Onlookers, Rescuers, and a “Melancholy Witness”

Rachel Trocchio 
University of Minnesota 

Benevolence comes early in “A Journey to Philadelphia” – the first sentence has our narrator “resolved to address” and “offer such little services” as he can to an inmate of Philadelphia’s prison – and I was keen on using the story to introduce the topic to my pre-1800 survey. Essential features of the novella lent itself to the task, chiefly, its brevity and its content: minor but satisfying rebellions against parental authority, murder mystery, mistaken identity. The setting, too, was apropos. I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. Philadelphia is the nearest major city (perhaps, too, Lancaster shared something with our protagonist’s rural home), and this proximity to my students’ “real life,” I hoped, would make the text more immediate – hardly a negligible advantage, given how daunting it can be to get students excited about the period. Other reasons for the story’s applicability had to do with the distinct aims of my course, which I had titled “Unsettling Early America” in order to foreground two issues that we, as a class, would take up. First: by the 1620s European diseases had so decimated America’s Native populations that the Pilgrims found themselves walking quite literally on the bones and skulls of the dead. How, then, did we come to identify the Pilgrims not with American catastrophe but with America’s founding? Second: as an adjective, “unsettling” has significant affective and literary dimensions, meaning that it can describe the feeling we get from something we read. What texts unsettle us, and why? “A Journey to Philadelphia,” concerning an Anglo-American man’s ill-favored move to the city, would not be obvious help to the former question. It would be, I anticipated, with the second, and I had accordingly positioned the text before Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly in our schedule of reading. From the localized benevolence we saw between the narrator and protagonist in “A Journey to Philadelphia,” we could move to explore how the concept expanded to “treat” race and culture in Brown’s novel.  

In execution, this plan did not do, because of a difficulty at once basic and profound: we could not adequately discuss benevolence, because we got stuck on matters of plot. Now, by this point in the semester my students had read “true relations,” sermons, poetry, captivity narratives, court records, slave narratives, and sentimental novels, finding their way with increasing confidence and skill through the stylistic as well as material difficulties that these genres present. A short story, I imagined, would be easy going. What I did not account for was that “A Journey to Philadelphia” would not be immediately recognizable to them as such. As it happened, where I found the story brief, they found it impacted, had difficulty following who was speaking when, which story was nested within which, how the serialization worked. This confusion meant that we had to do a fair bit of summary in class. Practically, this was mundane work; but pedagogically, it was revelatory, because it required me to appreciate the formal complexities that I was asking my students to tackle. Over twenty-eight pages, divided across five weekly installments, we learn of the events that doomed the prisoner, Saunders, whom we met at the story’s opening. These are an absolute tangle, involving a shadowy enemy, two mystery women, assassination attempts, apprenticeship to a watchmaker (who happens to be father to one of the women), Saunders’ trial and conviction for the other woman’s death, his moment on the gallows, a last-minute reprieve, and the surprise existence of a look-alike, which explains everything. 

These are not slight twists. They are, as I have said, imbrications that bear on how we read, for example, the relationship between Saunders and Carnell (Saunders’s enemy), or Saunders and Carson (Saunders’ double), or Carnell and Carson. My largest takeaway in teaching the short story, then, is a recognition that we are – that I am, in any event – more inadvertently apt to grant “formal complexity” to other of the genres we teach, and a reminder that, in contradistinction to that habit, a story such as “Adelio’s” may best be used to defamiliarize rather than to anticipate a genre. In the future, I will teach the novella after Brown.