This fall marked the fourth consecutive year I’ve incorporated a “Just Teach One” text into the undergraduate Early American survey we require of all our majors. I’m the only Early Americanist in a relatively small department, so unless our students choose to take an upper-level special topics seminar from me later on, this 200-level course represents their most sustained exposure to the literature of the period. I’ve thus really come to value how the “Just Teach One” texts widen the scope of the survey while also deepening our conversations about key issues that might otherwise go underexamined. With that in mind, as I’ve done with previous “Just Teach One” selections, I used The Female Review as the basis for a semester-long project in which I invited students to think critically about the limits and possibilities of the survey course by reflecting on how and why we as scholars go about assigning meaning and value to certain texts.
Instead of confining our discussion of The Female Review to only one or two class meetings, I allowed students to read the text at their own pace, and assigned them to share their evolving impressions about it in a series of four posts on our course blog due at various points in the semester. For each of those four posts, I gave them the option of either introducing a new question or interpretive claim about the text, or of responding to another student’s question or claim. This helped to create an ongoing dialogue between students about the text, as well as a dialogue between their thoughts about it and our discussions in class of the more canonical material covered in the course. To guide the conversation on the blog, I asked students not only to look for areas of overlap between The Female Review and other texts we were reading, but also to highlight the extent to which it might bring something new to our understanding of the era’s literature and culture. Toward the end of the semester, I had students pull everything together in a formal paper in which they used each other’s blog posts as secondary sources in order to make a case for why The Female Review might merit inclusion in a course like ours. We then devoted a class period to discussing the project as a whole, a conversation that took us from an examination of some of their arguments about The Female Review to a larger re-examination of the survey course itself. To what extent had our investigation of The Female Review made visible perspectives or insights a conventional survey course might occlude?
While a number of interesting threads emerged on the blog and in students’ papers, two in particular stood out. The first had to do with what many saw as a struggle between Mann and Sampson. More specifically, students questioned whether Mann’s characterization of Sampson successfully re-contains the threat posed by her rebellion against the era’s gender norms (gender norms and challenges to them being a frequent topic of discussion in the early part of our course). No doubt inspired by Jodi Schorb’s cleverly titled introduction to the “Just Teach One” edition of the text, this line of argument led to some fairly relentless punning on our course blog: e.g., “What a Mann Wants,” “Cannot Trust a Word the Mann Says,” “Sampson, a Tool of Mann,” etc. As those titles indicate, these students tended to see Mann as in control of the text and its meaning, citing his repeated warnings to female readers not to follow Sampson’s example, his rather unconvincing claim that she didn’t join the army in order to run away from heterosexual marriage with a man “whom she did not dislike” (34), and his attempts to minimize the significance of her apparent romance with the woman from Maryland and also the “correspondence with her sister sex” that he alludes to taking place after the war when she is working on a farm and living as a man using her brother’s name (58). Others took a skeptical view of Mann’s authority over the text, suggesting that his relationship with Sampson may have been more collaborative in nature, or that Mann might even have been a tool of Sampson, a way to get what she wanted (a pension) by publicizing a version of her life’s story that would have been palatable to her audience. How do we know that Robert Shurtliff isn’t the “real” Sampson, and that the portrait of her as an exemplary republican woman isn’t the “masquerade”? Perhaps Sampson —like other authors we read early on the semester, including Benjamin Franklin and Olaudah Equiano—used print publicity to engage in a complex, multilayered act of self-fashioning that renders problematic any tidy distinctions we might want to draw between authenticity and performance.
A second and related conversation centered around The Female Review’s status as a post-revolutionary text. This was an especially useful angle given that we spend a lot of time in my course on texts written just prior to the Revolution before moving on relatively quickly to the beginning of the nineteenth century. I do that in the interest of time—I only have sixteen weeks to cover American literature from its beginnings through 1865—but always regret that I give the early national period short shrift, as I recognize that doing so risks, for example, smoothing over the rocky and by no means inevitable transition between the end of the war, the drafting of the Constitution, and its ratification. We talked a lot on our final day of discussion about how all of the inconsistencies in The Female Review might be read as registering some of the complexities and contradictions of the post-revolutionary era. Would the same kind of radical impulses that led Americans to revolt against the British extend to social and cultural arenas, or would traditional hierarchies need to be forcefully reaffirmed after the war as a way of restoring “order”? While the Appendix to this text—with its assertion that men are physically superior, its inclusion of the Fatima story, and its final description of Sampson as a safely domesticated wife and mother—would seem to suggest the latter, a number of students thought that simply telling Sampson’s story was a potentially subversive act, regardless of what Mann’s intentions might have been. Interestingly, students were less inclined during our in-person discussion to read The Female Review as an early queer or transgender text than they were in their comments on the blog, seemingly out of concern that that would mean projecting our own contemporary values and ideas onto an earlier period. To me, that reluctance underscored what is most revolutionary about this text, and why it belongs in a course like mine. It also suggests another way to read Sampson’s representativeness, to see her as standing in for other early Americans whose lives, desires, and stories went unrecorded.