Into the Woods

Maria A. Windell

University of Colorado, Boulder

The call for this edition of the “Just Teach One” series went out as I was finalizing an “American Novel” syllabus, which was set to open with Charlotte Temple, Wieland, and The Last of the Mohicans. There was nothing too shocking in this framing, which would ask students to think about genre and the tensions between nation’s matriarchal and patriarchal founding literary narratives. But the “Just Teach One” text St. Herbert, A Tale sounded like a perfect bridge from Rowson to Brown and Cooper: a gothic-sentimental novella with an isolated sylvan setting, about “generational tensions surrounding the issue of companionate marriage,” and featuring “an extended portrait of an elderly Cayuga man likely modeled on Logan”? Yes, please! My intention was to use the novella to link questions of sentiment, consent, and companionate marriage to the nation’s gothic (and) American Indian landscapes.

In part because I was using the novella to set the stage for Wieland and The Last of the Mohicans and in part because I wanted to give the students some context for thinking about the character of Ludono, I opened our class on St. Herbert with a brief lecture on the Logan figure in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. The students wanted to talk about Ludono—but they were most interested in how his and St. Herbert’s narratives gothicize and re-gender the emotional excesses of Charlotte Temple’s sentimentalism. (In the future I would love to teach “Anna’s” novella in a transatlantic sentimentalism class, where it could be placed alongside not only Charlotte Temple and The Coquette but also Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling.) My students particularly emphasized St. Herbert’s lack of control (emotionally and patriarchally), Maurisson’s repentance, and Julius’s suicide.

As with other “Just Teach One” texts, the novella also raises questions of filial piety. My students argued that if the “lesson” of Charlotte Temple is for “the young and thoughtless of the fair sex”—to avoid seduction—then the “lesson” of St. Herbert regards parental guidance. In the novella, they observed, parental guidance and interference go equally awry; the narrative shows that parental strictness leads to misunderstandings and unnecessary tragedy. Some students argued that St. Herbert should simply have listened to his father from the start, but the class also noted what vastly different fates befell men (as opposed to women) who refused to heed a parent’s advice.

Following our discussion students had two further opportunities to engage with St. Herbert: in the first paper and during the final essay exam. The portion of the exam including St. Herbert was a passage identification requiring a paragraph explication. As our class meeting had focused on questions of filial piety, I provided students with the scene in which St. Herbert initially resists his father’s request to marry “the fair daughter of [his] friend Bentley” (7). Many emphasized this scene as continuous with the sentimentalism of Charlotte Temple; some went another step, noting the issue of consent in the early Republic.

The papers were, for me, the most interesting aspect of this project. Only a handful of students decided to take on St. Herbert, but those who did took intriguing approaches. One traced a series of binaries through the novella: wild/civilized, young/old, bliss/melancholy. She argued that these binaries become more and more difficult to deconstruct as the characters in the novella move away from the city and into the New York woods. Another student took up the idea of Ludono as a representative of American Indian culture in the narrative, pairing St. Herbert with The Last of the Mohicans to argue that both texts engage in the discourse of the noble savage to validate colonization of the Americas: Ludono, like the Mohicans of Cooper’s novel, is a worthy companion because he would have been a worthy adversary, and though he has been “tamed” by his grief he shares his knowledge “from nature” with St. Herbert.

Both of these papers offer possible models for future class discussions on St. Herbert. The second in particular suggests that discussions on the novella might be most fruitful were students to read it after both Charlotte Temple and The Last of the Mohicans; if and when I teach this set of texts again I will reorder the syllabus to allow for this. Even as a bridge between Rowson’s and Cooper’s novels, the text was great fun to teach and my students did a great job talking about it.


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