Female Review

Kristina Bross,  Marc Diefenderfer, Michelle Campbell, and Amy Elliot
Purdue University

When the announcement came that JTO had selected The Female Review for its next collaborative reading/teaching endeavor, I wracked my brains to try to remember the last time I’d read it—grad school, prelims, most likely. Years ago. But it had stuck, and my memory of it—a combination of surprise about the range of gender roles and performance available in early American literature and bafflement at the mediated form—prompted me to think about its possible place in my upcoming survey of early American lit.

I hadn’t taught the survey in some years; the course itself is under siege here—low enrollments coupled with pressures from higher up to connect our curriculum more concretely to the job market means that going forward the class will be offered less often, mostly to fulfill requirements for education majors or as one pathway to meet requirements for straight-up English majors rather than as a common, gen-ed course. In addition, we’re in a period of rebalancing our undergraduate and graduate programs, and as a result, last year fewer of our graduate students were assigned sections of literature courses of their own. As a stop-gap measure in mentoring new literature teachers, we experimented with assigning small cohorts of graduate students to shadow established literature classes, and three Ph.D. students joined my class.

In response to these changes, my department has rewritten curriculum and created new courses to meet core graduation requirements. We are looking to meet our undergraduate students more where they are, and to develop syllabi that mesh with our land-grant, tech-and-engineering identity (an effort for which our graduate students may be better equipped that tenure-track faculty). Thus we are working to articulate explicitly the skill sets our classes help students develop; we’re developing “genre fiction” classes (detective fiction, sports and fiction; haven’t thought about romance yet, but maybe?) even courses that teach imaginative “world building” as a complement to computer graphics design courses.

I suppose this description of recent curricular reforms could be a prelude to a declension narrative. But I don’t think that’s the plot we are inhabiting, least not necessarily. I am enthusiastically prepping a fall offering of “Science Fiction and Fantasy” (fully enrolled a week after the registration window opened, natch) that’ll put a Midwestern spin on the genres and will even sneak in a little early American instruction via an alternative-history fantasy in which the “United” states never emerged. But as much as I’m looking forward to the new teaching challenge, I do think we lose something significant when we decide that early American literary history is for specialists. The survey, so long a bread-and-butter course for early Americanists, still strikes me as uniquely valuable, a chance to interrogate with some time and attention the cultural productions that seem at once utterly strange and still so much a part of those of us in the U.S.

But my approach to the survey has changed, of course, as it should have done, from the exceptionalist literary history I learned as an undergrad to the heavily historicized version I spun earlier in my academic career, to what, exactly, today? For this iteration, I decided that I wanted to try to get students to think about how “America” has been constructed, not as inevitable, but in fits-and-starts, with dead-ends as well as successes. As a tag-line on the syllabus, I subtitled the survey “America and Americans as Speculative Fiction,” in the hopes of both de-naturalizing the idea of a (singular) American identity and to try to get at what made (and makes) such an identity possible. I decided to start with descriptions of Eden and the Golden Age, move through exploration/travel/captivities, take on the Declaration of Independence as a speculative speech act that instantiated an American identity, and head toward satire, drama, fiction for imaginative explorations of these ideas. Although the literary history I spun through my text selections wasn’t some radical departure from standard survey fare, I hoped that by foregrounding the constructed nature of our national identities, and with some judicious inclusion of new-to-me texts (Franklin’s “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim,” Byrd’s Sheppard Lee), the readings might help students contemplate American literature, culture, and their own identities differently.

Female Review seemed ready-made for my take on the class: a text that was speculative in every possible way, from Mann’s vexed and vexing mediation to the glimpses we may be getting of Deborah Sampson’s self-fashioning, which I wanted to have students understand as itself a sophisticated and difficult construct, not as reflecting her authentic, singular voice. Not incidentally, I also hoped that by bringing in a newly edited text and collaborating with the graduate cohort to lead discussion, the undergrads would get different angle on literary analysis and scholarly conversation. Of the three Ph.D. students who joined me, Michelle Campbell, Marc Diefenderfer, Amy Elliot, none is an early Americanist, but all three are super-sharp, enthusiastic, creative collaborators. We decided that one way to short-cut the expertise gap would be to have them take on the task of prepping and presenting Female Review. Since I hadn’t taught it before (or, indeed, read it at all for some twenty years), I wouldn’t have much standing to second-guess their approaches or compare it to my own pedagogical choices.

