The Deliberate Construction of an “American” Voice

Amanda Stuckey
York College of Pennsylvania

 

Our class read Rosa in LIT 313: The American Novel, an upper-level seminar designed for English majors. The class was structured to encourage students to think critically about what exactly makes a novel “American.” Throughout the semester, we explored many angles of addressing this question, from accounting for a novel’s historical context, its reception history, its author’s background, and its geographic settings. Rosa posed some challenges to this question, especially in its anonymity, its often-erratic plot lines, and its diverse cast of characters. In the end, however, Rosa helped us think about the ways a novel’s “American-ness,” in theme, in composition, or in form, may be the result of an author’s deliberate construction of an “American” voice out of the chorus of voices and literary materials within the text.

We read Rosa right after finishing up Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and in initial online responses and classroom conversations we discussed the two novels together. In particular, students’ responses seemed to center on the differences in narrative voice found throughout the novels; whereas one student noted the “moralizing voice” of Rowson’s narrator, she also suggested that Rosa seems to “mimic a moralizing voice,” perhaps as satire. One student even speculated that “Charlotte Temple is the kind of book Rosa is satirizing.” Our conversations diverged from Charlotte Temple, however, when students noted the “intertextual literary pieces” and what one student observed as the “fight to identify what was American literature” that seemed to distinguish Rosa from Charlotte Temple and that connected Rosa with more contemporary texts we would read later in the semester, even those as seemingly dissimilar as our final reading, Junot Díaz’s 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

When we moved from comparative readings to thinking about Rosa as an “American novel,” we found it necessary to sketch out a very rough map of the characters – and the author’s – peregrinations throughout the text, taking note of the connections made and paths crossed across the novel’s varied geographic and literary terrains. We had created a similar networked map of our overall syllabus during the first day of class, and we found that Rosa charted some of the same geographic spaces of “America” as represented in overall class readings. What stood out to us in particular about Rosa, however, was the way in which the lives of the novel’s diverse cast of characters mimicked the diverse forms, voices, and content of early nineteenth-century literatures. Rosa proved to be especially useful in understanding the early American swirl of print culture, as students immediately noted “the power of the media” as well as the “insatiable hunger for the flowery, the embellished, the sensationalist” that perhaps “represents the absence of a unified American literary culture at the time.” In this way, Rosa allowed us to discuss both the various forms of early U.S. print culture as well as the audiences that were consuming it.

Emily Goff, one of my LIT 313 students, became particularly interested in the mysteries surrounding the novel, and I asked her to reflect on her own experience with the novel in this post. She also completed her final project on the novel, linked here http://exploringrosa.blogspot.com/

 

Emily writes:

Sitting in a college classroom, a space constructed by both fixed and fluid pedagogies, in the 21st century and discussing Rosa, a text with meta-pedagogical layers to it, made me aware of the ever-unfolding struggle to uncover what an authentic American education is. The anonymous author grappled with the question, to be sure, and even explicitly stated how important real-life experience is, above all else, in the shaping of one’s mind and educational background. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the anonymous mastermind behind even the narrative voice; he or she must have been aware of the inevitability of educational institutions in this country, so, throughout the novel, there is an emphasis on characters’ responses to many different influences.

Richard does carve out his own path for himself, indeed, despite his problematic circumstances and heritage, but there is this undeniable, even timeless American-ness to him as a character at all points of his journey (which is the spine story of Rosa, really). His unfailing determination, as a student and writer in nineteenth-century America, to expand his knowledge and skills resonates with me, as a student and writer in twenty-first-century America. I realized, as simple as this may sound, that Americans are individual people, first and foremost. American education, regardless of the era, is about figuring out how to do more than simply exist amidst the mosaic of human voices. American genius is that development of striking individuality that somehow harmonizes with that of the person next to you, and the person next to her, and so on. The author teaches society how to teach something seemingly un-teachable: the art of being a unique American while still belonging to a nation whose principles are deeply entrenched, yet whose levels of diversity increase by the day. We cannot and should not stop the flourishing of all sorts of voices—that would defeat the purpose of having a democracy that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press among many other liberties—but we can try to teach the art of at once celebrating and satirizing elements of the literary landscape. What emerges from an engagement with that creative challenge is freshness, a distinctly American genius.

Education is a lifelong journey of the mind as it attempts to sift through the chaos and establish an informed, but unique vision. It is an evolving mindset, in the end, from which there springs not only critical thinking but also creative, energetic work. Our class imagined that the decidedly well-read author was someone who enjoyed walking through the streets, gathering inspiration and weaving together the varying influences in the air. Everyone’s voice mattered then; everyone’s voice matters now. I felt incredibly empowered during this discussion, as I am always trying to figure out ways in which I can connect all of the valuable knowledge I’ve gained from my years of schooling with my passion for writing within a large diverse community of Americans (and human beings, of course). As it turns out, education is that fusion within the self; it has rough edges and confusing elements, but it is American because of that courage to do something risky and unique with all of the pent-up energy. Ultimately, Rosa has become more than a mere story to me; I treasure it as a quirky manifesto.