Flash Mobbing the Early American Curriculum

Ezra Tawil
University of Rochester

When I heard about the Just Teach One project, and then again when I received the Amelia edition so beautifully prepared by Duncan Faherty and Ed White, my first reaction was exhilaration at the idea: all of us plotting to teach the same obscure but rich text, in coordinated simultaneity, and then documenting the event.  This could be the closest I’d ever come to participating in a flash mob.  My second reaction was disappointment that my Fall teaching schedule didn’t offer any obvious openings for the text.  (My two early American literature classes this year, in which Amelia would fit perfectly, are slated for the Spring semester; sure, I could teach it then, but no one wants to show up for the flash mob the next day.)  So my mind turned to the only Fall syllabus that seemed vaguely receptive, a seminar I would be co-teaching with Joan Rubin, my colleague in the History Department.  Joanie and I had brainstormed the reading list last Spring–this is a brand new course to be the central requirement for the American Studies major going forward–but developed the syllabus in July, under the usual pressure of book-order deadlines.  The result is “The Idea of ‘America,’” a course we have decided to build almost entirely around primary sources, unfolding chronologically from the Renaissance to the present, from Columbus’s 1493 letter to Luis de Santángel to Senator Obama’s 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention.

All this background forms part of my story of teaching Amelia, because this particular context, and the ways in which it differs from my usual American literature teaching, turned out fundamentally to affect the experience of teaching it and certainly shaped the students’ reception of it.  If my first thought was, “maybe I can shoe-horn Amelia in here somewhere,” as soon as the course took the above shape, seduction fiction suddenly seemed a fascinating entry into one way in which “America” was being culturally defined just past the mid-point of our long chronological sweep.  My teaching partner readily agreed, though with the reality of our ambitious reading list glaring at us, we had to forego the idea of a week on seduction (in which I might have paired Amelia with a longer and more familiar work like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple or Royal Tyler’s The Contrast, perhaps supplemented with some of those great period sources on “republican motherhood” and “female influence”).  We opted instead to combine it with the first two volumes of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography under a rubric of “(In)dependence, Virtue, and Gender.”  Without getting into the specifics of our terrific discussion of Franklin, the pairing immediately offered up some interesting comparisons and contrasts–not only via the different ways in which female and male virtues were being defined and narrativized, but more pointedly (as Joanie observed in our pre-game meeting) the way in which Franklin flaunts the necessity of a certain kind of artifice to self-fashioning and self-performance, while the Amelia author draws a clean line of separation between the corruption of hypocritical artifice and the sincerity of artless virtue.

The most obvious difference (I’d imagine) between teaching Amelia in an American Studies context and in a “literature classroom” is that the questions of literary value and aesthetic merit, which seem inevitably to cling to sentimental genres in the classroom context and outside it, were entirely absent from discussion.  This was, after all, a class in which we’d already read letters, sermons, political tracts, and so on.  Similarly, for basic structural reasons, the question of canonicity, or of whether this was an adequate representation of the genre, simply didn’t come into play.  The angle of approach of our course rubric tended instead to bring into focus the politics of seduction, rather than the formal details of its literary expression.  So some of the formal-generic questions got less pointed attention, but what we got in exchange was an especially keen view of how the seduction tale participated in what we might call the cultural politics of virtue in the early decades of national formation.  By far the most significant thing that this framework emphasized was how a set of oppositions–between virtue and corruption, between dependence and independence, between true manliness or womanliness and their false counterparts–could be presented in explicitly or implicitly national terms as if they encoded essential differences between “British” and “American” subjects.  In a sense, you might say that Amelia does this a little too well.  Against the historical setting of the Revolution, so clearly does the text seem to associate innocence with the Anglo-American family and treacherous hypocritical infamy with the Briton who infiltrates and threatens it–in a similar way to Hilliard D’Auberteuil’s 1784 Miss McRea, A Novel of the American Revolution–that it all tended to flatten out a little too allegorically in the students’s eyes (something that would have been mitigated were one to pair it more expansively with some of the materials I mentioned above).  To compensate for this problem in the present context, we reminded them of the date of publication.  They already seen how, in 1776, Thomas Paine had played on the symbolic linkage between British breeding and sexual misconduct in Common Sense (“Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence?  Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America . . . There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did.  As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain”).  But we asked the students what might be at stake for this kind of argument in the late 1780s, when it ripened into a full and bonafide subgenre of U.S. fiction.  What domestic-political function might the “faithless Briton” be serving in 1787 in particular?  What commonalities or similarities might these purely national oppositions and contrasts be concealing at this historical moment, and for what cultural or political purposes?

To the extent that we did take up the work’s aesthetic dimensions, it was in the more classic–and utterly illuminating–sense of what feelings it was trying to engender in the reader and what formal, stylistic, characterological means it used to do so.  For example, when we asked our students to reflect on the generic rules and conventions that governed the tale, and how those helped played on the reader’s sympathy, they were able–with Mary Rowlandson in our not-too-distant rear view–to see how the captivity topos was at work in a mutated form in the seduction novel, even though Amelia doesn’t make that nearly as apparent as, for example, Hilliard’s Miss McRea. In effect, this line of discussion was a recognition of Amelia, and by extension the seduction subgenre, as a variety of what Michelle Burnham calls the “sentimental novel of captivity” (I didn’t offer them the terminology but encouraged the homology).

We did not inform our students until the end of class discussion that they had just been guinea pigs in a “Just Teach One” curricular experiment; but I nearly exploded into laughter in the middle of class, when one of our students spontaneously offered her opinion that the two works “paired really well together”!  The future of early American literary studies is bright!

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