Julie R. Voss, Associate Professor of English
Studying early American literature has come a long way since my undergraduate days, when the “Origins to Civil War” survey of American literature pretty much skipped from the Puritans to Nathaniel Hawthorne, with maybe a little dip into works of the Revolutionary period. Until I got to graduate school, I really thought there was no American fiction until Hawthorne started writing. Thankfully, scholars of early American culture have brought more texts to light, and projects like this one make teaching early American fiction more accessible.
I included Rosa in an upper-division seminar on early American literature, after reading Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion, Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, and Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and before students created their own modern editions of out-of-print texts selected from Early American Imprints. For this class, the JTO project was a great segway for students between looking at the products of other editors and becoming editors themselves. They paid attention to the direction the editors take with a little-known text by an anonymous author, and some of them borrowed moves from this project in their own work.
The novel itself also provided great fodder for discussion. Several of the students had taken previous English or history classes on the 19th century, and they brought to our conversation the contrast between “accepted storylines” and the novel. Particularly in the character of Sol, the students saw something different going on in this novel than what they expected. They also found elements they did expect—like the sentimental daughter fainting away and the coincidences that wrapped things up—but they found interesting how those familiar elements were used differently in Rosa. As one student wrote in a class forum, “Rosa is such a gem. It is remarkably different, surprisingly progressive, and beautifully written (even though the plot is wonky and sinuous). Its imperfection as a narrative only further endears me to it. Rosa pushes the limits of our genre-boxes and predetermined plot lines as much as it pushes the limits of its society racially, sexually, and intellectually. I am ‘queer’ by the editors’ definition, and as such, I like my books to be queer also—unusual and unique.”
Reading a novel with my students with which I was unfamiliar was an enjoyable exercise, as well. We could approach the novel together, as explorers investigating something new, and students posed questions and speculated about answers on a more equal footing (rather than trying to find the “right” answer that they think I’m waiting for them to produce). The question of “genre-boxes” became a fruitful avenue of discussion. When we agreed that the novel wasn’t what we expected, that made us reflect on we did expect and why. This, in turn, led to a discussion of what gets included in and left out of the canon and how the canon impacts our understanding of any given literary period.
Which brings me back to where I started. My students left this class knowing that early American writers crafted fiction, of various kinds, even if not all of it has persisted. They have a sense that there’s a wealth of literature out there that doesn’t make it into their classes. And they’ve gained an appreciation for what they can glean from texts that maybe aren’t exactly “great literature.” As much as I enjoyed my American Literature Survey as a college student, I have enjoyed much more the exploration of under-studied texts, and I appreciate this vehicle through which I can share this joy with my students.