Just Teach One

All of the Didacticism, None of the Scandal: Questioning the Canon with The Factory Girl

David Lawrimore
University of Florida

I taught Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl in “Digitizing Early American Literature,” a 200-level special topics course. The course’s major goal was to consider how standard conceptions of the early American novel shift when considered alongside non-canonical texts, a project that is made more accessible given the recent proliferation of digital archives of early American literature. We compared such works as The Power of Sympathy, Charlotte Temple, and The Algerine Captive to lesser-known works like The Factory Girl to see how the canon often offers a skewed perspective of the body of novels written in the early national period. Students also worked together to create a course website that offered information on some of lesser-known novels, including The Factory Girl.

We read The Factory Girl after finishing our first unit, in which we considered The Power of Sympathy in relationship to a handful of other—surprisingly reactionary—texts by William Hill Brown. This unit served as a helpful lead-in to our discussion of The Factory Girl. We had discussed the standard trappings of the seduction novel, its emphasis on sympathy and sentimentality, and its use of incest, seduction, suicide, and other prurient elements. (In fact, I was nervous that students would find The Factory Girl boring because it did not include any of these plot conventions. However, most claimed to enjoy The Factory Girl more than the class’s seduction stories.) Moreover, by reading some of Brown’s other works students had begun to question the general consensus that The Power of Sympathy and other sentimental novels are socially progressive and that characters like Harrington and Harriot deserve the readers’ sympathy.

By the time we read The Factory Girl, then, students were able to appreciate the ways in which the novel was different from the seduction novels that comprise most of the early American canon. Warning students that the factory, in the modern sense, is largely absent from the narrative, I asked them to consider the how the protagonist Mary compares to other characters we had encountered thus far. In particular, I wanted to know if they believed readers would be put off by Mary’s overt didacticism or if they would find her to be a sympathetic character. I also asked them to consider the role of education in the text, especially as it relates to women’s developing role in the public sphere.

In class, the reaction to The Factory Girl was positive, and many said The Factory Girl was their favorite reading so far. In their reading responses and class discussion, most of the students focused on Mary’s virtue in face of her continual mistreatment, especially by Mrs. Holden, who the students found to be particularly obnoxious. “Mary took a lot of stuff,” one student pointed out, “yet there was no one point where she blew up.” This seemed to brush against the grain of most other sentimental protagonists. Many students argued that, compared to Harrington and Harriot, Mary truly deserved the readers’ sympathy and that perhaps Brown was satirizing the over-the-top sentimentality found in The Power of Sympathy.

In a related manner, students were also interested by the lack of scandal in The Factory Girl, and they discussed how The Factory Girl could be read as a seduction novel in reverse, one that teaches a moral lesson not by showing the consequences of transgression but by demonstrating the rewards of virtue. This opened up a fruitful conversation in which we discussed the tension between didacticism and entertainment and how the scandalous elements helped readers better appreciate the novel’s moral lessons. Surprisingly, a few students found the method in The Factory Girl to be a more engaging way to inculcate virtue. One student noted, “People love scandal and want plot twists, but this might be a better way to teach a lesson.” Throughout the semester, Mary and The Factory Girl served as helpful points of comparison, with students often referring back to the novel as an example of a woman who maintains her virtue in the face of adversity.

Many of the students also found the intersections of womanhood and education compelling, finding biographical parallels between Mary and Savage’s own career as a teacher. One pointed out that Mary functioned as a dual teacher: her positive example leads to the reform of Nancy Raymond in addition to her education of the children at the Sabbath school. They were also quick to note that Mary seemed more like a caregiver than an educator, commenting on how Mary’s role as a teacher seemed to be largely that of affective labor. While we had yet to discuss such helpful concepts as “Republican Motherhood” and its benefits and limitations for women, The Factory Girl ultimately served as a helpful hinge to start thinking about these questions, especially when we began our unit on Susanna Rowson the following week.

In sum, The Factory Girl proved to be a helpful addition to the course, and it provided a means to further explore issues of republican virtue, womanhood, and education in a generic model quite different from the standard seduction story. I found that it worked quite well as a counterpoint to such works as The Power of Sympathy and Charlotte Temple, dealing with many of the same issues as those novels but with a different narrative mode. Indeed, The Factory Girl offered a useful avenue to consider how authors approach many of the same issue in the republic from a variety of narrative angles.

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