluates the merits of various systems of education, White suggests that in Rosa “education, then, is less about giving positive content to a subject than to giving a strictly formal and well-armored coherence to that subjectivity;” in short, “what emerges then is a dialectic between genius (one’s potential merit) and education (one’s sociality)” (85). White concludes by observing that while Rosa asserts “a kind of abstract equality,” it counters this vision with “an unrelentingly condescending and negative view of most ordinary citizens, including many members of urban high society, newsmongers, local law and court officials, clergymen, young people, litigants and lawyers, and partisans and orators” (86).

In a suggestive (but far from exhaustive) “Chronology” which appears in The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Rosa appears as the third earliest text plotted on this timeline. The novel certainly has what we might call pronounced queer undertones; yet, as many scholars of gender and sexuality have argued it is difficult to evaluate presexological cultural artifacts (objects produced before sexuality became clinically calcified by scientific terminology) using the language provided by what Michel Foucault famously termed the scientia sexualis (the science of sexuality marked by an impulse to categorize and define) which emerged later in the 19C. In the introduction to his recent anthology “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” and Other Queer Nineteenth-Century Short Stories (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), Christopher Looby argues that “in nineteenth-century America the categories of sexual identity and erotic practice were much less crisply defined than they later became,” which makes classifying earlier texts “on the basis of rigid criteria from later eras” both “unduly restrictive and historically incorrect” (x). Looby continues by noting that “a crucial aspect of the modern sexual system that was consolidated in the nineteenth century was its reduction of sexual expression to a limited repertoire of genitally centered acts and sensations: everything outside of this repertoire was not sex. That reduction has come to seem quite strange and deformative in retrospect” (xi). The desires, affiliations, connections, affectations, intimacies, and interdependencies portrayed in Rosa do not inevitably correspond with this limited repertoire so often deployed anachronistically since they emerged in the later 19C; as such, it is important to recall that Rosa’s ambiguous and elusive portrayals of relationships were produced prior to the creation of these restrictive categorizations, and demonstrate a debt to 18C discussions, as, for instance, in the allusion to Charles Churchill’s “The Times,” a 1764 British poem characterizing differing sexualities (see note 74), or in the references to different types of British social clubs (see note 106). While there has been (as of yet) no critical attention afforded Rosa’s fluid, ambiguous, complex, and perhaps coded considerations of sex, gender, and identity, we recommend the following work to further explore these issues: Michael Warner, “Irving’s Posterity,” ELH 67.3 (2000), 773-799; Christopher Looby, “The Literariness of Sexuality: Or, How to Do the (Literary) History of (American) Sexuality,” American Literary History 25.4 (2013), 841-854; Peter Coviello, Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America  (NYU Press, 2013); Travis Foster, “Nineteenth-Century Queer Literature,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 89-102; and the essays contained in the collection Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (NYU Press, 2007) edited by Thomas A. Foster.



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