Penn State University
This spring semester at the Pennsylvania State University, I was slated to teach “Women Writers,” a cross-listed English/Women’s Studies course geared toward a generalized undergraduate audience. Content requirements were minimal. The course catalogue’s broad account described for curious internet surfers a “wide-ranging study of works by American, British, and other English-speaking women writers” before providing a daunting partial list of authors: “Bradstreet, Wollstonecraft, C. Rosefti, M. Shelley, Austen, C. Bronte, E. Bronte, G. Eliot, D. Wordsworth, Dickinson, Wharton, Stowe, Freeman, Jewett, Fuller, H.D., Moore, Sitwell, Bishop, Brooks, Plath, Cather, Woolf, Stein, Lessing, Bowen, O’Connor, Welty, Porter, Oates, Olsen, Sarton, Gordimer, Atwood, Morrison, Kinkaid, McCarthy, and Churchill.”
Familiar or not as the writers on this list may have been to my incoming students or to me, it was certain that Sarah Savage, author of 1814’s The Factory Girl, was not among those suggested.
She was quite clearly, however, a woman writer. Further, her relatively unknown novella, recently introduced and edited by Duncan Faherty and Ed White, recently available on the Commonplace website, seemed perfect for helping students to “understand the female perspectives—the varying values and interests of women—reflected in the texts at hand and to position these perspectives within wider social, historical, and political contexts.” It was decided: I would “Just Teach One” from Sarah Savage, alongside major works by several women from my university’s general course description.
Following hard on the radical heels of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, Savage’s The Factory Girl was noticeably distinct from the feminist exhortations of the former and the gothic fantasies of the latter. Likewise, the conventional Mary bore little resemblance to the assertively avant-garde figures of Gertrude Stein and Audre Lorde we would soon encounter in class. Armed with tools of generic analysis, we discussed the discrepancy between content and context with regard to our reading experience. My students expressed pleasure in the novelty of The Factory Girl; indeed, several woman readers claimed to prefer the historical-discovery feeling of Savage’s novella to their over-determined encounters with Frankenstein. Although some students allowed that the story of Mary’s growth from factory girl to Sunday-school mistress and mother proved ultimately less thrilling than Victor Frankenstein’s descent into madness or his creature’s embrace of bloody revenge, members of my class were steadfast in their insistence upon the pleasing freshness of this Early-American discovery.
A conversation about the cultural particulars described in The Factory Girl (the versions of piety it presents, the ideal of republican femininity it develops, the form of female virtue it authorizes) initiated a semester-long interest in exploring the mobility and limitations of historical accounts. To my students, almost all the writing we encountered was “historical”: Lorde’s Greenwich Village and Marjane Satrapi’s revolutionary Iran seemed to them as historically distant as Savage’s New England or Harriet Jacobs’s North Carolina. As an apparently unique example of archival discovery, Savage’s novella crystalized the historical status of all these texts for my students, highlighting questions of identification and anachronism, of how and when history becomes visible or strange for its readers.
But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that students found The Factory Girl strange by virtue of its content and historical distance. Indeed, for an earnest, fairly traditionalist majority of the class, the presentation and navigation of Mary’s faith through conversational, parabolic textual conventions rendered her story memorable and approachable. The Factory Girl became a comparative touchstone for many of my woman writers, recurring over and again: in responses to essay prompts about the “risks and rewards of the avant-garde” and “form and content in developmental narratives”; in papers discussing the role of religion in creating feminine ideals, or the uses of Biblical references in women’s narrative, or the implications of didactic narratives in representing historical upheaval.
In all likelihood, few members of my course will go on to work as archivists, librarians, or historians. In all likelihood, the Cubist parties hosted by Stein and Toklas or Jacobs’s interminable wait in her attic “loophole” will linger longer in student memory than the catechisms of Mary’s Sunday school. Based on our collective discussions and their individual work, however, I know students have gained from our class experiences with The Factory Girl a fuller awareness of generic range, of perspectival variety, of the ways that writers (be they of the female persuasion or otherwise) are both constituted by and beyond their own historical moments. As Mary reminds one of her factory friends, “reading will be of no advantage, unless we choose good books.” In finding, editing, and sharing works like The Factory Girl, Commonplace’s “Just Teach One” project demonstrates just how exciting, how varied, and how mutable a history of choosing good books can be.