Amelia in the digitally-archived republic of letters

Brian Sweeney

The College of St. Rose

I adopted Amelia for my 200-level course Sympathy and the Early American Novel, one I have offered several times at The College of Saint Rose.  This course, open to English majors and non-majors alike, introduces undergraduates to early national U.S. literature and culture while inviting them to think in a sustained way about sentimental aesthetics and the ethics and politics of sympathy.

Students came to Amelia having already read Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (along with scholarship on seduction fiction, some sentimental poetry, and selections from Benjamin Rush and Adam Smith).  I was, I admit, hardly breaking new ground by pairing Amelia with Charlotte Temple; however, I enthusiastically followed the example set by previous JTO contributors, happy to relieve Rowson’s novel of the burden of serving as a synecdoche for all of Anglo-American seduction fiction.  While the two texts have much in common—seduced women, faithless British soldiers, bereaved fathers, transatlantic voyages, revolutionary war setting, etc.—their intriguing differences allowed my students to reflect on the diversity possible within this seemingly most formulaic of genres.

In informal response papers and class discussion, a few students claimed to discover previously unsuspected complexity in Rowson’s novel when confronted with (what they saw as) Amelia’s comparatively straightforward allegory of bourgeois republican virtue imperiled by aristocratic degeneracy.  The fact that, in contrast with Charlotte Temple, the narrator and implied reader of Amelia are explicitly gendered as male (cf.  “our sex” (3)) suggested to more than one student that, while Charlotte was concerned with carving out a space for female agency at the nexus of sentimental and republican gender discourses, Amelia offered a comparatively unambiguous affirmation of republican ideology.  These students read Amelia as a cautionary tale in which Horatio Blyfield’s abdication of male republican virtue—his retreat from public life into domesticity at the outbreak of war, his adoption of a specifically female republican role of supervising his children’s education, etc.—precipitates the “doom” (as one student put it) awaiting a family or nation that deviates from republican morality and its attendant gender prescriptions.

Some students demurred, however, noting textual details that clashed with a reading of Amelia as a straightforward republican morality tale.  Several noted that Doliscus, when he persuades Amelia to participate in an unostentatious wedding ceremony that turns out to be a sham, undermines the republican association of honesty with simplicity and of dishonesty with opulent display.  The irony that Amelia is seduced by means of an appeal to republican values was, for some students, further compounded by her “sudden and fatal” collapse when Doliscus informs her that their wedding ceremony was but a “rural masquerade” (9): suddenly deprived of married status, Amelia seems instantly to concede her lack of consequence within an ideological context that values women primarily as wives and mothers.  For these students, Amelia’s collapse and subsequent death do not signify the punishment of the daughter for the sins of the failed republican father, but rather expose the hollowness of republican constructions of womanhood that pretend to augment women’s moral and cultural authority while dramatically circumscribing it.  As sophomore English major Jessica Lamoureux remarked, cannily extending the text’s analogy between sexual and revolutionary politics, “You can’t fight when you don’t have ammunition.”

Eager to introduce a consideration of print culture into this conversation, I invited students to take a look at a reproduction of the periodical in which Amelia first appeared, The Columbian Magazine or Monthly Miscellany.  Founded (with others) by the Irish-born Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey, who later brought out the first American edition of Charlotte Temple, the Columbian lasted from 1786 to 1792 (Mott 1:94).  The Internet Archive has made freely available a digitized edition of first bound volume of the Columbian Magazine.  Encompassing the issues from September 1786 through December 1787, as well as a supplementary issue, this volume includes both installments of the serialized text of Amelia: the first installment, with illustration, leads off the October 1787 issue, and the concluding installment is printed in the supplementary issue.

As Faherty and White note in their introduction, the contents of the Columbian are remarkably diverse: riddles (and their solutions); poetry addressed or attributed to “Amelia” or “Emilia”, and on such subjects as choosing a husband; readers’ letters on diverse subjects; monthly weather reports; “intelligence” notices, both “foreign” and “domestic”; essays on love and on ladies’ fashions; the text of the U.S. constitution; many stunning engravings; biographies of Revolutionary war figures; marriage, death, and bankruptcy notices; Jefferson’s refutation of Buffon; and so on.

In my first effort to teach Amelia in periodical context, I directed my undergraduates to focus only on the first pages of the volume.  There, an allegorical frontispiece depicts a woman and two children, evidently figuring “Columbia[ and her] rising race,” receiving the reward of “Independence” for their fidelity to the quintessentially republican virtues of “Wisdom, Fortitude, and Perseverance,” justifying our assumption that the magazine’s readers would have been conditioned to read Amelia’s family plot in political terms.  Even more interesting, to my mind, are the “Queries Submitted to Our Correspondents for a Fair and Candid Discussion” immediately preceding the first issue in the volume.  Explaining to my undergraduates that the early American magazine was imagined not so much a consumable commodity as a platform for the active exchange of ideas, I asked students to consider how questions such as “Are sumptuary laws compatible with the liberty of the American republics?” and “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much effected by the influence of the fair sex, as by any other cause whatsoever?” resonate with questions raised by the text of Amelia.

Because this was my first time teaching Amelia, my efforts to situate the novel in periodical context were of course exploratory, and in the single class meeting devoted to the text my students and I could scarcely begin to trace even a few of the discursive connections between Amelia and other content of early issues of the Columbian.  However, even this limited excursion into periodical context permitted us to do a number of valuable things: to discuss the cultural role of early republican print as a medium of public discourse; to ponder what the publication of Amelia in the Columbian suggested about the cultural and political role of early US fiction; and (especially in light of how Amelia genders its narrator and reader) to consider who entered into the Columbian’s discursive space as a subject, and who primarily as an object, of discourse.

It goes without saying that my experience teaching Amelia did not bear out the stark choice between book-historical and literary-critical approaches to early American texts that Joseph Adelman offers us in a recent blog post about Just Teach One.  However, while exploring Amelia’s periodical context enriched, and was enriched by, our efforts to make sense of it as a literary text, I’d like to do things a little differently next time.  By instructing my students to focus on the Columbian Magazine, I privileged the initial publication of what was, after all, a peripatetic text:  as Faherty and White inform us, “Amelia was successful and popular enough to enjoy multiple reprinting, including in The Massachusetts Magazine in 1789, The New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository in 1795, The Philadelphia Minerva in 1797, The New-York Weekly Magazine; or, Miscellaneous Repository in 1797, and The Lady’s Weekly Miscellany in 1810” (1).  While focusing on original publication may have been the right choice for a 200-level undergraduate course, when I teach Amelia again in a graduate course on captivity and sentiment this fall I may consider asking my students to dive into digital archives to research the novel’s migration through the early American culture of reprinting, and consider the proliferating meanings of the text across different print venues.

(Thanks to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the invitation to “just teach one,” as well as for preparing this excellent classroom edition of Amelia, or The Faithless Briton (1787).)

Works Cited

Adelman, Joseph M.  “Democratizing Pedagogy: The Just Teach One Project.”  The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. 6 May 2013.  Web. 10 May 2013.

Amelia, or the Faithless Briton.  Eds. Duncan Faherty and Ed White.  Common-Place: Just Teach One. 6 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2013. 

The Columbian Magazine or Monthly Miscellany.  Vol. 1.  1787.   Internet Archive.  Web. 10 May 2013.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938-68.  Print.

Leave a Reply

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