Capping the Atlantic Survey

The History Constantius and Pulchera Blog entry


Cristobal Silva

Columbia University

I felt a bit apprehensive when I agreed to schedule one full day of my early American literature survey to this project, but the text and discussion it produced turned out to fit beautifully with the broader aims of the course.  It’s a testament to Duncan’s and Ed’s scholarly instincts that the first two texts they’ve chosen for Teach One are quite timely, and speak to recent developments in the field.

I have been revising my approach to the survey over the past decade along a trajectory that is likely familiar to others.  The course, now called “Literatures of Colonial America” (rather than “Early American Literature”) is designed to help students consider the broad range of narrative forms through which seventeenth and eighteenth-century inhabitants of the Atlantic world related colonial experiences.  No longer a history of nation formation, I’ve supplanted the teleological narrative of U.S. literary history that ranged from Puritanism to the American Revolution in favor of an increasingly fragmented series of narratives that encompass hemispheric—and particularly Caribbean—relations.  Furthermore, I’ve replaced anthologies with digital resources (EEBO, ECCO, Evans) and standalone modern reprints.  If none of the texts on this semester’s syllabus dealt explicitly with the politics of the American Revolution, I hoped that by the end of the semester, students could speak cogently about the relations between narrative form, the enlightenment, and the politics of race, labor, and gender in the eighteenth century.

The course ended with William Earle (Obi), Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Judith Sargent Murray, Charles Brockden Brown (Edgar Huntly), and Leonara Sansay.  I saved The History of Constantius and Pulchera for the last class, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked in conversation with the prior texts.  I’ve been particularly interested in issues of form this semester, so we spent a large part of the course mapping the literary spaces where notable narrative disruptions took place, and theorizing how those disruptions represented particular engagements with eighteenth-century colonialism.  When it came to our discussion of The History, I started by laying out a couple of questions before the students took over the discussion.  In particular, I wanted them to think carefully about The History’s fragmentary and episodic nature, and to take its original serialization seriously, rather than dismissing it as an outdated effect of an older era.  I wanted them, in other words, to imagine how The History spoke to the broad range of eighteenth-century narrative forms (including prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction) that we had encountered during the course.

Not only did my students rise to the challenge, but they had everything to do with how well The History fit in the syllabus.  Even on the last day of the semester, they read attentively and came to class prepared for an in-depth discussion.  The set of themes they focused on included the (multiply) subverted marriage plot, the narrative’s sentimental friendships, its violence, its cross-dressing, and, its rhetoric of parental governance and revolution.  I was not surprised that the episodes of cross-dressing took up much of the discussion.  I was delighted, however, that students were quite attentive to language and to the moments where the grammar of gender is ambiguous in the text.  In particular, students were drawn to the passage where Constantia, dressed as Valorus, joins a privateer from Essex: “Valorus did not think proper to make known her sex, tho’ she informed them he was an American, and that he was a prisoner when he had the misfortune to be shipwrecked” (21).  Students were interested by the rapidly shifting pronouns that occurred in moments such as these, and theorized that they might act as grammatical markers for the kinds of epistemological disruptions that we had explored earlier in the semester.

Pushed further, students went on to examine the passage where Pulchera/Valorus finds Constantius in France, and they noticed that while the initial public encounter between Valorus and Constantius is narrated with male pronouns, a significant grammatical shift takes place when Le Monte, “the first cause of all her trouble,” enters the scene (23).  There was vigorous debate about what this shift might signify, but I was ultimately most gratified to see how many students resisted imposing a totalizing master narrative on this shift.  In other words, rather than necessarily trying to resolve the meaning of the shift, a significant number of students were happy to abide by the grammatical disruption it created, and to see that disruption as a function of colonial narratives.  The History of Constantius and Pulchera lends itself to such observations by the very nature of its form: a short, fragmentary, sensational narrative, it dramatizes the kinds of formal and thematic tensions that are so evident in the literature of the era.  As a teacher, this was a delightful way to end a course that was explicitly designed to help students resist the teleology of nationalism.

Thank you to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for putting together the Teach One project, and for making The History of Constantius Pulchera available in a helpful and convenient classroom edition.

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