Amy, having recently emerged from a graduate seminar on formalism, took on genre and form for us, asking students “what exactly is this?” As we prepped for the discussion, we talked about how this narrative is very different from a lot of what they’d read before—either on their own or in the class—so we wanted to ask whether the text created some kind of “American genre” and what elements they trace in our other texts. She asked students to talk about the word “review” and what exactly that meant (recap, a history, a performance, a military review) and how the genre was setting us up to understand Sampson.

Michelle dealt with personal identity and sexuality. She led students in a discussion  of how Mann’s description of Sampson both constructed her as subverting feminine roles, but also abiding by them. For example, Mann describes Sampson as having “tokens of a fertile genius and an aspiring mind,” but also a “primeval temper” that was “uniform and tranquil.” Although she’s described as smart and even-tempered, she is purported to have all the submissive qualities of an ideal femininity: “She may be noted for a natural sweetness and pliability of temper–a ready wit, which only needed refinement–a ready conformity to a parent’s or patroness’ injunctions–a native modesty and softness in expression and deportment, and passions naturally formed for philanthropy and commiseration.” Asking students to square Mann’s description of Sampson with her actions can help students critically consider the depiction and performance of acceptable gender roles that would be legible and palatable to Mann’s readership.

As Marc took over, we discussed the ways in which the text’s mythic conventions reinforced its radical commentary on gender. By connecting Sampson’s dreams and imagined battles with monsters first to classical accounts of monsters and violence and then to the text’s account of the real-life Siege of Boston, students were better able to ascertain Mann’s critical intervention in regard to the nation’s mythic vision of itself—a vision balanced on the difficult construction of Sampson as a heroic individual.

We had mixed success—positive enough to encourage us to include the text in a future version of the course, definitely—but with some challenges to take up next time. A number of students had difficulty parsing the voices of the text, even though we’d been talking about such issues at least since our reading of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity. Or rather, they had difficulty knowing what to do with Mann’s heavy-handed mediation other than to note it. Beyond a doubt, the experiment would have been a failure entire were it not for Jodi Schorb’s excellent, clear critical introduction. Our students were unanimous in their praise of it. Perhaps because the text was difficult for them to puzzle out, more of them seemed to have ingested the introduction for Female Review than they had done for most of our other texts.

It was more difficult to handle their unfamiliarity with classical mythology and their commitment to conventional gender roles in their own moment, both of which I underestimated, and which led to some frustration. For instance, when I asked students to think about whether they’d keep the text on a future version of the syllabus, one student wrote that Sampson’s experiences weren’t “representative” enough to merit inclusion in the sweep of the syllabus (which I’d thought was the point).

One small moment in the discussion suggests a way forward next time: by linking Sampson’s story and Mann’s narrative to genre fiction, ironically enough (I said this post isn’t a declension narrative). As we struggled to make sense of the push-pull of gender representation and heroicism in the text, we hit on Sampson’s parallels to—of all things—Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. This brief moment in the discussion seemed to have been surprisingly satisfying to the students, and led to one of those prized “ah ha” moments in the discussion. My takeaway?  It’s not that undergraduates aren’t interested in literary history or historic cultural productions—they are quite interested in puzzling them through. Rather, they want to link that history concretely to their own moment, to the texts and literature that give them so much pleasure today—a connection that promises to help them better understand the literary forms that captured the imaginations of their forebears centuries ago. My realization isn’t earth-shattering, but it encourages me to find ways to connect older curricular genres—the beloved survey—to new.




