Perhaps the best part of working with the female review is the fact that it constantly surprises. It was the final reading of the semester for my fall 2016 Honors Seminar entitled “American Revolutions.” The course looked at a variety of different “revolutions,” from the military conflict to the ensuing political debates to race and slavery to, in the end, gender and the rise of the novel. We questioned, as we read political speeches, pamphlets, newspaper accounts, natural histories, poems, and novels, what words like revolutionary and revolution meant. Yet I found teaching the book revolutionary in many senses of the term.
I had deliberately delayed my own perusal of the book so that my impressions of it were fresh when we discussed it in class. I was almost immediately glad that I had chosen to teach the book at the term’s end. Certain elements of the early chapters struck students as incongruous, or at least unexpected. They knew enough from the introduction to know that the narrative dealt with a cross-dressing woman who fought as a man in the revolutionary conflict, and thus early chapters focusing on the ways in which the protagonist was deeply interested in nature felt out of place. Coming after discussions of natural history, though, the students could at least understand the kinds of cultural work the descriptions of Deborah Sampson’s youthful interest in the natural world was meant to do. Our discussions of Sampson’s decision to enter the war—in particular the disturbing dream in which the serpent representing (students agreed) the British empire followed Sampson from the town square into the domestic sphere of the home—usefully engaged anxieties in Paine’s Crisis No. 1 about the safety of wives and daughters, and Paine’s own fantasies about a Jersey maid acting as a modern-day Joan of Arc. As we looked at Sampson’s letter to her mother (itself a complex performance of misleading double-entendres), we discussed the epistolary tradition that we had recently learned about in The Coquette. The latter novel provided students with a really delightful point of discussion and debate. How, students wondered, could Sampson deviate so widely from ideals of feminine behavior and virtue and be lauded for it? Their answer was fascinating; they approached the issue through questions of ends and means. Eliza’s ends, they claimed, were selfish and thus indefensible in The Coquette; Deborah’s intention was, at least as stated in the female review, entirely selfless, and thus laudable. While our continued discussion complicated such easy, broad distinctions, I was impressed by how a bunch of non-majors had opened up interesting and important interpretive avenues for the book.
The final surprise for me was that my students did not seem nearly as surprised by Sampson’s gender-bending behavior as I might have expected. It made me question my own expectation as perhaps very much the product of a distinct generational gap. My students were much more interested in the narrator’s incessant need to address his reader’s delicate sensibilities and their negative judgments than they were in Deborah Sampson’s decision to choose to live as a man. I found the swiftness with which they accepted Deborah’s choice refreshing. It made our discussion less about mere scandal and much more about how eighteenth-century readers expected gender to function, and how the deviation from gendered norms could be debated and even justified.