Teaching A Journey to Philadelphia: or, Memoirs of Charles Coleman Saunders

Dan Walden
Baylor University

I taught this novella as the last text of an advanced undergraduate seminar on American literature of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the 1804 publication fell a little outside the bounds of the rest of our readings, it worked well as a capstone to our semester-long discussion about the nature of providence on the American psyche as well as depictions and power dynamics of gender in the public sphere. And while the earlier chronology of our class meant that we did not read a Charles Brockden Brown novel—the influence of which on A Journey to Philadelphia is palpable—I think this was actually beneficial because it allowed the class to discuss the novella on its own merits rather than through its resemblance to Brown’s works.

The texts that led the class into this novella focused on gender’s relationship to domesticity and politics at the end of the 18th century—Abigail Adams’ “Remember the Ladies” letter and John’s reply, Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” and selections from both Charlotte Temple and The Coquette—and so the students expectedly keyed in on the gender dynamics in the novella. But what was unexpected was the way in which my students intensely responded to the novella’s opening conflict. Baylor has had recent and very public issues with sexual assault and my students found a clear analogue in the scene where Saunders saves Emilia from being attacked at night by Carnell. My students found this scene highly problematic, both in light of the recent Baylor scandals and the general cultural failings surrounding sexual assault that have been highlighted by the Me Too movement. There were two particular details that my students discussed at length: the first was the objectification of the assault victim by her erstwhile protector who says, “the momentary view I had of her features awakened sensations of a new and unaccountable kind; the first wish they produced was, a desire to behold again, the object which had excited them.” My students were very troubled by the implication that in the process of preventing an attack, Saunders was immediately attracted to the woman in danger, and one student even noted that he specifically refers to her as an “object” in the passage. The second detail occurs immediately after the first: when Saunders prevents the attack and Carnell begins to flee, Saunders claims, “I had no right to detain him, I had accomplished my object; but now a new one accompanied my attention; I hastened to search after the female.” My students were very sensitive to the fact that Saunders, while considering himself a “hero” for saving Emilia, feels no need to detain Carnell for the attack. In fact, the claim that Saunders felt he had “no right to detain” Carnell had clear connections to contemporary understandings of rape culture and the blind eye turned towards men who commit crimes against women. Students found parallels between this passage and events like the Brock Turner sexual assault case, where the young white man was found guilty of sexual assault but given a lenient sentence.

While this scene—combined with the fact that Saunders does eventually become Emilia’s suitor—engendered the most discussion, it made the students sensitive to other examples of the power dynamics of gender throughout the text, such as Saunders’ questionable decision not to track down the friends of the woman he assumed had committed suicide and the subversion of the male-savior trope that occurs when Susan Warfield returns just in time to stay Saunders’ execution for her murder. Additionally, students were interested in Saunders’ motivation for fame and the connection to contemporary social media culture, but the dynamics of power and sexual assault were far and away the most engrossing topics for discussion.

I was impressed at how well my students dug into this text and connected it to contemporary topics. It was definitely not a light text to end the semester on, but it was a worthwhile one, and I will be interested to see if using A Journey to Philadelphia in other courses and paired with other texts, yields similar results. I’m most interested to see how reading this in conjunction with Brown’s novels—particularly Wieland—changes or enhances the discussion.