Just Teach One

Reading for plot holes?

Siân Silyn Roberts 
Queens College 

In my upper division undergraduate courses on early American literature, it’s usually the case that I have to spend a proportionately high amount of time making the material accessible and comprehensible to my students, before we can even broach the task of analysis.  Even the most enticing texts (Ben Franklin, Poe) are often encountered as alienating and difficult to parse.  I think this is one of the reasons why I enjoyed teaching A Journey to Philadelphia so much, and why my students seemed to enjoy it more than anything else we read this semester.  It was the first text where they felt fully authorized to inhabit and own their confusion.  Once they twigged to the fact that their confusion was not the result of their own incomprehension, but a constitutive part of the text, they relaxed into this tale more than any other reading this semester.  It was hugely successful.  I’ve taught a lot of the JTO texts, and this is by far and away my favorite so far, and not simply because it’s one of the first examples of early American fan fiction.  Its playfulness, intertextual self-awareness, and critical sophistication made it an especially fun addition to our readings.   It’s earned a permanent place on my syllabi (the only thing I would change was its placement: we read it before Edgar Huntly, because it happened to fit into the syllabus that way; in future, I would definitely place it after we had read any CBB).   

I decided to make a game out of the tale’s indecipherability.  Accordingly, maintaining the pretense that the story was going to be submitted to realist rules of comprehension, I asked them to identify places in the text that felt “familiar,” insofar as it deployed some conventional rhetorics (sympathy, sensibility, the sublime, etc.) that they had already encountered this semester.   We talked about the tale’s focus on excessive interiority (anticipating Edgar Huntly), and the idea of a philosophically aware text.   

I then gently asked if anyone had spotted any plot holes?  Usually my students are reticent about answering a question like this (I think because they worry that they risk exposing some lapse in their reading attentiveness), but a few students broke the ice.  Once I started agreeing with them, other students felt authorized to join in, and suddenly it all came tumbling out: why was Emelia abducted by Carnell, and what was she doing in the middle of the country when her father lives in the city? Who the heck was Carnell anyway?  Why did Susan try to kill herself?  What was in that letter?  Who was the young man in the inn who threatened to kill her?  Was he the lover that was mentioned?  In that case, who was her husband?  In short, whaaaat?  By the end of our reckoning, it felt like a happy riot in the classroom, as they realized that they had been taken for a ride.  I even showed them parts of an email exchange between me and Duncan, as we tried to figure out the stakes of such incomprehensibility.

I’ll be very interested to hear how others tackled this aspect of the story.  For my own purposes, I took it as an opportunity to introduce the metonymic maneuver Armstrong and Tennenhouse identify in their most recent book Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example (UPenn 2018) as anamorphosis.  This term, taken from art history, situates early American readers in “a polycentric world” (163), challenging the concept of a dominant authoritative center.  As Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain it, anamorphosis helps explain the formal peculiarities (gaps, ellipses, repetition, episodes, redundancies, etc.) characteristic of much early American novelistic writing, and which JtP’s author seems at pains to place center stage.  As Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain it, what may seem unintelligible (and this holds true for a castle in Connecticut in Mitchell’s The Asylum, say, or Clithero’s mysterious visitant in chapter 3 of Edgar Huntly) is actually recast as deliberately disorienting, constitutively unresolvable information that fosters a peculiarly American form of dialectical thinking.  What early critics of American fictional writing dismissed as evidence of authorial inferiority is actually a formal politics: “as antagonistic to the very idea of “form” as such a narrative process may seem, the metonymic method in this fecklessness resulted in a form of novel …[that] invariably conjoined incompatible perspectives of the same event to make a composite reality” (163).  That is, anamorphosis engages (and often negates) the idea of a dominant perspective by making a viewer or reader take contorted positions (often literally) to see something accurately.  The mental contortions the author makes us do at the end of JtP is much the same, insofar as he/she seems to be constructing a composite reality, where no single perspective seems to predominate.  In other words, I argued that the story takes issue with the realist principle that multiple perspectives can be reconciled around a single, monolithic “truth.”   This certainly seemed to be the principle on display in the trial scene, and the fact that the title of a “memoir” is at odds with the three different narrators (this also hints at the problem of dominant perspectives, and the impossibility of a single authoritative narrative).  The eccentricity of the text, writ large at the story’s end, actually invites a kind of democratic mode of reading that creates a polycentric world, predicated on unknowability, where no single view can incorporate or explain all the information available to us.   

We arrived at these ideas by first watching a video that demonstrated the principle of anamorphosis (, and then I gave them a copy of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.  We talked about its famous skewed skull, and the visual puzzle such distorted information creates and the viewing contortions it invites.  I then asked them to bring this principle to bear on Journey to Philadelphia, by suggesting that its indecipherable details likewise invite a shift in perspective that require mental contortions by the reader.  In this way, we thought about “confusion” as a democratic principle, which turned out to be a really fun way of wrapping this story up.  Will teach again! 

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