Reading Rosa in an American Literature Survey

Lucas Hardy
Youngstown State University

 

My American Literature I students read Rosa, or American Genius and Education for the final day of the fall 2017 semester. Readings for this survey class came primarily from the Norton Anthology, ninth edition, and spanned from Cabeza de Vaca to Walt Whitman. The class consisted of sophomores and juniors; some were English majors and others English Education/Integrated Language Arts majors. We had addressed the revolutionary and early national periods midway through the semester, with focus on Franklin, Equiano, and Crèvecoeur, in particular. I was doubtful that Rosa would be met with excitement, given that I had assigned the text for the final day of class, and since we had left the eighteenth century weeks earlier. I was delighted to find, however, that the novel was enthusiastically received. In a class of 20 students, almost everyone shared insight during our discussion. Part of their readiness to talk about the text was likely owing to the fact that they were required to write short reaction papers in which they worked to situate Rosa among the texts and topics we had discussed for the past 15 weeks (the questions they were asked to consider are included below in this post). Three primary discussion strands emerged in their papers and in class: the question of authorship, the closely connected problem of authenticity, and the issue of sympathy and sentimentality.

The first remark in class came from a student who had remained quiet for much of the semester. She and those who quickly joined the conversation noted that Rosa’s anonymous authorship caused a heightened sense of indeterminacy in their reading. For this reason, they agreed, the novel was fun to read. It hadn’t occurred to me before her observation, but nearly all of the reading we had done to that point was preceded by a substantial discussion of authorship and biography (due partly to the material provided in the Norton and partly to my own introductory remarks each day). Without knowing the identity of Rosa’s author, they were unsure where and how to begin the act of interpretation; if the writer wasn’t clearly biographically motivated by the topics we had so vigorously discussed—religious identity, free or slave status, or even his or her classification as a canonical literary figure, for instance—then what, exactly, mattered in the text?

I was intrigued to find that in the absence of a clear authorial voice presiding over the novel, students turned to Dorinda Charmion, the character they deemed the protagonist (despite the book’s title), for answers. She quickly became a personality from whom they could draw meaning. Since they had become so accustomed during the semester to finding connections among authors, they used Charmion to meet the same ends. The first and most interesting connection to our past reading was made, to my mind, when a student remarked that she saw reflections of John Winthrop and the “Model of Christian Charity” in Charmion’s benevolence toward Rosa. I agreed there was an echo of Winthrop in her generosity, but I was compelled to ask how, at the same time, Charmion and the world depicted in the novel would fail to meet the demands of the “Model.” Very quickly students remarked on the absence of religion—predestinarian religion, in particular—in the text. This observation became a means to consider how deductive assumptions about authorship might be made. It was obvious that religion was not an important topic in Rosa, so presumably the author was not affiliated with a strict religious movement, they reasoned. (The exception in the text, of course, is the Quaker who saves Richard Richardson/Orvaine from jail in Philadelphia). Most importantly, the idea that “some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection,” as Winthrop would have it, is antithetical to the theme of social mobility in the novel (82). Characters move up and down in class throughout, and they are largely self-made, students noted (which is signified also, they found, by the occasional references to Benjamin Franklin in the text). We agreed, at least provisionally, that even as those ideas of sympathy found in Winthrop’s “Model” seem to run longitudinally through early American culture(s), notions of ethics and morality ascribed to sympathetic concern had changed over time.

The sentimentality that emerges in the novel reflects eighteenth-century European ideals of fellow-feeling far more than it echoes American Calvinist notions of spiritual belonging. While we did not read sentimental novels this semester, some students had gained exposure to the genre in other courses, and I had mentioned several examples and talked a bit about the tradition when we read Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and other texts from the period. The class members were torn as to whether Charmion’s support for Rosa was a purely altruistic act or one motivated by a sense of socially-motivated responsibility. The majority seemed to agree that given her prominence in her social circle, and inspired by Mr. Derwent’s tutelage of Richard, she was acting—if even subconsciously—out of socially-constructed moral duty, rather than natural human compassion.

Several students segued from this discussion to think about the ways in which Mrs. Charmion and Rosa each emblemize different parts of the debate about genius and education mobilized in the novel. “Nature had indeed done more for [Mrs. Charmion] than education…Her mind was naturally acute and discriminating, but she had not enjoyed perfectly the benefit of a school,” the reader is told early in the text (5). Rosa, on the other hand, is educated formally, both in school and in society. “Mrs. Charmion spared no pains nor expense in her education,” we learn (57). Students were unsure why, if Mrs. Charmion had enjoyed a comfortable life after being raised in a less formal manner, she might be so committed to nurturing Rosa in a different way. The idea surfaced that views about education had changed with the advancement of Enlightenment thought in America. By the time Rosa was in Charmion’s care, there were new, stricter expectations for how a young woman should be trained. Another student wondered about differing attitudes toward education in rural versus metropolitan settings; Mrs. Charmion came of age in the country, but she raises Rosa in Baltimore. Rosa’s race also registered in our conversation about education. Mrs. Charmion was reared with little education, yet she is a member of Baltimore’s cultural elite. The Peruvian Rosa, on the other hand, apparently requires substantial academic and social instruction to reach the same status. One student concluded that Rosa’s formal education was perhaps necessitated by her lower (or mostly unknown) class, more than her indigenous identity.

