Early American Literature, the Electronic Archive, and the History of the Book

Karen Weyler
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

I was familiar with Amelia before I began this teaching project, after having written about that novella in Intricate Relations (Iowa, 2004).  I had not reread Amelia for a number of years, nor had I ever taught it.  Amelia was a perfect fit, however, for my Fall 2012 graduate seminar, titled “Early American Literature, the Electronic Archive, and the History of the Book.”   This class was comprised of twelve students, ranging from first-year master’s students to third-year Ph.D. students.  Only one of the students is majoring in pre-1900 American literature, and most had minimal background in early American literature.  In addition to collective weekly readings, the course required students to engage in extensive independent electronic database explorations, including, among others, the pay-for-service North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, Early American Imprints, First and Second Series, America’s Historical Newspapers, and American Periodicals.  We also used a number of free databases, such as Cornell University Library’s Making of America site and Colonial Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette site, as well as numerous state archives discovered by the students.

By the time Amelia appeared on the syllabus in early November, alongside Hannah Webster Foster’s The Boarding School, students had explored the intersections among history of the book, digital archives, and various genres, including personal narratives, captivity narratives, sermons, newspaper and magazine verse, and, of course, the novel.  They had broad experience interpreting non-canonical texts, often reading even today’s canonical works in their original editions and contexts.

Amelia and The Boarding School followed The Coquette on the syllabus and thus invited comparison.  Several students noted similarities between the novels, leading one student to liken Amelia to “The Coquette on speed.”  Yet students found the eponymous heroine of Amelia to be less coquettish and more innocent, even naïve, than Eliza Wharton.  On the other hand, they liked Amelia’s independent pursuit of justice on her own behalf in confronting her spurious husband and demanding the recognition and protection of a legal marriage.

My class spent considerable time discussing the relatively short length of Amelia, as compared to The Coquette or The Boarding School.  One student described the novel as the “literary equivalent of the miniature.”   Although I hypothesized that magazine novellas such as Amelia might serve as gateways to the novel, introducing readers to fiction and enticing them to read more, the majority of students (8 out of 11 present) persuasively argued the reverse:  they saw Amelia as a quick fix for fiction lovers, a novel in miniature that would appeal to readers already familiar with the conventions of sentimental fiction. (As a side note here, I was intrigued by the language of drugs and addiction—“speed” and “fixes”—that my students unconsciously used to describe fiction reading.)  That is to say, my students proposed that, to appreciate this text, one needed to be already familiar with the conventions of the genre.  In this sense, they were identifying what Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs calls “cultural shorthand.”  They had not read Sensational Designs, but they arrived at a conclusion similar to Tompkins, when she argues that stereotyped characters and situations become “instantly recognizable representatives of overlapping racial, sexual, national, ethnic, economic, social, political, and religious categories; they convey enormous amounts of cultural information in an extremely condensed form” (xvi).

My students are convinced that the short length of Amelia and its “textual density” were key to its popularity.  This was an astute observation on the part of students who did not know, at that time, that there is a strong correlation between the popularity of British novels reprinted in early America and length.  The American editions of British novels tended to be heavily abridged.  For example, almost all American editions of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe were abridged; approximately a third of them contained fewer than 30 pages, while some were as short at sixteen pages.  The same was true for Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, as Leonard Tennenhouse has discussed in The Importance of Feeling English.  Clarissa was heavily abridged, running around 1,000,000 words in its most popular British incarnation, while “the Clarissa that appeared in 1795 ran to somewhere around just 41,000 words, or about the same length as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple.  Furthermore, every edition of Richardson published in the United States from the late 1780s through the first two decades of the nineteenth century observed pretty much the same model of abridgement”(Tennenhouse 54-55).  Reader’s Digest condensed books have nothing on eighteenth-century American reprints!  Tennenhouse argues that, ultimately, these eighteenth-century abridgements shift the emphasis of these novels from interiority to plot.  Amelia has plot in abundance, leading my students to conclude that its narrative economy appealed to readers.  As a longer prose piece that was not epistolary—thus bucking the trend we see in The Coquette, The Boarding School, and The Power of Sympathy, Amelia might have appeared fresh to readers in the 1780s and 1790s.

For my students, Amelia was a success.  They liked the novel, much more so than The Boarding School (my not-so-secret nickname for which is The Boring School), but more important, from my perspective, adding the novel to the syllabus and participating in Just Teach One allowed a natural expansion of our conversation from the novella itself to questions about the larger project of sentimental fiction, canon formation and the role publishers play in shaping that canon, the market for textbooks, the kind of editorial work required to produce a classroom edition versus a scholarly edition, the future of digital scholarship, and more—in short, the kinds of conversations crucial for helping students enter the profession as scholars and teachers.

Works Cited 

Tennenhouse, Leonard.   The Importance of Feeling English:  American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Tompkins, Jane.  Sensational Designs:  The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1985.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *