Teaching The Female Review in a Course on the Literature of the U.S. Revolution

John C. Havard
Auburn University at Montgomery

 

I taught Herman Mann’s The Female Review in an upper-division course on the literature of the U.S. Revolution. This is a course I had taught previously. The course focuses on American literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with a focus on writing pertaining to the Revolution such as relevant public rhetoric, memoirs, and historical fiction. We also read works with less obvious connections to the Revolution but that touch on the era’s pressing social and cultural issues. I teach at Auburn University at Montgomery, a regional branch campus in Alabama that serves a diverse student population. The course is taken by traditional English majors, secondary education/language arts majors, and graduate students in our Master of Liberal Arts and Master of Teaching Writing programs.

As a scholar of the early United States who is always looking for interesting new material that might enliven his classes, I have long been interested in Just Teach One (JTO). However, JTO’s text selections had been good fits for the classes I was teaching at the time—until The Female Review, an obvious choice for a class on the Revolution. As a fictive memoir regarding a woman who cross-dressed to enlist in the Continental Army, the narrative drew my students’ interest for what it revealed about women’s roles in the war. These roles still receive too little air time in popular accounts of the conflict. My class also had conversations regarding connections between the memoir and other works we had read. Benjamin Franklin’s discussion of his religious coming of age in his Autobiography served as a reference point for Mann’s characterization of Deborah Sampson as holding rationalist religious views. Our coverage of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette provided context for Mann’s narration of the seduction of Fatima as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers for women of what was considered deviant behavior. I also told students about my participation in the Just Teach One project as part of a description of the history of the recovery movement and the canon wars. These discussions helped students understand that the canon and course syllabi are mutable; the kind of scholarly work and institutions that make recovery possible; and the politics of literary study.

Many students were eager to discuss Mann’s historical inaccuracies. Their comments led to productive conversation. As Jodi Schorb explains in her introduction to the Just Teach One edition, The Female Review “is less a factual biography of Sampson than a fictive shaping of Sampson for early republican audiences” (1). As Schorb specifies, “Sustained by multiple periods of masculine presentation, an embrace of religious revivalism, church excommunication: the historical Sampson fits uncomfortably into Mann’s idealized portrait” (4). My students keyed onto this issue in part due to the efforts of Lindsay Guest, a talented graduate student in the class who is writing her master’s thesis on women in the American Revolution. Lindsay took an immediate interest in Mann’s account, chose to write her seminar paper on it, and prior to the class sessions devoted to Mann had begun reading Alfred F. Young’s Masquerade, which specifies inconsistencies between Mann’s account and what we know about the historical Sampson. Lindsay shared what she learned with the class, and I shared other related information. As English professors know, student interest in historical inaccuracies in literary works sometimes threatens to derail productive analysis, as students may deem the works less worthy of study. I steered students in a more positive direction by asking that they think of these inaccuracies in rhetorical terms: What were Mann’s goals, and how did his portrayal of Sampson help him achieve these goals? These questions helped students think about the purpose and function of the work. We discussed how Mann was collaborating with Sampson in an effort to win public applause that would be helpful in Sampson’s effort to obtain a federal pension for her war service. He thus praised her patriotic sacrifice but deemphasized and explained away her perceived gender deviancy to avoid offending his audience’s sensibilities. We also discussed Mann’s personal aims. Mann was a Deist and downplayed Sampson’s embrace of Baptist revivalism to promote rationalist religion. Moreover, he supported the ideals of Republican Motherhood and its emphasis on female education as requisite for women’s successful assumption of the duties of the private sphere. For this reason he portrayed Sampson’s enlistment as the consequences of her insufficient education, as opposed to the desire to escape marriage and make money it may have been. Sampson, he suggests, was interested in pursuing her interests as an amateur geographer and botanist. Without the opportunity to do so due to poor education for women, she enlisted in the army to see the world. This depiction enabled Mann to advocate Republican Motherhood while deemphasizing Sampson’s deviancy. Lastly, he was a pacificist who opposed U.S. involvement in ongoing conflict between England and revolutionary France. He thus depicted war as hell despite his aim of positively depicting Sampson’s patriotism. Discussing the inaccuracies in this light helped students understand the cultural and rhetorical contexts of post-Revolutionary America as well as to appreciate The Female Review as a dynamic engagement with those contexts.