Beyond Early American Literature: Teaching The Female Review and Contemporary Works

Gregory D. Specter
Duquesne University


For the purposes of this post, I want to comment first on the particular circumstances in which I taught The Female Review in my first year honors course. I think understanding the context will help those considering The Female Review in their own classes to see the versatility of this Just Teach One offering, it’s accessibility for students, and the possibility of using it beyond the American literature classroom. In short, while you should consider including The Female Review in your survey course or upper-division American literature course, I recommend thinking creatively about incorporating it in different courses.

Unlike many participants in this fall’s Just Teach One initiative, my course was not focused on early American literature, let alone American literature. The course was focused on the theme of history, memory, and revision—all themes that are prominent in The Female Review. This course featured a handful of contemporary texts: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, and Seth’s George Sprott: (1894-1975). Like the course theme, these readings were selected by a committee of instructors also teaching this particular honors course. My iteration of the course featured a substantial unit on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Indeed, it was only Hamilton, our engagement with primary sources, and several essays on the musical which provided students with any connection to early America. Additionally, a key component of my course involved students working with local archival collections in order to complete the semester’s major assignment. Working on a project involving archival work and telling a story about the past provided students a unique perspective on The Female Review– which is, of course, a text focused on a retelling of the past.

I share all of the above information for two reasons. First, even with the seemingly odd fit of The Female Review, my experience (and the students’ experience) in the classroom was very positive. As a class we had fruitful discussions of The Female Review over the course of two class periods. Second, I share my particular circumstances of teaching because they shaped how I prepared the students to read this work and how we discussed the work during class.

Because the focus of my class was not early American literature, I spent time preparing students to engage with themes about gender and the role of women during the early republic. While prior readings on Hamilton introduced students to the representation of women in history and the archive, I knew that engaging the topic of gender might be difficult for students. Since virtue and decorum were important thematic elements of The Female Review, I asked students to prepare for the class by reading a short piece by Karen Robbins on the connection between the “Pursuit of Happiness” and virtue. Robbins’ essay provided students an extra layer of context that they could rely on during their reading.

Secondly, I prepared a brief reading guide for students. I am a fan of preparing short reading guides for students. Reading guides can aid students significantly in preparing for engaging with a longer work. A reading guide is an opportunity to provide students with context, a sense of expectations, and allow for providing guiding questions. In The Female Review, it frequently feels like Deborah Sampson slips away from the narrative. Such quirks of the text could be problematic for students and I highlighted this factor for them in the reading guide, provided a way of understanding these gaps, and provided further guiding questions. I also identified some ways of thinking about how the text fit our course themes. Of course, I tried to walk as fine line between guiding students versus telling them how to read this particular work.

I want to close with addressing some ways of entering into discussion of this text in the classroom. I found it effective to begin with the title page and dedication page for The Female Review. These pieces of paratext provided a way of entering into the text and provided a robust way of jumpstarting a vibrant class discussion. In general, I find using title pages of works as a start to discussion is an effective pedagogical tool for the classroom, and in this case the title page for The Female Review is a great example of pole-vaulting into the rest of the text. With little prompting students took control of the discussion in thoughtful and engaging ways.

I encourage others to consider using The Female Review in other creative contexts. Hopefully my circumstances of using The Female Review show that the text has a great deal of potential. Yes, use The Female Review in an early American literature class—and—consider it for other courses, too!

Teaching The Female Review in a Course on the Literature of the U.S. Revolution

John C. Havard
Auburn University at Montgomery


I taught Herman Mann’s The Female Review in an upper-division course on the literature of the U.S. Revolution. This is a course I had taught previously. The course focuses on American literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with a focus on writing pertaining to the Revolution such as relevant public rhetoric, memoirs, and historical fiction. We also read works with less obvious connections to the Revolution but that touch on the era’s pressing social and cultural issues. I teach at Auburn University at Montgomery, a regional branch campus in Alabama that serves a diverse student population. The course is taken by traditional English majors, secondary education/language arts majors, and graduate students in our Master of Liberal Arts and Master of Teaching Writing programs.

