Fragmentary Seductions

Ben Bascom
Ball State University

In Spring 2018 I taught a pre-1800 American literature course for undergraduates that I titled “American Seductions.” In the course description, I explained that “[t]here are a lot of seductive narratives circulating in our present moment about pre-1800 North America: that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the continent; that the Pilgrims who left Europe in the 1620s paved the way for the 1776 colonial separation from Britain; and that the United States as an early nation had a coherent identity, one that we would ostensibly recognize today.” Following those points, I elaborated that we would “examine how those myths were produced and why they have maintained such a seductive allure to the present day.” I jumped at the opportunity to utilize something new from the Just Teach One initiative, even though I didn’t know what the texts would be prior to writing up the syllabus, nor how they might fit, but I imagined the proposed “Sentimental Fragments” would have something to add by way of the course’s conclusion. After 15 weeks reading Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, and Lemuel Haynes, among others, I was pleasantly pleased by the breadth of literary possibilities that inhere within this collection of fragments, and found them to be both accessible and summative for a course that delves into the seduction plot in early America.

I framed the class with the idea that many of the cultural myths that generally signal as “American” have a dubious origin in the two centuries predating the ostensible U.S. nation, hence the course’s emphasis on seduction as a trope. I had begun the semester with an essay about the cultural uses of the seduction trope and narrative in the early national U.S. by historian Rodney Hessinger. His essay, “Victim of Seduction or Vicious Woman?: Conceptions of the Prostitute at the Philadelphia Magdalen Society, 1800–1850,” demonstrates that popular fiction drew upon the seduction plot in order to address “tangible social problems” such as “[b]ooming rates of bastardy and premarital pregnancy, coupled with a growing geographic mobility of male youth” (201). More importantly, however, this essay exemplified what Jane Tompkins has called the cultural work of sentimental narratives (which Duncan Faherty and Ed White suggest for further reading), specifically allowing them to see how figurative tropes imagine and shape social and cultural relations. In this manner, my students were prepared to engage with the sentimental fragments in terms of their sociopolitical function—or, in other words, what the fragments intended to accomplish culturally.

Prior to reading the “Sentimental Fragments,” our major works had been Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, Jeffrey Brace’s memoir The Blind African Slave, and Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. In this way, they were more familiar with longer narratives that followed the lives of singular individuals, so the very nature of the fragments was different aesthetically from everything we had done in the semester; even so, they made connections between these longer works and tropes in “Sentimental Fragments.” I split the fragments into two days, reading 1 through 11 on a Tuesday and the rest on the following Thursday. Prior to the first day I explained to the students that these short anecdotes and vignettes were some of the more popular literary forms in the early United States, and that they are generally standalone pieces, and I asked them to draw upon the literary forms and character types we had spent the semester studying. This background encouraged them to recognize the seduction plot as foundational for Number 7, which showcases the “perfidious Polydore” seducing an “innocent, unsuspecting girl,” thus leading to her death. Additionally, they felt clued in when they read Number 11’s meditation on love when Clara is measured against a “coquette [who] would have affected anger at such a declaration” (12). In Fragment 15, students imagined the declamations against “the seductions of love” and the contorted syntax of “the cruel picture of a mother; who forced an innocent bleeding victim to the altar of prostitution” (18) as resonant revisions to what they assessed as the moral propriety of The Coquette. Their discovery of other—more didactic and perhaps vitriolic—responses to the gendered problem of seduction provided them with a deeper sense of the cultural value of the seduction plot and its many iterations, which then enabled them to reframe the context surrounding the longer works of fiction we read.

At first, however, most of my students resisted what they saw as the moral didacticism of the “Sentimental Fragments,” explaining that they felt the pieces broke all the fiction-writing rules that they had been trained to appreciate. Sensing this initial resistance, I had us as a class reread the opening fragment, which narrates an individual who visits a family to offer a charitable act. Certainly, we all agreed, the goal of this “sentimental thought” was to inspire a sense of feel-good politics around charity. We then did a conventional symptomatic reading of the text, where we assessed that Mrs. Linton is perhaps not in severe financial need (considering her class position), and how the proposed musical performance at “Theatre Royal Covent-Garden” would be more about the displaying of giving than actually solving the economic circumstances of the widowed woman with her young children. Along those lines, I suggested to them that the most accessible literary device may be what the piece doesn’t share—specifically, in how it implies the mother has withheld information to her children about their father’s death. Although the fragment personifies “Justice,” “Charity,” and “Avarice” in ways that my students found off putting, they ended up focusing on the evocative final image: “It rained. I called a coach—drove to a coffee house: but not having a farthing in my pocket, borrowed a shilling at the bar” (4). When we focused on this image of rainy weather, students saw how the fragment drew upon conventional sentimental tropes that they could recognize.

At the end of our discussion, I asked students to pick one of the fragments and make an argument about what they thought the story sought to achieve in terms of its cultural work. The students drew upon textual evidence to determine what their chosen fragment seemed poised to accomplish. To put an added twist to this in-class work, and since I had many creative writers in the course, I then had my students write an additional concluding sentence that would either move forward or undercut what they saw as the overall point of the fragment. This led to a fascinating intensification of sentiment in Fragment 2 with one student following-up the final sentence with this: “The old man left having never seen the contempt in the wife’s eyes, exhaustion in the man’s limbs, and abandonment in the children’s hearts.” Contrarily, one student subversively concluded Fragment 6, transforming the protagonist in ways that dramatically shift the reading: “Alas, but this picture of virtue Maria, whose cold hand still clasped upon the avian specimen with that tenderness she showed it in life; the lady of the brothel came into the backyard and scolded her for sleeping in her labor.”

Hessinger, Rodney. “Victim of Seduction or Vicious Woman?: Conceptions of the Prostitute at the Philadelphia Magdalen Society, 1800–1850” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 66 (1999): 201–222.