Teaching Ira and Isabella: or, The Natural Children. A Novel, Founded in Fiction

Gretchen J. Woertendyke
University of South Carolina

 

I structured my Critical Methods and Literary Theory doctoral seminar this fall around “secrecy” – a concept I have been considering for long enough, now, that I was eager to have fresh eyes and different energy focused on its expansive reach. Our working definition of the term was capacious, ranging from the abstract (secrecy as communicative networks surrounding cultural crises, negative space, practices of concealment and revelation), to the historical (secrecy societies, the underground railroad), to the literary (secret histories, the way fiction reveals itself to readers), and finally, to investigations into the ways secrecy informs race, sexuality, and nation. In our focus on fictionality and form, and especially how “secrecy” seduces readers through various narrative guises, Brown’s novel founded in fiction produced insights that resonated throughout the semester.

Brown’s strange fragmentary narrative, rhetorically blunt about sexuality and love, but prefaced by satire, undermined the tone and purpose of the preceding works we read in surprising ways. Ira and Isabella concluded a sequence of “fictions” that began with Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and was followed by Foster’s The Coquette. Poe’s wonderfully self-conscious Preface initiated our conversation about fictionality, truth, the marvellous, fables, romance, and the exposé, to say nothing of the “novel”. [sic] It was not until we read Brown’s Preface of Ira and Isabella, however, that students noted the lack of irony, and grave tone, of Poe’s Preface, in which he destabilizes meaning similar to the way the white shroud envelopes Peters and Pym at the novel’s conclusion. In contrast, Brown’s Preface reads much more transparently as satire, a hilarious ribbing of writers, styles, readers, and critics. The quantification of the literary and arbitrary metrics seems a scathing view of armchair (and professional) critics. But we decided collectively that our favorite lines are the following: “There is one truth concerning novels,” Brown’s Preface claims, “which in our time is pretty well established; none I presume will controvert the authenticity of my remark, that the foundation of these elegant fabricks is laid on the passion of love. I except the wonderful history of Robinson Crusoe.” [sic]

After drawing parallels between the Brown’s playful comments concerning truth and authenticity in his novel founded in fiction and Defoe’s history, I asked students to consider what he meant by fiction’s roots in love. This line of inquiry produced two strands of discussion: the first made comparisons between the middle place of love, as that which is and is always becoming, and fiction that represents possible worlds not yet existing but requiring conjectural thinking. And the second notes the departure from Foster’s seduction novel, as frankly embracing female sexuality rather than hiding, silencing, and ultimately condemning it.  Ira, in fact, loves Isabella precisely because of her openness and allure; Eliza’s coquettishness is preyed upon by Sanford, is subject of policing by her female relations, and the reason for her secret death. Students were struck by Isabella’s dynamism and mobility compared to Eliza’s stasis; but equally struck by the disjuncture between Brown’s Preface, which seems to announce his ridicule of melodrama and romance – and the very romance, melodrama of the novel proper. This contradiction imitates the internal conflicts seen clearly in debates of fiction – history, and novel – romance, those staged by Poe, Foster, and Brown in distinctive ways. Brown’s narrative might best be understood as a comedy, a social world of chaos and resolution, and a departure from Poe’s tale of terror and Foster’s seduction novel. Reading Ira and Isabella brought out the conventions of the former texts brilliantly, highlighting the various paths taken by early writers in the United States playing with European literary forms. Brown’s text works extremely well to suggest the foundational preoccupations of the period especially for graduate students already invested in understanding the way literature works across various interdependent scales of meaning.  As a class, we concluded that Brown’s opening claim of the Preface clarified its disjuncture with the novel: “I would freely give any sophist the best of my two hats to satisfy my mind in one thing.” So speaketh the Prophet.