Satire and /as Education

Jon Blandford
Bellarmine University

 

As I’ve done with previous installments of “Just Teach One,” I used Rosa to invite the students in my Early American survey course this fall to engage in some critical reflection about the value and limits of the survey itself.  And, as I did the past two times I participated in the project, I prompted that critical reflection by making the JTO text the subject of both a series of posts my students contributed to our course blog and a formal paper in which they I asked them to make a case for the possible significance of incorporating this recovered text into a course such as ours.  What might Rosa allow us to see about the culture and/or literature of the period that we don’t see in the more canonical texts we cover in the survey?

Rosa was a particularly fortuitous selection for my purposes.  Although my survey is designed for majors, students outside the major can take it as well in order to satisfy their gen ed literature requirement.  For whatever reason, I had a larger than usual number of non-majors in the two sections of the survey I taught this fall, including several from my university’s school of education.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these students were eager to examine what Rosa might show us about how Americans in the early nineteenth century saw education. These students—along with the other non-majors in the class—also provided an interesting perspective on the larger questions about literary history and the logic of the survey course that I use the “Just Teach One” project to help pose.  Less aware of and invested in the canon than students in the major tend to be—they haven’t read Rosa before of course, but they haven’t read Hawthorne or Melville before either—the non-majors in my class didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be reading a text like Rosa instead of some other, more celebrated text.  At the same time, as anyone who has tried to get non-majors to keep up with a heavy reading load can no doubt confirm, undergraduates who haven’t chosen to specialize in studying literature tend to be less inclined to take for granted the value of doing so, especially with respect to difficult texts from an historically distant period.  This lead to a rather lively discussion of why early nineteenth-century readers might have read a text such as Rosa, and why reading it now might matter to us, including those among us (i.e., my students) who don’t identify as antiquarians.

Much of our conversation on the blog and in class focused on the novel’s representation of education.  More specifically, we talked about how the shared emphasis in the Rosa and Richard plots on the importance of non-parental adult mentors and the surprise revelation of Rosa’s parentage—with its implication that education should be accessible to everyone—can be seen as anticipating the emergence of common schools later in the century, as well as efforts to provide education to women and people of color in particular.  And yet, as more than one student suggested, this egalitarian impulse might be undercut by the fact that Rosa is revealed not just to be of Incan heritage, but from a “royal” lineage.  My students also noted the differences between Richard’s and Rosa’s educations. Where Richard ventures out into the world and learns moral lessons through experience, Rosa’s education takes place out of sight in Mrs. Charmion’s home, and focuses on subject matter traditionally gendered feminine—sewing, “domestic economy,” learning how to sing, dance, and play musical instruments for the entertainment of guests at “private parties,” etc. (58).  What’s more, Rosa’s education not only differs from Richard’s , it sets her apart as well from her mentor Mrs. Charmion, an independent woman whom we’re told “had not enjoyed perfectly the benefits of a school,” and who, like Richard, learned through “experience drawn from her intercourse with the world” (5).   Perhaps, we speculated, as education becomes more available to women in the nineteenth century, that same education also becomes more narrowly circumscribed.  I admittedly don’t know about the history of women’s education to answer that question, but, were I to teach Rosa again, I would definitely want to explore that context further.

Another thread that emerged from my class’s analysis of the novel had to do with the relationship between the text’s main plot and its various satirical episodes. As one student observed in an early post on the blog, Rosa is conspicuously absent from much of the novel that bears her name.  Instead, we’re introduced in the first few chapters to the likes of Richard and his critique of gossip, Mr. Ecstacy and his phony sentimental poetry, Francis Figary and his tabloid news—nineteenth-century “clickbait,” one of my students termed it—and Squire Fist and his brutish, self-interested pursuit of justice.  With the exception of Richard, these and a host of other curiously named characters appear only fleetingly so that the author can make some satirical point or other.  While for some of my students, these episodes appeared disconnected from the main plot, others pointed out that Squire Fist is described as not being able to write and Francis Figary as being “illiterate” (20, 22), and that the targets of satire could for the most part be seen as the kinds of thing against which a good education is supposed to guard.  A well-educated person, they argued, would be less likely to be seduced by either bad sentimental poetry or misinformation spread through gossip and newspapers, and also better prepared to make smart decisions for themselves and promote the common good.

Although this interpretation might be complicated by the fact that the novel mentions the well-to-do and presumably better educated as among the purveyors of gossip and consumers of Francis Figary’s spurious journalism, the relationship it posits between literary education and the cultivation of rational-critical faculties usefully linked our discussion of Rosa back to our discussion of republican print publicity earlier in the term.  Looking at Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Federalist Papers, we had considered how the late eighteenth century imagined a community of citizen-readers who would participate in the public sphere through the medium of print.  Later, looking at fiction in the early nineteenth century, we had talked about anxieties regarding reading as an activity increasingly done in private and for pleasure.  With these two earlier discussions in mind, I pushed my students to think about how Rosa might be positioning itself and fiction more generally as a means of public education, and about how satire more specifically might be a particularly effective instrument in this respect, combining as it does edification and amusement.  Unlike sensational news stories or scandals that capture the public’s interest, satire promises to put entertainment to good use by aligning what is interesting to readers with what is in readers’ best interest to know.  And if novels and satires such as Rosa were part of the informal pedagogy of the early national and antebellum U.S., maybe they have lessons to teach us today about what people then thought was worth learning, lessons we might not learn were we to confine our own literary education within the more formal parameters of the canon.