Teaching Sincerity, Finding Serendipity

Brian Yothers
University of Texas at El Paso

My experience of teaching Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Sincerity in a graduate seminar in the early Atlantic novel was marked by the unexpected. As the initial call for participants noted, this novel defeats the expectations we have for Rowson’s work when we come straight to it from Charlotte Temple: its unsentimental, explicit, and forceful critique of the injustices in the institution of marriage at the start of the nineteenth-century seems worlds away from the tears and exhortations to filial piety in Charlotte Temple, and my students picked up on this rather quickly. Several of them commented, moreover, that Ed White’s essay “Rowson’s Arcs,” which I assigned as one of the critical readings on Rowson, served to illuminate Rowson’s movement through a variety of positions in relation to both gender politics and literary form across her career. Considering Rowson’s trajectory from Charlotte Temple, through Sincerity, to Lucy Temple meant that students were able to acquire a textured sense of the developing gender politics in Rowson’s work, and it helped them to understand the marriage-less happy ending for the title character in Lucy Temple in a way that might not have been accessible to them had we leaped directly from Rowson’s early novel to her posthumous final novel.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, however, was the way in which the novel interacted with other novels from the period. Weeks after we concluded our discussion of Sincerity, we were in the midst of a discussion of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, and that text’s representation of domestic violence and marital rape emerged as an important part of our discussion. Several students pointed out that Sincerity was the only other text that we had discussed all semester that dealt directly with a scene of violence in a marriage, or with the violation of a woman’s privacy as the result of her husband’s misdeeds. Sansay and Rowson are, to say the least, an unlikely pairing, given that Sansay is often regarded as one of the more scandalous writers taught in early American literature courses (complete with a romantic connection to that archetypal scoundrel of the early republic, Aaron Burr), and Rowson can seem, on the basis of Charlotte Temple and even Lucy Temple, to be quite conservative. Nonetheless, the unsparing depiction of marriage in the two novels made them a useful pairing in our class discussions, and it extended our sense of the possible positions that women writers could take relative to issues of marriage, coverture, and even marital violence and abuse at the start of the nineteenth century.

In addition to our class discussions, I built a written assignment on Sincerity into the syllabus, requiring students to consider one of the two following questions:

1. Rowson is best known to students of American Literature as the author of Charlotte Temple, read as an exemplar of the popular, sentimental seduction novel, and through this novel, Rowson often comes to stand in for the wider field of women’s writing in the Early Republic. When we read, as we have in this class, Lucy Temple and Sincerity alongside Rowson’s most famous novel, how does it change the way that we read Charlotte Temple? Rowson’s career? The general shape of women’s writing in the Early Republic? You may also wish to consider how Ed White’s “Rowson’s Arcs” and Marion Rust’s “What’s Wrong with Charlotte Temple” contribute to your reflections on this topic.

2. You’re also writing a paper on early American periodical culture in this class, so I’d invite you to consider how the serialized version of Sincerity from The Boston Weekly Magazine helps to illuminate your sense of how periodicals work in the Early Republic. What do you learn from seeing the novel in this context that helps you to understand the newspaper that you’re reading from the Early American Newspapers database? What do you learn from that newspaper that helps you to understand what Rowson does here? What does it mean for our study of fiction that so many of these materials are serialized?
Their responses suggested that both the experience of reading Sincerity in relation to Rowson’s career as a whole and the experience of reading it as an example of periodical print culture was important to their understanding of the broader themes of the course. Reading Rust and White helped students to get past vague generalizations about sentimentalism and seduction and to consider how elements of critique that develop in Sincerity may also be nascent in Charlotte Temple. Meanwhile, the second option, when paired with the assignment of tracking an early American newspaper of their choosing using the Readex Early American Newspapers database to which our library at the University of Texas at El Paso subscribes, meant that they had the opportunity to consider Sincerity as part of a print culture in which the boundaries between book and periodical publication are fluid and serialization is common.

My experience in teaching Sincerity reinforced several convictions that I’ve developed in the course of my scholarly work on and teaching of the works of Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe from later in the century. First, when we present authors to students as if they are simply one-hit wonders, and as if every detail of an author’s career can be understood from the one text or cluster of texts that appear in the Norton or Heath anthologies, we do both the students, and, retrospectively, the authors, a considerable disservice. The Rowson who emerges from the sequence of Charlotte Temple, Sincerity, and Lucy Temple is considerably different from the figure we imagine if we limit ourselves to just the canonical Charlotte Temple or even to the Penguin edition combination with Lucy Temple. Second, we are much better off taking into account the circulation of authors and plots across the Atlantic and up and down the Americas than we are simply considering texts that seem to fit nicely within established national narratives. The fact that Sincerity is a novel set in the British isles matters when we consider just what being American means and doesn’t mean for the literary culture of the early republic, and opening Sincerity up to dialogue with novels with Caribbean elements like Secret History or The Woman of Colour: A Tale can enrich our and our students’ understanding of the multiple mobilities that shape early American literature. Bringing this out-of-print volume into my graduate seminar on the early Atlantic novel paid dividends in both the ways that I expected before the semester and through serendipitous conjunctions that I never would have expected before teaching it. I am deeply grateful to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the opportunity to participate in “Just Teach One” and for the work that they point into creating a fine, readily usable edition of Sincerity.

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