“Equality—A Political Romance” and Early Contact Narratives

Tamara Harvey
George Mason University

We discussed “Equality: A Political Romance” on the last day of a survey of literatures of the Americas that stretched from Christopher Columbus to, this time, “Equality: A Political Romance.”  The class was made up of both undergraduates and graduate students and met once a week.  On that last Monday, students needed to complete their evaluations of the class and we needed to review for the final exam.  The weather was nice.  On top of it all, I wasn’t completely sure how this reading fit with the rest of the class—my lesson plan was only slightly more elaborate than “let’s throw this up and see what sticks.”  In short, these were not ideal conditions for tackling such an unusual text for the first time.

However, the students enjoyed it and thought I had chosen it as an ideal though quirky capstone to our class.  The utopian travel narrative conceit allowed them to think back to Columbus and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville from the first class of the semester as well as accounts of cultural contact and conquest by Hernán Cortés, Bartolomé de las Casas, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, John Smith, and others.  The treatment of gender roles and sexual practices recalled both these contact narratives and other more feminist discussions of gender by Catalina de Erauso, Anne Bradstreet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Benjamin Franklin, Judith Sargent Murray, Hannah Webster Foster, and others.  We were able to extend our discussion of deism, first touched on with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.  And finally, treating a periodical publication recalled an earlier database assignment in which students found and analyzed crime narratives written before 1801.

Because this reading came so late in the semester, students could not address it in a formal essay assignment,  so I made it a required text for an essay question on the final exam.  For this essay, I wanted to hold students responsible for the reading while giving them a range of opportunities for synthesizing the course material in a manner that suited their interests.  They needed to write a short essay treating three texts from the semester, one of which had to be “Equality—A Political Romance.” Because the exam was administered online, these essays were submitted like papers and students were on their honor to spend no more than 90 minutes writing the essay (they could prepare as long they liked). Here are the prompts I gave them:

 

  1. In the latter portion of the class we have read a number of works that are concerned with better fostering equality among people. Sometimes the solutions offered rest on political and social organization; sometimes they are grounded in civil exchanges among people on a more local level.  And in several texts, ideas about equality are developed through discussions of injustice and inequality.  Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” compare and contrast some aspect of how equality is treated or fostered.  You might, for instance, focus on religious issues, political organization, or different forms of neighborliness and mutual support (though there are many other possibilities). Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.
  2. Throughout the semester, we have read a number of texts that are critical of norms related to gender and sexuality. Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” compare and contrast some aspect of their approach to critiquing gender ideology or treating expectations associated with sexuality.  How do they characterize the problem(s)? What solutions do they offer?  How does discussion of gender and/or sexuality fit with other aims of the text? (These questions are just suggestions—you don’t need to answer all of them.)  Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.
  3. “Equality—A Political Romance” describes a visit to a utopia that echoes earlier discovery and contact narratives we read this semester while also reflecting on Lithconia’s own relationship to nationalism and colonization. Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” explore some aspect of how “Equality” builds on and diverges from these earlier models of writing about discovery and contact and imagining more innocent cultures. Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.

 

Most students chose the third option, comparing “Equality” to earlier models of discovery.  Only one student wrote about gender and sexuality while two chose to write about the idea of equality.  Perhaps because I wasn’t able to provide the scaffolding for our discussion of deism, socialism, or utopian writing, the most unlikely of the comparisons—“Equality” compared with mostly Spanish conquest and contact literature—was the most successful as well as the most popular.

I also suspect that this questions best suited the long and broad survey format of the class.  Students were particularly insightful as they considered the investments of the first-person narrator.  Whereas Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca’s narratives displayed ideological contradictions and complicated personal investments, the narrative style of “Equality—A Political Romance” was, they felt, “distant” and “passive.”  One student developed a very strong argument about how natives are treated as simpler and idealized in the earlier texts as well as in “Equality.”  Another found that the relative humility of the traveler in “Equality” upon encountering the utopia was a striking divergence from the model developed by Cortés and Columbus.  Still others considered the ways in which “Equality” was directly engaging and critiquing discourses of conquest and imperialism through its rejection of private property and a single religion or echoing cultural biases about others, as when the narrator reports that the “host of shopkeepers which seem so necessary in barbarous countries, is here unknown” (12).  Generally speaking, this assignment helped bring into sharper focus what was happening in the earlier texts; for “Equality” itself, students were more intrigued than enlightened.

In looking back, I regret that I could treat the context of “Equality—A Political Romance” only minimally.  Directing students’ time and attention to the age of discovery came at the expense of greater attention to the text in its own time.  But just as “Equality” offers a glimpse of other political possibilities being entertained during the early republic, the comparison with much earlier texts helps further unsettle both the celebratory and damning interpretations of early contact that so often shape our readings of these texts.  I don’t think we did justice to “Equality—A Political Romance” at all, but its presence in the class helped keep the stories of the Americas unsettled both in looking back to “discovery” discourses and anticipating the unfolding of national narratives with which they were more familiar.