Rosa in the early American Survey; or, an Experimental Journey

Nicole C. Livengood, Associate Professor of English
Marietta College

 

“Odd,” “chaotic,” and “confusing” were some of the words that my early American survey students used to describe Rosa during our debrief of their thoughts on the novel.  Their one-word assessments were not dismissive.  In fact, many noted that having an actual plot was refreshing after our march from the literature of settlement through the Revolution. However, that plot was disorienting, more of a zig-zagging precursor to the Romantics than a logical reflection of the Enlightenment era we were leaving behind.

Their disorientation was fitting.    One reason I chose to teach Rosa was for the chance to experience a new text along with my students.  Thus, while I had read the novel and determined some key concepts and connections—such as its interest in female education and Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes”—I did not have an agenda or a pre-established framework for presenting the text.  As a result, our reading of Rosa was somewhat scattershot.  We considered Rosa as a didactic text that expanded Judith Sargent Murray’s concerns with female education to the education of men as well; analyzed the characters as types; and had an intriguing discussion of the relationship between the Peruvian Sol’s speech (Chapter IV) and William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Phillip.”

 Our eclectic foray into Rosa meant that we did not have a sustained examination of the novel.  However, one of the rewards of our experiment was that students made unique connections between it and other texts.  These, in turn, have provided me with new frameworks for teaching Rosa.

The first framework focuses on women’s education and empowerment in the new nation. Students noted compelling intersections between Rosa, Elizabeth Stoddard’s “Lemorne v. Huell,” and Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit.” For instance, they observed that all three texts were concerned with women’s need for self-knowledge.  Some noted that Stoddard’s character Margaret and Rosa shared socioeconomic disadvantages and had wealthy benefactors.  The difference, for them, was that Margaret epitomized Margaret Fuller’s claims that women are limited by lack of self-knowledge and self-ownership.  Rosa, by contrast, sought to develop intellectually and individually.  Others noted that the author of Rosa clearly focused on the development of women’s voice, and (assuming the author was a woman) saw narrative experimentation similar to that of Fuller.

The second framework focuses on the concept of journeys.  I had an aha! moment midway through our discussion of Rosa, as the class struggled to understand Richard’s story (told primarily in Chapter V) on its own and in relation to the novel.  My aha! moment was this:

That Richard’s story reflects the structure and themes of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Part I.  The more we puzzled through Chapter V, the more I saw that Rosa’s author affirms Franklin’s concerns about the instability and uncertainty of the early United States.  Richard’s journey northward is a geographic reversal of Franklin’s, and as Young Orvaine is tempted, duped, and humbled he must learn to think critically about those he encounters.  His story emphasizes the instability and uncertainty of the early United States, and is a microcosmic look at early Republican concerns regarding personal integrity, authenticity, and social legitimacy in an upwardly mobile, geographically expansive society.   These concerns are evident in the novel’s preoccupation with gossip, insincerity, and—especially—ne’er-do-well Mr. Figary’s alternative facts,  each of which resonated with students in the context of twenty-first century media and culture.

Alas, my aha! moment came too late.  I had not assigned the Autobiography, Part I and my students understandably failed to see why I was nerding out at Rosa’s (seemingly deliberate) engagement with it (as well as other Franklin texts…especially “The Way to Wealth”). However, later in the semester they noted that Rosa’s concerns for truth and authenticity extended into the Romantic Era.  They signaled out Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” as texts with structural and thematic similarities to Rosa, particularly regarding the inability to truly know others.

I look forward to teaching Rosa in future survey courses.  It’s a refreshing way of introducing students to the literature of the early Republic.   I will work to provide more deliberate structure by pairing it with Franklin’s Autobiography, Part I as well as Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality.”  Combined, these provide multiple and flexible entry points into understanding Rosa and its unique cultural moment.