As a scholar of the early United States who is always looking for interesting new material that might enliven his classes, I have long been interested in Just Teach One (JTO). However, JTO’s text selections had been good fits for the classes I was teaching at the time—until The Female Review, an obvious choice for a class on the Revolution. As a fictive memoir regarding a woman who cross-dressed to enlist in the Continental Army, the narrative drew my students’ interest for what it revealed about women’s roles in the war. These roles still receive too little air time in popular accounts of the conflict. My class also had conversations regarding connections between the memoir and other works we had read. Benjamin Franklin’s discussion of his religious coming of age in his Autobiography served as a reference point for Mann’s characterization of Deborah Sampson as holding rationalist religious views. Our coverage of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette provided context for Mann’s narration of the seduction of Fatima as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers for women of what was considered deviant behavior. I also told students about my participation in the Just Teach One project as part of a description of the history of the recovery movement and the canon wars. These discussions helped students understand that the canon and course syllabi are mutable; the kind of scholarly work and institutions that make recovery possible; and the politics of literary study.

Many students were eager to discuss Mann’s historical inaccuracies. Their comments led to productive conversation. As Jodi Schorb explains in her introduction to the Just Teach One edition, The Female Review “is less a factual biography of Sampson than a fictive shaping of Sampson for early republican audiences” (1). As Schorb specifies, “Sustained by multiple periods of masculine presentation, an embrace of religious revivalism, church excommunication: the historical Sampson fits uncomfortably into Mann’s idealized portrait” (4). My students keyed onto this issue in part due to the efforts of Lindsay Guest, a talented graduate student in the class who is writing her master’s thesis on women in the American Revolution. Lindsay took an immediate interest in Mann’s account, chose to write her seminar paper on it, and prior to the class sessions devoted to Mann had begun reading Alfred F. Young’s Masquerade, which specifies inconsistencies between Mann’s account and what we know about the historical Sampson. Lindsay shared what she learned with the class, and I shared other related information. As English professors know, student interest in historical inaccuracies in literary works sometimes threatens to derail productive analysis, as students may deem the works less worthy of study. I steered students in a more positive direction by asking that they think of these inaccuracies in rhetorical terms: What were Mann’s goals, and how did his portrayal of Sampson help him achieve these goals? These questions helped students think about the purpose and function of the work. We discussed how Mann was collaborating with Sampson in an effort to win public applause that would be helpful in Sampson’s effort to obtain a federal pension for her war service. He thus praised her patriotic sacrifice but deemphasized and explained away her perceived gender deviancy to avoid offending his audience’s sensibilities. We also discussed Mann’s personal aims. Mann was a Deist and downplayed Sampson’s embrace of Baptist revivalism to promote rationalist religion. Moreover, he supported the ideals of Republican Motherhood and its emphasis on female education as requisite for women’s successful assumption of the duties of the private sphere. For this reason he portrayed Sampson’s enlistment as the consequences of her insufficient education, as opposed to the desire to escape marriage and make money it may have been. Sampson, he suggests, was interested in pursuing her interests as an amateur geographer and botanist. Without the opportunity to do so due to poor education for women, she enlisted in the army to see the world. This depiction enabled Mann to advocate Republican Motherhood while deemphasizing Sampson’s deviancy. Lastly, he was a pacificist who opposed U.S. involvement in ongoing conflict between England and revolutionary France. He thus depicted war as hell despite his aim of positively depicting Sampson’s patriotism. Discussing the inaccuracies in this light helped students understand the cultural and rhetorical contexts of post-Revolutionary America as well as to appreciate The Female Review as a dynamic engagement with those contexts.

