Just Teach Place: Philadelphia Writers and Writing in 19th-century America

Lisa M. Vetere, Associate Professor
Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ

I taught this semester’s selection in a graduate course with the very general title of “Nineteenth Century American Literature.” Given such a broad title, as well as my reluctance to use canonicity as the course’s organizing principle, I usually chose to shape such courses around a specific inquiry topic. Fortunately, it turned out that this semester’s “Just Teach One” selection, “A Journey To Philadelphia: Or, Memoirs Of Charles Coleman Saunders. An Original Tale,” provided my course with a theme. It recalled to me my desire to teach George Lippard’s Quaker City once again to Monmouth’s graduate students. Thinking of these two texts together, I of course stumbled upon the theme of the writers and writings of nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Using theories of place and space in literature to spark our discussions, we explored a series of works both canonical and “classic”: some familiar texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Harriet Jacobs; some increasingly studied writers such as Leonora Sansay, Richard Allen, Frank Webb, and Rebecca Rush; and some rarely read (maybe deservedly so) narratives such as Mary Clark’s 1838 criminal confession, The Memoirs of the Celebrated and Beautiful Mrs. Ann Carson. We ended the course with a day trip to Philadelphia to experience the place for ourselves through the new lens of literary history.

On our very first day of class, I assigned “Journey to Philadelphia” and paired it with a documentary on the city’s history. First we spent fifteen minutes on an in-class writing about the ways in which the culture, history, and environment of the “first city” shaped our understanding of this piece of nineteenth-century periodical fiction. As a class, we came up with a number of fascinating ideas. Our discussion began with our collective confusion about the plot. We spent a good deal of time just trying to figure out some of the basics: who was this villain Carnell and why was he persecuting Charles Coleman Saunders? Why was Carnell harassing Emelia along the banks of the Susquehanna? How did that relate to the attempted suicide of Susan Warfield, who was alleged to be married to someone with the eerily familiar name of Carson? All this effort to distinguish one character from another provoked a discussion of doubles. As I asked them to think about Philadelphia’s role in the “assemblage” of a literary text, we started to examine the “affect” created by the literary device of the double. Someone in the class linked this confusion with the disorientation and anonymity felt in cities, especially when visiting for the first time. Then we talked about the “sensorium” of urban spaces in general, and with Philadelphia’s in particular. We talked about the relationship between country and city more generally, but the documentary brought to our minds William Penn’s plan to make Philadelphia “a greene country towne,” where urban and rural could be more seamlessly—and healthfully—integrated. This led us to consider the role of “nature” in the text, especially its rivers and precipices, as enabling the violence and crime of the novel. Another student drew parallels between “Journey to Philadelphia” and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Like Ben Franklin, Charles Coleman Saunders had an ambition to achieve more than his father, and both characters used the city of Philly to facilitate that social mobility. There is also the last name “Saunders,” which of course brings to mind Franklin’s “Poor Richard.”

All throughout the semester, we identified the formative value of place—for architecture, ecology, psychology, law, politics, behavior both human and non-human, and therefore with writing and literature. Philadelphia’s geographical location at the crossroads between north and south fueled many a productive conversation about many a nineteenth-century American text.

I am very grateful to have participated in the “Just Teach One” program. On the evening of that first class meeting, our discussion was lively, thought-provoking, and creative. We talked nearly non-stop for three hours, with every student in the class participating. “Journey to Philadelphia” provides an accessibility in both content and form that worked as an effective and affecting introduction to the course topic. Not only would I use the text again; I’m considering writing about it myself. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, Duncan Faherty, and Ed White for creating, supporting, and running a program that provided me (and my students) with such a memorable semester.