Onlookers, Rescuers, and a “Melancholy Witness”

Lisa West 
Drake University 

I taught “A Journey to Philadelphia” in a lower-level English seminar, “Approaches to American Literature pre-1900,” that included majors and non-majors, first years to seniors.  Other texts included WielandThe PioneersThe Hidden Hand, and The House Behind the Cedars, and the overall focus was on community-building, family dynamics, and how fiction addresses social issues.  I found this short fiction extremely teachable and a fantastic companion to Wieland. Students enjoyed writing on it and many included it in their final writing project. Students were quick to note connections with Wieland, with many assuming the author had read the Brockden Brown novel and had it in mind.  They noted how arch villain Carnell seemed like Carwin (even in the sound of the name); they saw connections in the narrative frame (although they noted that “Journey” relied less on the device of a single narrator); they saw similar threats initiated by “strangers” or by the notion of mobility in general; and they noticed similar ways first person narrative accounts engaged in conjecture, white lies, and omission of the truth. They felt that both texts were invested in how a community controls its borders and enforces who is an insider or outsider. We had some generative discussion on the narrative frame.  They felt that the outermost frame, the writing by “Adelio,” made it seem less subjective than Wieland’s device of using Clara as both protagonist and controlling narrator.  While Wieland also includes multiple voices, they found the voices here less constrained by the overall narrative situation.  They also noted how this novella made institutions like prison or court more palpable presences than in the Brockden Brown novel; reading both texts made them notice the domestic, insular focus of the novel even more.  

After an initial discussion about connections to Wieland and the narrative frame, I offered several prompts for students for a 15-minute in-class writing exercise, and they were most interested in three: whether “reason” was promoted as the ultimate value in the text; the role of onlookers or bystanders; and the issues surrounding spouse abuse, mental health, and suicide. One student articulated that Saunders does NOT act reasonably by running away, hiding his identity, and not mentioning the suicide he thinks he witnesses, and that acting more “reasonably” in these areas might have changed his fate.  Another noted that while “reason” was valued, the text engages with issues such as abuse, depression, or uncertainty that cannot be effectively addressed by reason alone.  For the onlookers prompt, students engaged in lively discussion about today’s moral lessons – tattling doesn’t solve issues; be an active bystander – and the way the text handles the multiple instances of eavesdropping, watching, and spectating. One student claimed that the text values ACTIVE intervention.  When Saunders rescues the “struggling female” (6) from kidnapping, he physically prevents harm and is rewarded, first by an apprenticeship and then by marriage.  However, less direct forms of intervention are not so well rewarded. The fishing witnesses basically “tattle” to the state when they report what they saw.  Removed and after-the-fact, their reporting could not save the woman but could only seek retribution and state, not individual, remedy. Another student commented that the act of eavesdropping drives the plot – there would be no story if Saunders had not witnessed Susan Warfield jumping off the cliff or if the fishermen had not witnessed his presence at her fall. Even the outermost narrative frame relies on Adelio listening and bearing witness to a prisoner.  Students contrasted the centrality of these moments of witness with actual events themselves: Saunders’ journey to the city, some of the creepy actions of Carnell, etc.  In other words, what we think of as action, plot, gets subordinated, most students believed, to watching, retelling, thinking about what one should do with what one has seen.  

Perhaps the most vehement responses from the class related to issues of gender and agency.  One student remarked how at first she was impressed that the society in the text valued an unknown woman enough to prosecute her death rather than deem her expendable, but, as she read further, she felt the society failed to demonstrate a more lasting interest in Susan, for her mental health, likely abusive marriage, etc. were not deemed socially significant in and of themselves. Some students felt women had a voice because it is the account of Susan that solves most of the issues, and it is her presence that saves Saunders from death., i.e. she is able to save him whereas he was not able to save her. Yet the story values her only for her role in staying the execution.  Readers wanted to learn what would happen to her: would her husband make good on his threat to kill her? What would happen to her for her role in the novella’s events? 

Students overall found Saunders “believable” and did not want to question the outermost frames of the story.  They were interested in how different perspectives entered the narrative and how what seemed reasonable to one character might seem very different to someone else.  They were deeply invested in the role of social forces and institutions, especially the law.  I will teach this novella again with Wieland. I feel that it is short enough but complex enough to be a good midterm or independent assignment.  Students were really excited to apply what they learned in reading the Brockden Brown novel to this text, and I feel it was effective largely because the students could figure out how to approach it without my coaching.  I do think that without the experience of reading a text like Wieland, they would not have had such a foundation from which to consider the multiple perspectives, misunderstandings, deceptions, and narrative uncertainty that make this novella such a fascinating read.