Rethinking our Ascendant Narratives About Canonicity

Thomas Koenigs
Scripps College

 

I taught Rosa as the final text in an upper-level undergraduate seminar on “The Early American Novel.” The class had sixteen students, mostly junior and senior English majors from across the five Claremont colleges. Most of the students had little, if any, familiarity with early American literature and were taking the course to fulfill a pre-1900 American literature distribution requirement for the major. Rosa was the final novel for the course and we spent two class sessions (one hour and fifteen minutes each) on it. In this sense, Rosa was the exception in a class that had progressed chronologically up to this point. Other than The Female American, the vast majority of our classes had focused on US novels from the 1780s through the 1830s. But when we turned to Rosa, we had just finished with a final mini-unit on mid-19th century fiction (The Heroic Slave, Ruth Hall, and Behind a Mask) that I included in order to encourage students to draw connections across different periods. For this reason, Rosa provided both a chance to return to many of the issues that we had discussed in the early national novels and an opportunity to draw connections between early national and mid-century US fiction.

At the beginning of the semester, I had told the class about Rosa and the JTO project. I was upfront about the fact that I had never read Rosa before. I had pitched this as an opportunity for shared discovery, and in particular, I wanted us to consider together how this rarely studied novel might either fit into or trouble the different throughlines we had traced in the more canonical novels that we had read together. By placing it at the end of the semester, I wanted to simulate how scholarly recovery and rediscovery require us to rethink our ascendant narratives and theories of a given period or genre.

With a semester of early US novels behind us, the students had no trouble putting Rosa in conversation with earlier readings. One student posited an interesting distinction between Rosa and the other novels we had studied: whereas we had read a number of novels that had sought to educate readers, Rosa was, this student suggested, the first novel that we read that was about education and it seemed uniquely interested in pedagogical theory. Other students, however, were quick to point out that this latter description could describe a lot of early US novels: although not as explicitly as Rosa, many of the texts we had read earlier—students mentioned The Power of Sympathy, Female Quixotism, and Wieland—used their narratives to intervene in debates about educational theory. This led to a wide-ranging discussion on various sub-topics related to education raised by Rosa: thinking back to Female Quixotism and Wieland, we discussed the role of parents (and alternatives to parents) in education; thinking back to The Algerine Captive and Sheppard Lee, we thought about the relationship between education and picaresque narratives; and thinking back to Kelroy and The Coquette, we thought about the role of innocence and experience in competing theories of education, especially female education.

As I suspect the connections between Rosa and these other early US novels will come up in others’ reflections, I want to especially mention how my students connected Rosa to the mid-century novels that we had just finished. Reading Rosa shortly after Ruth Hall allowed us to juxtapose the very different representations of literary and print culture in the two books. This pairing also allowed us to discuss the very different conceptions of authorship presented by the two books. I must admit that I had not anticipated this synergy and I wish that I had budgeted more time—and prepared more background material—for this part of the discussion. The students were especially eager to discuss the inclusion of Richard’s essays and sketches within Rosa, as this stood in such stark contrast to Fern’s decision to withhold all of Floy’s published writings from Ruth Hall (even as she includes readers’ letters to Floy). We tried to unpack what these divergent formal strategies reveal about these fictions’ accounts of the print and literary culture of their respective moments. We also touched, albeit briefly, on the different role that satire plays in each novel.

Perhaps more surprisingly, my students were also eager to compare Rosa’s remarkable ending with the ending of Alcott’s sensational thriller Behind a Mask. The students saw a tension in Rosa’s resolution: in a novel that, as Faherty and White note in their introduction, privileges nurture over nature and deemphasizes the traditional family as the site of education, the various revelations of secret kinship and connection struck the students as potentially undermining the text’s emphasis on the malleability of identity. They contrasted this ending with how Alcott’s conwoman heroine, Jean Muir, stages the revelation of a fraudulent hidden aristocratic identity as a means of securing a marriage with a rich and titled older man. Although the class ultimately reached few conclusions, this pairing led to a lively discussion of the relationship between class, education, performance, and identity in these fictions published a half century apart.

Finally, I want to note the prominent role that Rosa played in our end of semester discussion. For our final class, we read chapters 3 and 4 of Davidson’s foundational Revolution and the Word. I had waited to introduce Davidson’s influential argument until the final session, because I didn’t want this argument to frame the students’ initial encounter with these texts. Rather, I wanted to students to draw on their now considerable reading in the early US novel, as they grappled with Davidson’s foundational account of the genre. (The students were generally persuaded by Davidson’s argument about the novel and education, but they were more divided on her claims about the social egalitarianism of the early US novel.) I was struck by how often students referred back to Rosa in our discussion of Davidson, both because it offered some of the most explicit meditations on the questions of education raised by Revolution and the Word and because, as the students noted, its hemispheric and transatlantic plotlines reveal some of the limitations of Davidson’s national focus.

I really enjoyed teaching Rosa and I could easily imagine teaching it again. But even more than this, I really enjoyed the JTO experience more generally and I hope that I will be able to teach other JTO texts in the future. (Given the small size of our department and coverage requirements, I don’t often get a chance to teach classes that focus specifically on early US literature, so this was an exciting opportunity for me.) Students told me they felt both excited and empowered by the thought that they were reading a text that hadn’t been exhaustively studied and I think it gave them a greater sense of the dynamism of literary historical study than any other single reading they did over the course of the semester.