Just Teach One: Rosa

Sarah Schuetze
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Introduction to American Literature I

 

Rosa is a kinetic novel—the characters are on the move, but so is the narrative. The often bumpy shifts between characters, point of view, and conflict call attention action and activity though could be read as narrative gaffs. But as a cultural artifact, Rosa reflects the movement of its urban setting and a nation (and national identity) in flux. Therefore, when I decided to teach Rosa, I wanted to highlight what I think of as the novel’s kinesis and help students appreciate the value of motility in a novel. To do so, I made the novel part of a three-novel sequence and designed a series of in-class discussion activities to emulate this.

In my Introduction to American Literature I survey, I put Rosa between Hannah Foster’s The Coquette and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. While Rosa’s narrative is more rambunctious than the others, it fit into my established reading schedule quite easily.

The three-novel sequence I assigned allowed us to build on multiple themes—including the novel form, popular readership, idealizations of gender, national allegory, anxiety over sincerity, characterization of indigenous peoples (not in The Coquette) mixed-race characters (same), the im/possible future for characters who defy normative standards of gender and/or whiteness, and much more. Thus, these topics became moving topics that traveled from one novel to another and back again as we revisited them.

For instance, reading Rosa helped students better understand the gender imperatives Eliza Wharton resisted and Alice Munro exemplified in The Coquette and The Last of the Mohicans, respectively. Although Rosa is the title character of Rosa and the focus of gossip and investigation throughout the novel, she remains a tangential character. The fact that Rosa was an object of action/movement rather than an agent of her own actions/movements didn’t sit well with many of my students, especially since there was no plucky (albeit doomed) counterpart as in the Foster and Cooper novels. Instead, readers encountered a character who is exceptional for her passivity—and in a rollercoaster of a novel, this stands out.

The author suggests that in the midst of change and motion, stability can be found with Rosa, an educated, moral, and passive young woman. What’s revolutionary about this is the fact that the young woman seems to be of mixed race. So in suggesting her as an ideal, the author challenges the racial divisions that undergird the narrative. Then again, are we seeing an ideal woman, American, or an ideal mixed race individual? The novel’s position on race seems to be as kinetic as the rest of it.

Focusing on movement also provides a helpful way to frame the discussion of Sol, native person from South America. Sol is introduced as a moving figure—one who has traveled across the Americas and actively fought in the Revolutionary War. However, this action predates the central events of the novel (even the flash-back chapters).  When the Charmion family is young, Sol is described as an “invalid” notable for his “romantic valour,” which speaks to his past (35). If this were the only version of this character we encountered, we might read this as an example of the “vanishing Indian” narrative as Sol’s vigor was over. However, at the end of the novel, we learn Sol has been traveling the world and has married Mrs. Charmion’s daughter, a white woman. Like the sun he is named after, he comes back in full force. Once again we’re left to wonder at the author’s revolutionarily optimistic view of a mixed race America so different from other novels published in this time.

On its own, Rosa challenged my students’ expectations in its use of humor, portrayal of urban settings (especially Baltimore as opposed to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia), engagement with popular print culture, depiction of gossip, inclusion of Sol as a native South American character, and a mixed race character with the potential for a positive future. This last point offers a positive contrast with the tragic fate of Cooper’s Cora.

A unique feature of Rosa is the gaming/gambling chapter, which helped me come up with a way to enact the notion of kinesis in a large (45 person) discussion without devolving into (too much) chaos. In the chapter, readers almost travel from table to table, from character to character. Thus, I created a “round-robin” of games/activities (included below) that drew upon various features of the novel.

For the discussion, I printed out the instructions for each activity and spread throughout the room. Before we began, I had students pick one of the mannerisms (included below) displayed in the novel and adopt it for the duration of the round-robin exercise. Some were better sports with this than others, naturally. Then, students circulated in groups from one activity to another—choosing which to go to next and negotiating other groups. The diversity in activities allowed students to engage with particular features of this novel that would not necessarily come up in the discussion of The Last of the Mohicans (next in our novel sequence).

Through this immersive experience with the novel’s investment in movement, students gained a better sense of the culture the novel comes from where people, ideas, and material goods moved or were moved and the nation and national identity was being shaped and reshaped. This helps makes sense of the ambiguities in the novel and helps to unsettle the providential narrative of the nation’s history as an untroubled, linear path.

 

Works Cited

 

Cooper, James Fenimore. Thea Last of the Mohicans. 1826. Dover Thrift, 2003.

Foster, Hannah W. The Coquette. 1797. Oxford UP, 1987.

