Questions of Canonicity in the Classroom

Zach Hutchins
Colorado State University

Although the fifteen masters-level students who read both Wieland and A Journey to Philadelphia with me in a survey of American literature (from beginnings to the present day) were too polite to say so explicitly, I think that most of them believed the time we spent on this anonymously-authored novella would have been better allocated to another, more famous text. But their objections to the text sparked a lively discussion about what we choose to read and how we decide whether or not specific texts merit the attention of scholars and students, a discussion which—from my perspective—more than justified our collective investment in A Journey to Philadelphia.

Survey courses necessarily foreground questions of canonicity: Which texts helped shape the zeitgeist of a given place and epoch? Which are representative of a culture’s dominant sensibilities? Which enable students to see the breadth and diversity of its constituents’ views? But because there are so many famous and aesthetically rewarding and critically engaging texts that we might argue students need to read, debates about what to include on a given syllabus often begin with the assumption that we must choose between two authors of significant renown, between Jonathan Edwards and Samson Occom; Phillis Wheatley and Philip Freneau; Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson; or James Fenimore Cooper and Lydia Maria Child. We may even acknowledge, in class, the opportunity costs of including a specific text—the book that we almost taught in its place. However, in my experience we rarely speak with students about the vast body of texts that we never even considered for inclusion on a syllabus: the enormous archive of rarely-read works that projects like Just Teach One aim to make accessible.

During the class session we devoted to A Journey in Philadelphia, I gave students a sense of just how many texts we weren’t reading by bringing in physical copies of all three volumes of Lyle Wright’s bibliography of American fiction published between 1774 and 1900. Flipping through these tomes gave students a better sense of just how much material the survey winnows out of their consciousness, re-positioning A Journey to Philadelphia as a representative of the massive amounts of material we have largely excluded from the literature classroom and the canon. Framing the novella in this way prompted students to ask whether the text was meant to be literary in the first place. Although it reads like an ode to Brockden Brown’s novels, the author clearly thought of this piece as something more than his or her tribute to a popular contemporary. As evidence of the unknown author’s ambitions, I pointed students to the scene in which Charles Coleman Saunders seats himself in a moonlit glen to ponder the beauties of Homer’s “celebrated night-piece,” describing the moon in the language of Alexander Pope’s Iliad (8).

“What,” I asked, “is Homer doing in the middle of this story? Why bother alluding to classical literature in a text whose plot and whose protagonist seem so massively underdeveloped?” As students wrestled with the insertion of these lines, I noted a second passage on the same page, in which A Journey to Philadelphia seems to re-work Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet:

I saw a young woman at no great distance from me, in her hand she held an open letter; her movements were wild and irregular, she would look on the letter, and then on heaven. . . . Suddenly she exclaimed, I can bear this torture no longer, and rushed toward the river; I started from my seat, and flew to prevent her; I seized her but she eluded my grasp, shrieked, and leaped into the water! . . . in a moment of despair and insanity she had put an end to her existence. (8)

This succession of allusions was, initially, disorienting for my students, but they eventually drew several conclusions about our novella and the larger questions of canonicity that I had introduced at the beginning of our discussion.

First, the presence of Pope and Shakespeare in what modern readers might characterize as Brockden Brown fan fiction drove home to students the ubiquity of belles lettres in the early republic. They observed that the passage from Pope and the tribute to Shakespeare might have functioned as a sort of shorthand for readers—most of whom would have known the Iliad and Hamlet intimately. For such readers, who know that Hector’s reveling beneath the moon is but a prelude to his tragic death, the lines from Pope actually fill in the plot of A Journey to Philadelphia, which might seem underdeveloped to modern eyes. Saunders, looking up at the moon like Hector, is clearly en route to his downfall. Similarly, the appearance of an Ophelia figure might have encouraged readers to think of this narrative drama as a commentary on the rotten state of early American jurisprudence, rendering the personal political. In this way, canonical texts—Hamlet and the Iliad—provide a thick cultural context within which the novella is embedded, allowing readers to render a hastily sketched plot in three dimensions.

Second, they noted that this conflation of Homer, Shakespeare, and Brockden Brown worked at some level to establish a new canon, in which American authors took their place alongside the icons of classical and British literature. Recalling our earlier study of Wieland, they noted that the incorporation of Homer within A Journey to Philadelphia builds upon its predecessor’s strategy of linking American institutions and fictions to classical precedents. Similarly, Saunders’s entry into Philadelphia, which recalls the iconic arrival of Benjamin Franklin in that city, works to establish this stereotyped character, like Ophelia, as an archetype.

Students reported a new and enlarged understanding of Wieland after reading A Journey to Philadelphia, but none of them was willing to make the case for its inclusion on future syllabi, much less in some larger canon of American literature. Yet all agreed that reading the novella gave them a better understanding of Wieland’s case for canonization; if nothing else, straying from the beaten path gave them a sense of how and why that path came to be established, along with what they might find if they should ever venture off it, into the wilds of Wright’s bibliographies, on their own.