For the last several years, I’ve incorporated a Just Teach One text into the Early American survey course I teach in the fall. Rather than simply add another reading to an already overstuffed calendar, I use the Just Teach One selection as an instrument with which to prompt students to interrogate the limits and the logic of the survey course itself. More specifically, I assign a semester-length project in which I ask students to make a case for what the Just Teach One text contributes to our understanding of the literature and culture of the period that we might not see in the more canonical material we cover in the course. Why would we want to read a text like Ira and Isabella in the first place, and what can recovering a seldom-read novel from more than two centuries ago teach us about not only how and why literary historians assign meaning and value to different texts, but also how our definitions of meaning and value shift over time?
Much of the conversation about the Just Teach One text takes place online in posts that my students author for our course blog. In these posts, students raise questions about the text, make interpretive claims, and respond to each other’s insights and perspectives. Toward the end of the semester, they pull everything together in a more formal paper that incorporates both their own close reading of the text and material from the blog, and then, on the day they hand in that paper, we devote the entire class period to discussing the novel and what they learned from the project more generally. The one major change I made to this assignment for last fall was to ask students to use one of their four blog posts to research and introduce a potentially relevant historical context. In the past, students have really only brought in contexts that we had otherwise discussed in class, and, given that part of the point of this project is to give students a chance to be the experts, I wanted to address this deficiency without doing the work for them.
A number of students took up the charge to research relevant historical contexts by looking in particular at gender and sexuality in the late eighteenth century. These students found that both gender norms and attitudes about sexuality were somewhat more fluid in the late eighteenth century than they had assumed, a useful context within which to examine the novel’s two titular characters. Thus we have Isabella, whom one commenter on the blog deemed a “more feminist Juliet,” both rejecting the traditional authority Doctor Joseph represents and playing the role of “fair teacher” (24) to Ira, who looks to her for guidance. Several students also noted how Lorenzo and Florio act as foils to Ira, embodying ideas about what it means to be a man that, by contrast with Ira’s virtuous devotion to Isabella, the novel casts in a negative light. One of these students argued that Ira and Isabella is perhaps more relevant today because of its implicit critique of what, in our current cultural vocabulary, we might call “toxic masculinity.” And yet, as others observed, Ira and Isabella doesn’t neatly conform to our twenty-first century expectations about gender either. While we see Ira venturing out into the world, Isabella, for all her “independent spirit” (14), remains relatively isolated, her only interactions (other than with Ira) coming in the form of dialogues with a surrogate mother-figure (the nurse) and a long-absent father (Doctor Joseph). Similarly, although it may be refreshing to see Lucinda (unlike, say, Charlotte Temple) go unpunished for acting on her sexual desires, it is perhaps less satisfying from our present-day vantage point that Doctor Joseph and Mr. Savage, two powerful men who because of that power are are able to cover up their bad behavior, face no consequences for their actions (This is to say nothing of Mrs. Savage, who is described early on as “someone whose intrinsic merit rendered her worthy of the elevated and important sphere in which she moved” , and then for all intents and purposes disappears by the end of the novel).
To me, just as interesting as our conversation about the extent which refused to meet our expectations about gender categories was another conversation that emerged on the blog about how difficult it is to fit this novel into a tidy generic category. Much like norms related to gender and sexuality had yet to calcify in the eighteenth century into the more rigid identities legible in later texts, so too, my students discovered, had the early novel yet to take on its more recognizable later form. Hence the messy multiplicity of Ira and Isabella, a novel that, among other things, adapts tropes and conventions from comedy, tragedy, and didactic fiction without being reducible to any one of these genres. It is a text, as one student put it, that seems like it is “trying [. . .] desperately to be both new and traditional at the same time.” Noting its similarities both to Romeo and Juliet and to Oedipus Rex, if Ira and Isabella is a tragedy, my students and I asked, then whose tragedy is it? Neither Ira nor Isabella are tragic figures in the sense that their character flaws and actions precipitate the bad things that (in their case, almost) happen to them, and neither Doctor Joseph nor Mr. Savage seem to express any remorse for their choices and the effects those choices have on others. Along similar lines, although the novel occasionally ventures into didactic territory, any larger lessons are murky at best, as is any interpretation of it as a political allegory. Ira and Isabella’s youthful self-determination almost gets them into an incestuous relationship, and although that conflict is resolved, it is resolved through a deus ex machina, rendering their autonomy and agency beside the point and calling into question whether the young nation they represent can be trusted to choose its own logics of affiliation. Lastly, while it is tempting to read Ira and Isabella as following the lead of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by flirting with tragedy before finding its way to a comic resolution—complete with marriage and the promise of future happiness—Brown’s novel is, unlike Midsummer, notably unfunny, its objects of ridicule or satire (to the extent that there are any) unclear.
Ultimately, we decided as a class that Ira and Isabella is interesting not in spite of these apparent failures, but precisely because of them. It offers a rich example of an author experimenting with the possibilities of fiction, trying out ideas while also bringing in established elements and plot devices that might make the novelty of the form more palatable to readers. It helps us see how the novel as a genre, like early America itself, was still very much in the process of trying to define its identity and parameters, cobbling together disparate parts into a whole both recognizable and radically new.