Teaching Observations on Ira and Isabella: Or the Natural Children, A Novel (1808), by William Hill Brown

Patrick Erben
University of West Georgia

I taught the novella as part of an upper-level early American literature course that focused thematically on a variety of fears and pathologies in early American life and letters, from white vilifications of indigeneity to xenophobia to the fear of powerful women (and their depiction as either monstrous or fallen). The larger unit, entitled “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” in which I embedded the reading and discussion of Ira and Isabella, spanned topics and texts such as Anne Hutchinson’s court proceedings and Winthrop’s journal entries about her, the Salem witchcraft trials, Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Benjamin Rush’s “Thoughts Upon Female Education,” and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Thus, by the time we read I&I, students were already initiated into many of the standard tropes of and warnings against seduction, rakes, fallen and monstrous women, innocence destroyed, and so forth. However, students did not expect and in many ways missed, at first, the often farcical and ironic ways in which the novella handles these issues. Everything we had read so far, especially The Coquette, though constructing a multi-vocal discourse, nevertheless functioned in a straightforward mode. After a good bit of discussion and reading out loud some passages for tone, the class realized that perhaps Brown’s approach was more akin to a “Borowitz Report” article than the emphatic rhetoric of The Coquette, which, though potentially dislodging normalizing scripts, may still be read as a well-meaning word to the wise.

Pedagogically, therefore, the “failure of expectations” resulting from reading and discussing I&I actually worked well. Students’ appreciation began with noticing the self-consciously cheeky title page by-line “Founded in Fiction.” They also rather quickly recognized and analyzed the novella’s play with types such as Lorenzo and Florio as the worldly friends leading the upright (or uptight) Ira into discovering his “natural” desires; the matronly nurse who merely replicates the gender scripts of the absentee patriarchal overlord, Dr. Joseph, and Mr. Savage as a somehow always happy-go-lucky philanderer. The students also noted the subverted script of female desire punished as refreshingly different.

The appreciation students gained for Brown’s spin on standard tropes of early national fiction, however, remained more on a cognitive level; to put it differently, no one really ended up loving the piece. For one, students noted (and I think they’re right), the brilliant craft of Hannah Webster Foster’s Coquette makes I&I appear as a flippant experiment. Beyond this aesthetic objection, students couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the motives of the many speeches and plot twists that drive the up-side-down seduction story. More bluntly put, for some students Brown’s novella was not the sophisticated critique of the seduction novel and its often reactionary gender politics they would have hoped for. Rather, they felt that passages like Mr. Savage justifying his seduction of Lucinda by claiming that the agency was all hers (“It was vain to remonstrate, for I, like all gentlemen in my honourable situation, had accustomed myself to comply with all the whims of my mistress.”) or Isabella arguing in favor of following one’s desire (“Why then abandon our inclinations prompted by reason and nature, to follow the footsteps of what caprice and ignorance may call duty?”) felt more like wishful projections of a patriarchal subjectivity. What better way to avert the judging eye of a virtuous society than assigning the driving force of illegitimate sexual desire to a woman and joining the results of illicit sex (Ira and Isabella) into a happy marital union? What did not sit well with the class— attuned to the voices empowered by the #MeToo Movement—was that Brown countered the moralizing, finger-wagging, and victimization of the mainstream early national gender scripts with a fantasy casting men as the pseudo-targets of female sexual desire in a scenario that self-servingly vindicates male sexual gratification and grants moral absolution.

On a very different level, the text’s embeddedness in the JTO website and exemplification of the benefits of textual recovery was probably the biggest pay-off in teaching it. My class’s two substantial assignments centered on archival research: a multimodal project documenting their recovery of an archival text and a research paper foregrounding the ways in which archival recoveries can help reframe standard narratives in American literary history and criticism. I gave the students I&I to read without explaining up front that it was part of the JTO project, only to reveal afterwards what it is. I then discussed with them the larger JTO website and used Duncan and Ed’s exemplary framing as an example for the productive possibilities of recovery work. In this context, they cared less whether I&I should hold a place in the canon/curriculum of early American literature but were intrigued by the depth and breadth of knowledge about early American generic and cultural ideas accessible through archival research and recovery. Ultimately, including I&I in the course helped students to feel more empowered as critics and as researchers.