Dr. Colin T. Ramsey
Appalachian State University
[Responses by Colin T. Ramsey, with Dana Dunmire, Matthew Staton, Kevin Pyon, Jessica White, Jenna Lewis, Miles Britton, Morgan Pruitt, and Jonathan Wells]
Since I first read David Reynolds’ Beneath the American Renaissance in graduate school, I’ve been interested in the ways that canonized texts were often in dialog with other works now either mostly ignored or all but forgotten. So, when my department’s Master’s level course in nineteenth-century American literature rotates around to me, I often work-up a syllabus designed, in part, to interrogate the processes of canon formation, and to complicate the distinctions between high, middle, and low-brow literature.
My hope is that by including a sampling of both firmly canonized texts, such as (predictably) Moby-Dick, alongside a healthy dose of more recently “recovered” works, I can provide a more fulsome reading experience for students, one that portrays a picture of the literary culture of nineteenth-century America that is richer than the image of a string of great books, each standing alone, in discrete form, that is, inevitably, suggested by modern paperback editions of “classic” texts.
I typically begin with a work from the 1790s, and I decided to begin my fall of 2014 version with the novel Charlotte Temple, a work that is no-doubt familiar to many readers of Common-Place. Fortuitously, just as I was working out the ancillary readings I was going to assign for that week, Duncan Faherty and Ed White’s email invitation to teach the 1796 work “St. Herbert.—A Tale” as part of the “Just Teach One” recovery initiative, came over the SEA’s email list. Intrigued by their description of this genre-defying text, I bit, and added the work to my syllabus.
Teaching “St. Herbert” was also inviting on a personal level: one thing that I find helps keep me fresh in the classroom is to include at least one text that I’ve never taught before, whenever I teach the same course a second or more times. While I’m relatively certain that I’m a better teacher now than I was when I was just starting out, I also find there’s something deeply engaging about teaching works I’ve never done before, and this is even more true of a text that I myself am learning about while I’m teaching it. Being unfamiliar with a work means I’m often just a class session or two ahead of the students, and this helps me to lift off the throttle a bit, to quiet that often insistent internal voice that otherwise says, “you must cover a, and, b, and c… or you’re not doing your job, you know,” that I so often hear when I’m teaching works I know well. “St. Herbert” fit this bill admirably, and my fears about having little to say in way of historical context for the text were eased considerably because I knew I could relay on Duncan and Ed’s always terrific scholarly introductions to help guide me through things.
“St. Herbert” is of course very different from its near contemporary Charlotte Temple. The latter work is clearly a novel: it demonstrably engages the prevailing traditions of the novel in English—the genre’s early epistolary components, its history of seduction plots, many with female protagonists, and its frequent excusing of itself by coupling strongly didactic narrators with cautionary warnings to avoid the hazards that ensnare their characters. But “St. Herbert,” published within just a few years of Charlotte Temple, is, by contrast, a complete mash-up, both generically and narratively.
The work’s subtitle, “a tale,” itself suggests the difficulty in categorizing the text: a work of prose fiction, its publication was too early in time, and its content and characters too diffuse, to generically place the work as short story, but, on the other hand, the work is too brief in length and too limited in scope to be comfortably called a novel. Further complicating the generic form of the work, it was first published serially, originally appearing in over nearly six months worth of the New York Weekly Magazine. Despite all the above, the work’s overt fictiveness and its evocative scene-setting make it clearly a work of the imagination; perhaps, then, we might best think of St. Herbert as being within in the nineteenth-century tradition of “Romance,” but, even so, its plot and tone are rarely consistent—often upsetting even the rather broad generic expectations of Romance.
In any event, the text opens with language and setting that are Romantic; the prose is ripe, even to the point of bruising, “the Sun was verging towards the empurpled horizon, and the evening winds had already unfolded their dewy wings, when the weary Albudor entered the forest, within whose gloomy confines he hoped to find his solitary Caroline, who, fleeing from the rigours (sic) of parental authority, had taken up her residence with an aged nun of Montreal, in this wilderness.”
