It’s Great Upstate: Teaching St. Herbert in Rural New York

Megan Walsh

St. Bonaventure University

St. Herbert (1796) is a short novel about a group of people who visit and live in a remote part of rural upstate New York. Many of them learn important life lessons while there, and often enough, also find romantic love. St. Bonaventure University is a small liberal-arts focused school in a remote part of rural upstate New York. Students come there for education and, if alumni reunions are representative, regularly leave having found lasting romantic relationships. A central character in St. Herbert finds the freedom to practice her newfound Catholicism in the novel’s rural setting; the character names St. Herbert and Julius Cuthbert seem to allude to famous Catholic hermits. Franciscan friars founded St. Bonaventure in the 1850s to provide education and religion to a nearby oil town built a few years earlier. The people who visit George St. Herbert at home are generally from New York City, although a few are country folk. At St. Bonaventure, most students are from the metropolitan areas of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and New York City, but there are also some from the small villages and dairy farms that lie in between these urban hubs.

For me, it was hard not to see the appeal of teaching St. Herbert at St. Bonaventure. I read St. Herbert through Just Teach One just as I was putting the final touches on my American Literature I survey course for the Fall 2014 semester. I included the novel on my syllabus in order to enrich students’ understanding of early America, give them a chance to read another novel in a course that usually only includes one, and help them to see similarities between themselves and readers and writers from the past.

St. Herbert is a novel of New York State. From Ludono’s trek that neatly maps the political geography of the state through references to its topography and natural landmarks to the novel’s suggestions that St. Herbert lives somewhere between New York City and Montreal, the novel is an early participant in the upstate/downstate divide that is now deeply embedded in New Yorkers’ views of where they live. St. Bonaventure, still remote a century and a half after its founding, is, I felt, a pretty fair approximation of 1790s isolation for modern readers.

Encouraging students to connect with St. Herbert through their own experiences at St. Bonaventure, I designed a short writing assignment that asked them to select a character and explain how that character grows from spending time in the secluded rural setting of the novel. When we first read through the assignment in class, several of the students declared it impossible. Everybody dies in St. Herbert, and thus there could be no upside to going upstate, was the consensus. It is a melancholy text, to be sure, but I wanted students to think about how incidents of deep sadness in the novel are also generative and productive for its characters. I assured my class that it was not at all unusual for many characters, especially lovesick ones, to pass away in early American novels, and I asked them to think about what the characters in St. Herbert gain or learn before meeting their ends.

When students handed in their assignments and we discussed what they had written in class, I was surprised at the variety of responses. Predictably, many students focused on the novel’s young women. Some declared Louisa’s happy months with St. Herbert away from her domineering uncle Maurisson the novel’s bright spot. Others claimed the younger Louisa (who we dubbed “Lil’ Louisa” in class) is freer to practice her newly acquired Catholic faith upstate than in the city. A few wrote about Ludono’s friendship with St. Herbert. One wrote about how Maurisson overcomes his anger and self-centeredness, but only after returning to the house in the woods years after building it. As a clearly demarcated location away from the city but not so distant that it is impossible to access, the setting of St. Herbert, our class concluded, provides a safe space for characters who want to try out new beliefs, friendships, and attractions.

Many thanks to Ed and Duncan for providing this wonderful novel that my class found both engaging and a unique opportunity for self-reflection.

 

 

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