Reading and Writing the American City

Betsy Klimasmith
University of Massachusetts, Boston

Amelia was the first text I pitched on opening night of my new graduate seminar, “Reading and Writing the American City.”  I chose it as the first text of the semester for several reasons: its brevity meant that students could easily read the text as they prepared to start the fall term; the pdf format was easy to distribute to them even before we met; and I felt it would set the class up well for our next text, Charlotte Temple. And with its amazing resonance with and inversion, nationality-wise, of Charlotte’s presentation of rural and urban spaces, Amelia seemed like the perfect text to get us talking thematically about the ways in which the city is imagined in literature of the Early Republic.

What I didn’t think about was how opening night dynamics might affect the content of class discussion.  Our discussion was fast and furious.  In my effort to encourage comments from as many students as possible to help establish a class dynamic of lively discussion and debate, we moved through the text much more slowly than I had imagined we would.  (Now that I know my class better, I understand that the discussion gods smiled on me with this group of students; they are fabulous talkers who with LOTS to say about the material we’re covering.  In this light, Amelia seems to have been the perfect introduction to the course.)  We spent a long time discussing Amelia’s opening binaries and managed to gloss, quickly, the tensions of the text’s oppositional settings (rural/urban and US/Britain).

The highlight of class discussion was our close reading of what one student called the “magic moment” of Amelia, when, “wiping the useless tears from her cheek, she resolved publicly to vindicate her honor, and assert her rights.”  Students thought that this was the text’s revolutionary moment and loved that the voice effacing all traces of sentiment and using the language of “rights” to assert her claim to respectability was a woman. Those who had read Charlotte Temple talked about how unusual this moment seemed to them in the face of Charlotte’s frequent fainting spells.  They were also impressed by the pregnant Amelia’s smooth navigation of her transatlantic voyage and the chaotic London streets.  Some wondered whether Amelia belongs in the same category as Charlotte Temple, given her assertion of selfhood at this key moment.  Then again, as one student pointed out, when she leaves to avenge her wrongs, Amelia still thinks she’s married.

We ended the class by looking briefly at Leonard Tennenhouse’s claim in The Importance of Feeling English that “the point” of sentimental texts like Amelia and Charlotte Temple “is to leave the reader with a keen sense of loss and a desire to see the family remade” (45).  On a first response, my students felt that Amelia’s ending foreclosed any hope for remaking the family.  When I asked them who was this seduction tale’s victim, the unanimous answer was Amelia’s father, Horatio, who ends the tale alone, deprived of wife, children and grandchild.  Most interestingly to me, students felt he was the author of his own demise—that by withdrawing from conflict and retreating to the country, he had brought this avalanche of tragedy upon himself.  Though we may desire, in Tennenhouse’s words, “to see the family remade,” the students felt that Amelia closed off that possibility completely, offering a very bleak outlook on the new nation’s future.

In hindsight, Amelia’s strongest contribution to the course was not to help students think about presentations of urban space, but to serve as a counterpoint to the course’s other early seduction tales: Charlotte, Arthur Mervyn and Laura.  I’m not sure whether it was Amelia’s doing, but my class remains more eager to discuss magic moments when female characters play against type— LaRue’s seduction of Charlotte Temple with the tempting letter, Eliza’s burning of the will in Arthur Mervyn—than they are to talk about urban spaces.  But if changing the syllabus to let Amelia in helped to reveal my students’ true interests—even though they deviate from my own—I’m grateful.

 

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