The notion that Mrs. Charmion, a white woman, is naturally endowed with an “acute and discriminating” mind that permits her to “make close observation of the rules of society” contrasts the idea that Rosa, who is Native American, requires education in a classical sense. Students were perplexed, however, because the novel didn’t appear to be consistent in its suggestion that, in eighteenth-century terms, race and ethnicity were indicators of genius; Rosa’s father, Sol, demonstrates the opposite of what students observed in the education of Rosa. It is Sol’s genius that allowed him to learn about European history and the history of American colonization by reading independently. In fact, in his audience with dignitaries in London, Sol aims specifically to prove that “the natives of the American continent are as acute and vigorous in their intellect as the natives of Europe” (38). Sol’s impressive knowledge of history and persuasive arguments about Native American genius prompted numerous students to assert in their papers and in class that the author may him or herself have been a person of Native American decent.

The sentimental tradition emerges most clearly in the novel in the character of Richard Richardson/Orvaine, who takes a sort of “sentimental journey,” as students observed, from Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York to Boston and back home to Baltimore. They became especially attuned to the novel’s more satirical qualities through Richard’s travels, especially when he recommends that the author of Views by Starlight change the name of the book and attribute it to an acclaimed European writer, rather than an American. The class took this scene as an ironic rejection of European literary superiority—a theme reinforced by Mr. Ecstacy’s vulgarization of the Shakespearean sonnet form earlier in the novel. Richard’s travels through urban centers of cultural and intellectual importance are full of corruption and folly, yet his blunders are constantly rectified, in most cases by his witty and clever demeanor. The tacit message, students identified through both Sol and Richard, is that true genius will allow one to prevail over unexpected and adversarial circumstances.

In their short papers, student after student remarked that they “really enjoyed” Rosa, and some mentioned that it was their “favorite reading of the semester.” They deemed the novel funny, odd, and (despite its unclear authorship), easy to connect with other texts we had read. I was intrigued to hear from multiple students that in several ways, the novel seeemd to predict later nineteenth-century literary texts. We had just completed Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener and Whitman’s Song of Myself the week before. More than a few students found the unstable identities of the novel’s characters to emblemize a new sort of shifting American personality embodied in Melville and Whitman. And while student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, many tended to agree with Henri Petter’s analysis, cited in the editors’ introduction, that “the overall plot is ‘implausible’” and that the novel “is structurally very awkward” (2). They grumbled en masse about their frustration with the text’s disjointed assembly—especially the idea that we’re led to believe that we’ll follow Rosa’s coming-of-age, but we leave her for much of the novel to follow Richard, and it’s not really clear why. They were annoyed also by the novel’s didactic character names and its generally unimaginative set of philosophical ruminations (especially Richard’s satiric musings on “The Gossip”).

For my part, the experience of teaching Rosa revealed the advantages in assigning anonymous texts, and so I hope to include this and other similar works on future syllabi. Students, I learned, will explore ideas more feely and make creative connections with course material when less ponderous attention is given to authorship and biography. My only disappointment in class came when I inquired about the character of Francis Figary, the “illiterate [and] naturally cunning” freelance “gatherer of facts” who was “acquainted with the prevailing taste of the times for extravagance” (22). While I read all manner of connections to the current crisis in America of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and media bias in Figary’s professional conduct, students had not identified him as a character of importance. Where I had hoped a sustained conversation about early news culture, media markets, and American journalism through the centuries might ensue, the attempt to talk about these topics through Figary fell flat.

Included below are questions students were encouraged to consider in their short response papers:

  • How would you situate Rosa among the other texts we’ve read this semester? Which writers we’ve read appear to be in conversation with the topics and themes present in the text?
  • What are the implications of reading a literary text by an anonymous or unknown author?
  • What is “genius” as it’s characterized in the text? With what sort of “education” is the text concerned?
  • How do themes of race, class, and gender emerge in Rosa?
  • In what ways does this text engage eighteenth-century notions of nature, sentimentality, manners, and morality?

Works Cited:

Rosa, or American Genius and Education, New York, 1810.

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Puritans in America, edited by Andrew Delbanco, Harvard UP, 1985, pp. 81-92.