Canon Fire and Gender Trouble

Christopher J. Lukasik

Purdue University

We all know the course. Survey of Literature in America to 1865. Or at least that’s what I call it. It goes by different names and assumes other shapes of course—as longstanding institutional forces tend to do–, but for many of us, it remains, for better or worse, a staple of our undergraduate teaching lives. And this is where I decided to teach The Story of Constantius and Pulchera.

I was worried at first. Perhaps I was asking too much of it. But there it stood on the syllabus. Taking its place–or shall I say–shoved into line alongside the usual suspects; all those authors my students had already learned to associate with the first half of the undergraduate American literature survey: Franklin. Emerson. Poe. Hawthorne. Douglass. Melville. Whitman. Dickinson. I tried to take it easy on Constantius and Pulchera by creating a “unit” on the culture of performance and the limitations of self-fashioning (pairing it with texts by Franklin, Equiano, and Occom among others). Little did I know how unnecessary this would be. The Story of Constantius and Pulchera more than held its own.

My students embraced this text almost as much as my other class refused Amelia (yes, I taught that one too!). In fact, many chose to write a two-page response on it for extra credit. They immediately identified its resonances with the other texts and subjects discussed in the course: comparing Pulchera’s captivity to those depicted in Rowlandson’s Narrative and The Female American); identifying the centrality of performance to its depiction of gender; struggling with the narrative’s simultaneous abandonment of probability and fidelity to a conventional hetero-normative marriage plot resolution. One particularly perceptive student noted how the novel departed from “the typical didactic, seduction narrative which advocates fidelity to patriarchy and convention.” Patriarchy, this student explained, is the very force that separates the lovers in the first place leaving only chance and an audience willing to suspend their belief to bring them back together. Its improbability, she argues, is the very substance of its critique. 

Yet, perhaps the most surprising turn of our class discussion of  The Story of Constantius and Pulchera was when the class began to reflect on their own conversation, on the emerging opposition between the responses of male and female students in the class which transformed our discussion of gender in the text to one about gender and texts. Most (but not all) of the women in the class—and they were also the majority of students in the course—defended the text’s improbable plot and embraced its picaresque moments in ways that the less generous male imagination—at least for this semester—seemed reluctant to do.

The women in the course were also, unsurprisingly, far more sensitive to how the novel challenged conventional gender roles. One woman found Pulchera’s defiance of her father almost more shocking than her months cross-dressing as a man and this student speculated that late eighteenth-century female readers (to whom the novel is addressed) were even more likely to have felt the same way. Another remarked that “during the time Pulchera spends dressed as a male, she is more of the conventional male hero than Constantius is throughout the text.” In fact, as the student above suggested, the novel’s improbability—its generic departure from norms—is what might open up a space for its critique. By the time the bell rung, the class had gone so far as to debate whether there was something “feminine” about the romance as a genre, one whose positive value—however it might be understood, overlooked, or misrepresented–would be criticized historically (in favor of more normative/patriarchal texts) and whose legacies might continue to inform reading and writing practices today (especially with respect to the enormous popularity and yet continued critical denigration of the romance, the soap opera/telenovella, and, yes, 50 Shades of Grey even entered into the discussion at this point!).

In sum, The Story of Constantius and Pulchera proved to be a wonderful addition to the standard first half of American literature survey course as it complicates in very productive and provocative ways how students have come to understand gender, authorship, the genre of the novel, and the canon. I found it works well with both familiar survey texts by Rowlandson, Franklin and Equiano as well as less canonical works such as The Female American.

Many thanks to Duncan and Ed for their splendid edition of this text and the opportunity to share it with my students!





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