Fragment as Methodology

Mary Grace Albanese
SUNY Binghamton

 

I taught “Sentimental Fragments” in a U.S. Literature to 1900 survey course. Although most of the students in the course are English majors, many still struggle with basic methodologies in literary criticism: close reading, historical contextualization, and generic analysis. I found “Sentimental Fragments” an extremely useful way to parse out various critical approaches: for example, the very title of the collection brings together the generic (sentimental) and the formal (fragments); and, as an anthology of early U.S. print culture, it also allows students to discuss the material aspects of transatlantic cultural production; contextualize the collection in its sociohistorical moment; and interrogate the politics of contemporary critical anthologizing.

I began by asking the class to define a “fragment” and the possible effects it might have on readers. We came up with a number of answers: some students suggested the fragment celebrates incompleteness, others argued that fragments imply an ideal whole exists elsewhere. We also thought about the fragment in relation to the collective: does it suggest, for example, a unified social body? Or does it register social unrest? We then considered the affective connotations of the fragment: shock, violence, confusion, and questioned why this affective range might be prevalent in an era of migrations, both forced and voluntary. We also thought about the fragment in relation to material culture – the fragment as document or incomplete authentication. I also introduced the students to the 18th-century French genre of the “poèsies fugitives”: together we close read these fleeting, fugitive and fragmented textual remains.

We then widened our scope to consider the generic dimensions of sentimental fiction. This fit in nicely with our prior week’s reading Secret History, in which we discussed how sentiment and sensation constructs and maintains racist hierarchies. And it also set us up for the week’s following reading of “Theresa”, where we discussed the ways in which the tale subverts and redefines white sentimental familial structures. (We also thought a bit about the epistle and installation as fragment in Secret History and “Theresa” respectively.) Furthermore, by situating “Sentimental Fragments” into a transnational, and specifically Haitian, lineage we were able to dwell on the political and ethical stakes of sentiment: who is allowed to have, feel, or distribute sentiment? Who is excluded from the discourse of sentiment?  What does it mean to be moved – in all its senses – and who gets moved and how across Atlantic economies? We were also able to tie these questions into prior readings of declarations/acts of independence from the United States, Haiti, and several Latin American republics.

Finally, we used “Sentimental Fragments” to address the material and transnational aspects of print culture. We traced the publication histories of these fragments to examine their paratexts, as well as their complex routes of reprinting and circulation in the Americas.  Again, this positioned us extremely well for the next week’s discussion of “Theresa”, a story which is very much in dialogue with the paratext of its publication venue Freedom’s Journal. In the future, I would be keen to push this aspect of the course farther. Instead of guiding students through pre-selected images of newspapers, I am planning to assign them something along the lines of a  “history of a newspaper page.” I will ask students to independently research a single page from a 19th-century publication. This assignment will ask students not only to examine an installment or fragment within the context of its original publication venue, but to delve into that context, tracking down the other news reports, fiction, advertisements, prices, authors, images, and print technologies that appear on the page. This kind of assignment will denaturalize the anthology (or modern edition), introduce students to important archives and databases for historical research, and allow for close readings both textual and visual.