Genre, gender, and power

Ivy Schweitzer
Dartmouth College

First, this text came at the end of the term when students were fatigued and full up with Early American texts in a course that was both a survey and introduction to the field that spanned 1490’s to 1790’s and included literature from the Indian, French, and Spanish traditions as well as English. Notably, this class’s least favorite text was Behn’s Oroonoko, which in the previous iteration of the course was the big hit. The present group had trouble with Behn’s Romantic language and orotund writing style; at times they could not even summarize the plot! So Amelia came as a welcomed reprieve to them. Not only could they get the plot, but they experienced the sentimental mode with less resistance, and they understood the political allegory almost from the beginning and really ran with it.

The student who signed up to do a historical context report on Amelia articulated this connection in his first paragraph: “The ‘give me liberty or give me death’ sentiments expressed in the tale are perfectly in tune with the romanticism of the revolution.”  In the absence of an author, this resourceful student looked at the tale’s publishing context, The Columbian Magazine, and uncovered useful information about its two founders, Mathew Carey and Charles Cist, both immigrants who brought republican ideals with them to the new US. As for the plot and themes, the student went to Len Tennenhouse’s crucial study, The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850 (2007) and Tara Fitzpatrick’s helpful essay, “Liberty, Corruption and Seduction in the Republican Imagination” (Connotations 4.1-2 [1994/95]: 44-66), and distinguished English versions of the seduction plot from USian versions.

I am big on reading prefaces and framing materials (many of the texts we read for course have important prefaces, such as Cabeza de Vaca’s and Mary Rowlandson’s narratives, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, Oroonoko, Sor Juana’s “Loa for the Divine Narcissus, which is itself a preface, Franklin’s “epitaph”), so we spent some fruitful time discussing the introduction and its implications for reading the text in a political and transnational context, especially the distinction (or not) between novelists and historians. Students were fascinated and repulsed by Doliscus’s artfulness and arguments. We had just read The Contrast, which includes a comic treatment of the rake’s progress and other related issues (protocols for duelling, for example) that made a handy juxtaposition to this melodramatic, even tragic depiction.  The historical context of the “English” seduction novel helped them see Amelia’s reactions, agency, and the tragic conclusion as importantly different and allegorically symbolic.

All in all, Amelia was a fun text to teach and discuss because it raised many generic and thematic issues in a compact form and helped to cinch up the end of a course on Early America that focused on genre, gender, and power.

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