JTO: Rosa; or, American Genius and Education

Les Harrison
Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

Rosa; or, American Genius and Education, was a natural fit for an upper-division course on the rise of the novel in the United States. Rosa served as our transition from novels published at the close of the eighteenth century to a cluster of novels published in the 1820s. As such, students in the course came to the novel having previously read Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791/94), Foster’s The Coquette (1797), Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), and Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799). We covered the text in three, 50 minute class meetings.

At the close of the last class meeting prior to starting discussion on Rosa, I situated the text within the larger JTO project with a discussion of historical recovered texts and the changing canon of early American literature (students had previously read a chapter in Davidson’s Revolution and the Word). The class expressed excitement at reading something “new” and left with the directive to focus on passages that felt new or different from previous texts while looking for passages to include in their reading journals.

Most of the first day’s discussion focused on the character of Ms. Charmion. Students found her a “welcome change” and a “breath of fresh air” in contrast to previous female protagonists encountered in the course. Ms. Charmion’s status as an independent woman of means lead to a discussion of business women in the Early Republic, with two or three students drawing comparisons between her depiction and that of Sarah Kemble Knight as described in the Norton Anthology’s excerpts from “Madam Knight’s Journal.” Numerous students had selected for their reading journals the passage describing Ms. Charmion’s habit of bedtime reading where, “having arranged her house-hold affairs as was her common practice, she took up a volume of essays selected from the works of Benjamin Franklin” (14b) Enthusiastic students, not yet aware of Ms. Charmion’s backstory, were eager to position her as a female Franklin. Discussing the novel’s positive view of the nation’s emerging cities, the class lingered on Mrs. Charmion’s visit to the dry-goods store where she observes, “the busy and polite attentions of the young gentlemen who attend in the stores. Obliging and complaisant, these youth advance their own reputations as well as the interest of their principals, and diffuse to all around them pleasurable sensations” (10b). A lot of class time went to analyzing the female gaze in this scene as Mrs. Charmion seems more interested in the young gentleman than in any particular piece of merchandise.

Students who had not read ahead on day one expressed disappointment in the second class meeting upon discovering Ms. Charmion’s backstory as the prideful Dorinda Morvin. “So we’re back to punishing disobedient women,” was one student’s take on the situation. Showing little interest in the very specific social satire contained in the Francis Figary passages, the class’s attention turned to the introduction of Sol and his subsequent examination by the committee of London nobles and scientists. The class contrasted the general humaneness of Sol’s depiction in the novel with the seemingly inevitability of Native v. European American violence on display in Brown’s Edgar Huntly. A couple of students did note that Rosa’s author seemed to “want it both ways” by having her emissary of Native Americans hail from Peru as opposed to a nearer native tribe.

When introducing the novel, I had mentioned Rosa’s inclusion in The American Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (2015), as noted in the JTO introduction to the text. Students had been on the lookout for episodes which might have led to the novel’s inclusion in a survey of early gay and lesbian literature. Heading into the final day discussing the novel, many thought that the fifth chapter, in which Richard Orvaine flees Baltimore, eventually falling into the company of a counterfeiter, was going to present some obvious passages for a potential queer reading of the text. When nothing that could be explicitly labeled as homoerotic occurred between the two men, the discussion turned to possible coded language in the passage that might have pointed to “illicit” sexual behavior. A number of students focused on the significance of the villain’s namelessness and, more richly, the fact that he was a counterfeiter. The class was then able to contrast the false friendship and illicit publication offered by the counterfeiter with Richard’s eventual introduction to a circle of virtuous, older male friends after he arrives in Boston. Ultimately, the bulk of the class seemed unconvinced by the queering of Orvaine’s relationship with the counterfeiter.

Having recently finished Edgar Huntly, students were not terribly surprised when the familial relationships between several previously disconnected characters were revealed at the novel’s conclusion. More concern was expressed over the late revelation that Sol had previously worked as an overseer on a plantation, making his status as a positive portrayal of a Native American character in early American literature even more problematic. Students also expressed disappointment over the lack of attention paid to the novel’s titular character, Rosa, with several students noting her complete passivity throughout the novel.

As an instructor, I definitely plan on including the novel in future courses. While some students criticized the novel’s “disorganized” plot, the numerous ways in which the text worked against the grain of previous Early American novels were, for the most part, appreciated by the students. Within the context of a course on Early American novels, in addition to providing a welcome complication to the numerous marriage-plot novels of the era, the character of Sol provided a nice starting point for early novelistic depictions of Native Americans which were developed in the next two novels on our syllabus, Child’s Hobomok (1824), Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), and Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827).