Conversations regarding challenging passages in the memoir also provided valuable learning experiences. Teachers of early American literature know that the differences in vocabulary, syntax, and typography between then and now often make reading assignments difficult for students who have not previously been exposed to colonial and early national writing. I consequently make close reading of such passages a centerpiece of classroom activities. One way I do this is by assigning student-led discussions in which I ask students to pick at least three passages from the day’s assigned reading to discuss with the class. While I allow students to ask interpretative questions about passages, I tell them it is acceptable and even encouraged to choose passages simply because they are hard to understand. Conversations regarding these passages often help students understand the era’s rhetorical conventions and vocabulary connotations. In a student-led discussion on The Female Review, one student drew our attention to a passage in chapter 9 in which Mann writes, “I am perfectly enraptured with those females, who exhibit the most refined sensibility and skill in their sweet domestic round, and who can show a group of well bred boys and girls. But I must aver, I am also happy, if this rare female has filled that vacuity, more or less in every one’s bosom, by the execution of the worst propensities: For, by similitude, we may anticipate, that one half of the world in future are to have less goads in their consciences, and the other, faster accumulating a fund of more useful acquisition” (49). The student noted not only the elaborate clausal structures and unfamiliar vocabulary such as “vacuity” in the passage but also the uncertain tone. The author seems decisive in using language such as “I aver,” but the passage also comes across as confused because it contradicts the earlier assertion that “THUS, Females, whilst you see the avidity of a maid in her teens confronting dangers and made a veteran example in war, you need only half the assiduity in your proper, domestic sphere, to render your charms completely irresistible” (54). Via conversation regarding this passage, we concluded that some of the more challenging passages in Mann’s narrative exhibit not just differences in the usage of language between then and now but also Mann’s struggle to navigate a central challenge in writing this narrative: He seeks to portray Sampson in a good light to aid her effort to obtain a federal pension, but he also aims to promote conventional gender norms. As Schorb succinctly puts it, “The narrative’s richness lies in Mann’s attempt to make both an example and a warning of Sampson” (1). In these passages he thus encourages women to “render your charms completely irresistible” by devoting themselves to the domestic sphere, whereas he also gives Sampson backhanded praise for providing readers with negative examples regarding the dangers a woman faces in the masculine sphere of war. Such discussions helped my students understand that lingering on passages that are difficult to understand may yield much deeper understandings of an author’s stance and purpose in relation to audience expectations. These are valuable lessons for novice literary critics.

I also experimented with a new assignment while teaching The Female Review. Whereas in the past in this class I had assigned three conventional 4-6 page essays of literary analysis, I replaced one of these papers with an assignment for each student to contribute to an annotated edition of the work. I was inspired to give this assignment by my colleague, Seth Reno, who achieved impressive results using a similar assignment with Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of Plants in a class on British Romanticism. Teaching The Female Review provided a good opportunity to try the assignment, as recovered works require the development of annotated editions to make them accessible to non-scholarly audiences. I divided the work by section to the students and set up a Google Doc in which they transcribed and annotated their sections. To provide for appropriate challenge, I asked students to write somewhat extensive explanatory annotations. I provided examples from teaching editions of other works we read that utilized this style of annotation, and I distinguished the style from more minimalist approaches such as that used by Ed White and Duncan Faherty in the JTO edition. The assignment was a success: In addition to providing for an appreciated respite from the typical round of essays, my students developed research skills; better understandings of the value of annotation and the rhetorical purposes of differing annotation styles; and an understanding and appreciation of the scholarly effort that goes into producing teaching editions. The quality of the students’ work differed, of course, but in many cases I was impressed by and learned a lot from the annotations. One memorable annotation was written by a thoughtful student named Kiarah Holloway. Kiarah discussed Sampson’s contemplation in Chapter 8 of committing suicide to avoid detection as a woman; the annotation discussed contemporaneous legal debates regarding suicide; cultural conversation that was spurred by the popularity of Goerthe’s Werther; and how Mann’s inclusion of the detail was meant to illustrate the stress placed upon Sampson as someone committing what was considered a deviant act.

Overall, teaching The Female Review was a success. The work fit seamlessly into my course, my students found the narrative engaging, and they learned a lot from the annotation assignment.