Conversations regarding challenging passages in the memoir also provided valuable learning experiences. Teachers of early American literature know that the differences in vocabulary, syntax, and typography between then and now often make reading assignments difficult for students who have not previously been exposed to colonial and early national writing. I consequently make close reading of such passages a centerpiece of classroom activities. One way I do this is by assigning student-led discussions in which I ask students to pick at least three passages from the day’s assigned reading to discuss with the class. While I allow students to ask interpretative questions about passages, I tell them it is acceptable and even encouraged to choose passages simply because they are hard to understand. Conversations regarding these passages often help students understand the era’s rhetorical conventions and vocabulary connotations. In a student-led discussion on The Female Review, one student drew our attention to a passage in chapter 9 in which Mann writes, “I am perfectly enraptured with those females, who exhibit the most refined sensibility and skill in their sweet domestic round, and who can show a group of well bred boys and girls. But I must aver, I am also happy, if this rare female has filled that vacuity, more or less in every one’s bosom, by the execution of the worst propensities: For, by similitude, we may anticipate, that one half of the world in future are to have less goads in their consciences, and the other, faster accumulating a fund of more useful acquisition” (49). The student noted not only the elaborate clausal structures and unfamiliar vocabulary such as “vacuity” in the passage but also the uncertain tone. The author seems decisive in using language such as “I aver,” but the passage also comes across as confused because it contradicts the earlier assertion that “THUS, Females, whilst you see the avidity of a maid in her teens confronting dangers and made a veteran example in war, you need only half the assiduity in your proper, domestic sphere, to render your charms completely irresistible” (54). Via conversation regarding this passage, we concluded that some of the more challenging passages in Mann’s narrative exhibit not just differences in the usage of language between then and now but also Mann’s struggle to navigate a central challenge in writing this narrative: He seeks to portray Sampson in a good light to aid her effort to obtain a federal pension, but he also aims to promote conventional gender norms. As Schorb succinctly puts it, “The narrative’s richness lies in Mann’s attempt to make both an example and a warning of Sampson” (1). In these passages he thus encourages women to “render your charms completely irresistible” by devoting themselves to the domestic sphere, whereas he also gives Sampson backhanded praise for providing readers with negative examples regarding the dangers a woman faces in the masculine sphere of war. Such discussions helped my students understand that lingering on passages that are difficult to understand may yield much deeper understandings of an author’s stance and purpose in relation to audience expectations. These are valuable lessons for novice literary critics.

I also experimented with a new assignment while teaching The Female Review. Whereas in the past in this class I had assigned three conventional 4-6 page essays of literary analysis, I replaced one of these papers with an assignment for each student to contribute to an annotated edition of the work. I was inspired to give this assignment by my colleague, Seth Reno, who achieved impressive results using a similar assignment with Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of Plants in a class on British Romanticism. Teaching The Female Review provided a good opportunity to try the assignment, as recovered works require the development of annotated editions to make them accessible to non-scholarly audiences. I divided the work by section to the students and set up a Google Doc in which they transcribed and annotated their sections. To provide for appropriate challenge, I asked students to write somewhat extensive explanatory annotations. I provided examples from teaching editions of other works we read that utilized this style of annotation, and I distinguished the style from more minimalist approaches such as that used by Ed White and Duncan Faherty in the JTO edition. The assignment was a success: In addition to providing for an appreciated respite from the typical round of essays, my students developed research skills; better understandings of the value of annotation and the rhetorical purposes of differing annotation styles; and an understanding and appreciation of the scholarly effort that goes into producing teaching editions. The quality of the students’ work differed, of course, but in many cases I was impressed by and learned a lot from the annotations. One memorable annotation was written by a thoughtful student named Kiarah Holloway. Kiarah discussed Sampson’s contemplation in Chapter 8 of committing suicide to avoid detection as a woman; the annotation discussed contemporaneous legal debates regarding suicide; cultural conversation that was spurred by the popularity of Goerthe’s Werther; and how Mann’s inclusion of the detail was meant to illustrate the stress placed upon Sampson as someone committing what was considered a deviant act.

Overall, teaching The Female Review was a success. The work fit seamlessly into my course, my students found the narrative engaging, and they learned a lot from the annotation assignment.