 

Round Robin Activities:

  1. Design a game about Richard and his adventures in Philadelphia and the snares he gets into.

 

  1. Read and perform one of the following (and check it off—don’t pick one another group member has already chosen):
  • The essay piece (7)
  • and maybe the vindication of gossip (29)
  • the poporendum (18)
  • the newstory about the fire (24)
  • the lawyer’s statement (25)
  • Sol’s defense (38-)
  • harangue in Frenchtown on way to Philadelphia (43), that’s a jenny scene at the inn in Newton (45) spyglass (56)

 

  1. Come up with a gossip-like piece of writing about the vice of card playing among women (a source of disgust for Mr. Derwent and Richard), or the meeting of Rosa and Richard (either the first one or the indescribable one mentioned on 63b), or Peerwell’s scheme on 64.

 

  1. Long lost relative! Map out the family connections revealed at the end.

Then come up with some possible textual “parents” for this novel by seeing how and where it might relate to other things we’ve read and other things you’ve read in other classes.

 

  1. Evaluate the novel by the standards in the novel on page 28.

 

  1. Evaluate the characters and actions based on Franklin’s list of virtues (pick a character card and a virtue card at random).

 

  1. List all the geographic places named in the book.

 

  1. Write a Figary-style news story about one of the following:

The woman and her maid (55)

The counterfeiter (52)

or The women who stays to play cards when there’s a sick child at home (61)

 

  1. Play a game of 18th-century Balderdash! using the cards provided. Pick one card. Each group member should come up with a feasible definition for the term.

 

  1. Discuss 1-2 of the following passages. Check off ones you discuss. Pick an unchecked one for your first discussion. You can pick any checked or unchecked ones for your second discussion (if there is time).
  • Description of Charmion on 5B,
  • Power of women on 11B,
  • C concern with scandal 16,
  • Education and morality 17,
  • Interest in strange or uncommon 23a,
  • Novel reading 28,
  • Captivity 37a,
  • Sol’s speech 38b-,
  • Genius 41b-,
  • Attainment of riches 51b,
  • Heart of Rosa and intellect of Richard 62a-62b, Rosa’s apology 64b,
  • Sol and Barbarina 65,
  • You know nothing of ‘Lunnan” … 66a,
  • Derwent’s disclosure 66a,
  • Sol’s arrangement of Rosa’s meeting Mrs. Charmion 67a,
  • His arrangement of the fire 67b,
  • Richard’s response to the news 68a
  • Last paragraph 68b

 

  1. Discuss how progressive this novel is or isn’t. Be specific about what is informing your response to the question.

 

  1. MADLIB! Come up with examples of the following words and fill them into the designated spots in an excerpted passage from the book.

 

  1. Noun ____________________
  2. Past tense verb ____________________
  3. Past tense verb____________________
  4. adjective____________________
  5. type of person or behavior____________________
  6. adjective____________________
  7. adjective____________________
  8. geographic region
  9. proper name
  10. profession
  11. past tense verb
  12. noun ending in –tion

 

MADLIB Text:

A Description of the [5. Type of person or behavior]

 

Among all the [1. noun] that naturalists have [2. past tense verb], I have never [3. past tense verb], either in hieroglyphics or [4. adjective] writing, the delineation of a [5. type of person or behavior]. This omission is somewhat [6. adjective] too; because, as far as my [attribute] extends, the [5. type of person or behavior] is a native of [7. adjective] [8. geographic region] of the globe, and neither Count [9. proper name], nor any other [10. profession] upon animated nature, could have [11. past tense verb] without incurring the [12. noun ending in –tion] of negligence.

 

  1. Discuss what America and Americans signify in this book.

 

Mannerisms:

Adopt one of the mannerisms of the characters:

Frequently shug and give simpering smiles

Shouts randomly: that’s a jenny!

Be like Mrs. Mordaunt— “her understanding condemns what her fancy had impelled her to utter the moment before—she has rendered herself capricious and inconsistent in behavior” (58)

Be like Miss Flirt who “plays the coquette” (58)

Be like Mrs. Charmion—always reminding the need of being extremely cautious not to confide to strangers her sentiments or her opinions

Give excessive high praise

Give sudden and enormous professions of friendship

Be influenced by envy and revenge

Demonstrate prudery

Boast of prowess

Show arrogant presumption

Show a brain completely overrun with notions of own importance

Show ignorant arrogance

Be a pert and flippant pretender

Have a constitution of great excitability,

Make distressing exclamation of “oh! And “ah” like volcanic fumes

Have ravings of despair

Tremble as if sick and speak with a tremor

Demonstrate timorous bashfulness

Howl and lament

Looking at other people with a spyglass (use a piece of paper rolled up into a tube)