Just Teach One

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

Gretchen J. Woertendyke
University of South Carolina


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

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

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









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

Patrick Erben
University of West Georgia

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

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

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

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



Making Sense of Ira and Isabella’s Generic Confusions

Jon Blandford
Bellarmine University

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

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

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

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

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




Ira & Isabella and the Problem of Incest

Helen Hunt
Tennessee Tech University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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