A remarkably economical text

Elizabeth Hewitt
The Ohio State University

As part of a major renovation to our department’s major requirements and the university’s conversion from a quarter to a semester calendar, the Department of English at Ohio State decided to compress all of American literary history (“origins” to 2012) into one 14-week course. I was selected as the lab rat to navigate this particular curricular maze. And so when Duncan and Ed sent out their call to incorporate Amelia: or the Faithless Briton into our syllabi, I decided to try the novel out in the large American literary survey course I was scheduled to teach in Fall 2012.

In many ways I found that Amelia is a remarkably economical text: it allowed me to introduce my students to the genre of the seduction novel and to popular magazine fiction with remarkably few pages. Because this class was not only a requirement for English majors, but also a General Education Curriculum course, there is a wide range of talents, tastes, and capacities for extended and rigorous reading. Consequently, if I had had my 150 students read one of the longer, and more conventional, novels from the 1790s (Foster’s The Coquette, Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, Brockden Brown’s Wieland) then I would have had to make sacrifices in coverage. Instead I was able to sandwich Amelia between the first two sections of Franklin’s Autobiography and some selections Equiano’s narrative (both from the Norton American Literature Shorter Edition)—and also have them read work from Occom, Paine, Wheatley, and Crevecoeur.

I am not damning with faint praise when I suggest that what I find most remarkable about Amelia is its economy in the classroom. The novel does a lot work—which is to say, it allowed me to convey a lot of material with relative ease for the students. We were able to discuss the history of the novel and read an example of one in a relatively primitive form. We were able to discuss the importance of the magazine as the delivery system for narrative fiction. We were able to talk about the novel as an epitome of the classic tropes of the seduction tale. We were able to use it to consider the tendency towards moral didacticism in popular literary fiction. We were able to discuss the family romance allegory that shapes post-revolutionary rhetoric. And while many similar arguments can be achieved with the canonical examples of the 1790s American novel, they would require almost 100 more pages of reading. And there is an added benefit to the text’s brevity, which is that it pares down the genre into its simplest elements – elements that my students returned to again and again as they read, for example, Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” or Nella Larsen’s Passing or Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” While the arguments about republican motherhood are more obscure in this text than the novel of Foster or Rowson, the advantage falls to Amelia’s side in setting up the stage for periodical publication (that dominates the 19th century) and the importance of anonymous authorship before the age of literary celebrity.

Because this particular course was a large one, my experience didn’t give me a lot of opportunity for student feedback: it wasn’t a discussion course. But I know that most of the students enjoyed the novel – more than I would have thought actually – since over 10 of them chose to write papers on the text. And they returned to it again and again in thinking about the history of narrative fiction over 200 years of American literary history. One student wrote about the long tradition of the romance novel from Amelia to Shades of Grey. And, indeed, in our discussion of Colson Whitehead’s new Zone One (which models itself on another kind of genre fiction), Amelia proved a really useful text for considering the fluctuating division between high and lowbrow literary culture. Another student talked about Amelia as part of a long tradition of “American Girl” fiction and compared Amelia to James’s Daisy and Jewett’s Sylvia. I mention this particular paper, because it is perhaps the novel’s representation of adolescence, early sexuality, and vexed parental relations that perhaps explains the remarkable appeal to undergraduate readers.

Not only did my students repeatedly express their fondness for the novel, but many also said that they used it as an orienting compass for navigating American literary history. They remarked that were better able to understand what was stylistically and formally different about later narrative fiction. And yet I also had students who turned towards Amelia as the subject of close reading and wrote papers about themes of redemption and loss, about parental virtue, and about sea travel in the 18th century.

In reading through these student essays and thinking about how often I would return to Amelia in subsequent lectures, I become absolutely convinced that Amelia is an ideal text for a literary survey course. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that some of the major American literary anthologies would be better served substituting the random chapters from longer novels with Amelia. Unfortunately I won’t be able to teach this particular course again (a long story that involves the Ohio Board of Regents shutting down our experiment almost as soon as it began), but when I teach the more standard iteration of an American literature survey course (“origins” to 1865), I will teach Amelia for precisely the reasons I outline above.


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