Idaho State University
I taught Herman Mann’s The Female Review in “Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865,” a sophomore-level course designed primarily for English majors and minors. Though the class, at times, had difficulty getting past Mann’s language, the text ultimately opened up a range of topics for students new to early American literature. Online responses and class discussion ranged from gender and sexuality in early America to Sampson’s Deism to the role of women in the military. I will primarily focus in this post, however, on how the text helped introduce students to collaborative authorship, a common feature of eighteenth- and nineteenth century literature.
We read and discussed The Female Review over two 50-minute class periods during the sixth week of the semester. The class’s opening weeks were dedicated to literature published before the American Revolution. The Female Review fell in the middle of the following unit, which considered varying perspectives of US identity during the early national period. We read Mann’s text after Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and before Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. The Female Review was a generative interlocutor between Franklin and Tyler’s texts: students noticed a number of parallels between Franklin and Mann’s portrayal of Sampson, and Mann’s narrative introduced students to issues of gender identity in the new republic, which we discussed in more depth with Tyler’s play.
Students came to the first class having read the first six chapters of The Female Review. I began with some brief introductory information about Deborah Sampson and her motivations for commissioning the narrative. The purpose of the brief biography was to make clear the difference between Sampson and Herman Mann’s presentation of her. I then introduced the concept of collaborative authorship and the tensions that develop in such texts. In order to illustrate these tensions in The Female Review, our discussion focused mostly on Mann’s portrayal of Sampson. Students were quick to point out, first, that Sampson’s patriotism was continually emphasized. Additionally, students noted that Sampson seemed like a “female Ben Franklin” and identified numerous similarities between the two, especially regarding their intellect and outsider status. I explained that the difference between Sampson and Franklin is that, because Sampson is a woman, she could not leave her caretakers as Franklin left his family. Therefore, Mann continually emphasizes that Sampson had “more desire than opportunity” (27). With this portrayal in mind, students easily pinpointed Sampson’s reasons for cross-dressing, at least according to Mann: her patriotism drove her to join the military and dressing as a man allowed her to leave the domestic sphere. At the end of class, I challenged students, as they finished reading the text, to consider any other possible reasons that Sampson chose to dress as a man.
After a brief review, the second discussion concentrated mainly on the tensions between Mann and Sampson that emerged in the final chapters. Focusing specifically on Sampson’s troubled romantic relationships, I asked students if they noticed places where Mann’s portrayal of Sampson and her rationale for joining the military began to crumble. One student pointed out that although Mann emphatically writes that Sampson did not leave home because she was being pressured to marry, the timing was suspect. Other students were surprised by the number of times Sampson carried out romantic relationships with women while dressed as a man. Of particular importance was the description of Sampson’s time, following her discharge from the military, living as a man in Massachusetts and carrying out “correspondence with her sister sex” (58). Returning to Sampson’s motivations, I pointed out that this instance of cross-dressing seemed to have little to do with her desiring to leave the domestic sphere and even less to do with her patriotism. I then invited students to theorize other reasons why Sampson might have cross-dressed. Eventually, students began suggesting reasons tied to issues of transgender identity and same-sex desire, issues that Mann would not (or could not) bring himself to write about.
I concluded by summarizing how the conflict between Mann and Sampson is representative of the tension between many collaboratively authored early American texts. Though Mann attempted to keep Sampson “confined” by subscribing her motivations for cross-dressing to patriotism and a desire to leave the domestic sphere, Sampson’s actions ultimately undercut this portrayal, leaving Mann so frustrated that he concludes by declaring that her actions are “to me an enigma” (59). I challenged students to read other collaboratively authored texts—especially the slave, captivity, and Native American narratives we would soon consider—in the same manner, as a contact zone between people with different identities and motivations.
In sum, The Female Review is a challenging text, both in language and in subject matter, but it has the potential to be a particularly generative and rewarding addition to an early American literature survey course. It is a natural companion to Franklin’s Autobiography and a helpful way to introduce issues of gender and sexuality in early America. Additionally, I found it to be an especially effective introduction to the concept of collaborative authorship, knowledge of which was particularly helpful in future discussions of other collaboratively written texts.