This adjective-heavy opening scene depicting a lovelorn man in a beautiful natural wood then quickly turns decidedly gothic, however. Albudor immediately stumbles across a dilapidated and overgrown manse, one that is both grand and ghostly, where he meets St. Herbert, a groaning old man who is so physically broken-down by emotional suffering that he has to hold himself up with a cane. St. Herbert then recounts to Albudor, in the first of many nested narratives, his own tale of sorrow—of his love for a woman and the opposition of her uncle to their marriage out of hatred for St. Herbert’s father. In St. Herbert’s story, the aforementioned manse and grounds feature very prominently, first as refuge, then as prison, and then as the tomb of his beloved, Louisa, in turn. That death then prompts deep regret and “melancholy” in her uncle, who reconciles with St. Herbert and, in yet another nested narrative, recounts his bitter feud with St. Herbert’s father, a feud that was itself caused by their competition over love.
But this is no, however, the end of the story. After a brief subplot that focuses yet again on characters whose love has gone awry, the text continues with a final embedded narrative, this time recounted to St. Herbert by a “Cayuga Indian,” Ludono, whom he stumbles across while visiting the grave of his beloved on the grounds of the manse. Ludono regales Herbert with the story of the absolutely horrific death of his entire family, concluding with his witnessing of the “scalped and tomahawked carcasses of my wife and last two little ones.” This combined with all the text’s other many embedded narratives make reading “St. Herbert” feel a bit like opening up a set of Russian matryoshka dolls; each story leads to another a smaller story nested inside, with each narrator and story being distinct, though all are thematically related. One wonders, in fact, when one will actually get to the “core” of the story, just as one wonders how small a matryoshka doll can actually go, until one gets to that last, tiny, but solid, doll. But at the end of “St. Herbert,” one is left unsure what the “core” narrative really is, with the titular character feeling especially inadequate in that regard.
In some ways then, all of the nested plots and narrators, and the distinctly non-linear flow of time that follows from them, made the reading (and teaching) experience of “St. Herbert” a bit, well, perhaps “dissociative” is the right word. Despite the many speakers and their many sorrowful stories, we are left grasping for a character or narrator to whom we can, finally, emotionally identify. Despite all the pathos, my own reading experience was that my sympathies remained largely untouched. Even the horrors experienced by poor Ludono are difficult to really feel much about, one way or the other, occurring as they do at so nearly an instantaneous speed, and since we know so little about Ludono’s life before his tragedy. All Ludono seems to have done to bring about his destruction is to have taken a modicum of pride in the success of his family and crops, which seems hardly deserving of the subsequent total catastrophe and suffering, and this so despite Ludono’s own suggestion that his pride was the cause, that he “exalted [myself] above my tribe” the result of which was that “my glory was of short duration.”
Nevertheless, despite the dissociative reading experience, or perhaps even because of it, the work does certainly have its pleasures, to be sure. “St. Herbert’s” refusal to conform to narrative expectations and its frequently vivid, even painterly prose give the work an almost hallucinatory quality that is very engaging to read, and the text also proved to be a provocative source of very good discussions in class. Prompted by “St. Herbert,” we talked at length about, for instance, the way generic markers can drive reader expectation, about how readers’ identification and/or empathy for characters may, or may not, be necessary for a work to be emotionally or aesthetically pleasurable, about how readers in late 1790s might have experienced the work differently because of its then distinct materiality (reading it serially, holding each issue of the magazine in their hands, etc.), about how our own reading of a carefully edited modern edition creates differing expectations, and about how the depiction of the Native American Ludono had troubling cultural and ideological significance.
To help provide a flavor of these conversations, I asked some of the Master’s students in the class if they would be willing to summarize and write up their thoughts about having read “St. Herbert,” and many agreed. Their responses to the text, along the lines of our discussions as described above, are included here. Many thanks go to them, to Duncan and Ed, and to the AAS and Common-Place for a terrific teaching experience with “St. Herbert.—A Tale.”
“St. Herbert,” Publishing, and Materiality
By Dana Dunmire and Matthew Staton
Our understanding and appreciation of St. Herbert as a kind of pre-canonical work is enhanced through study of The New-York Weekly Magazine and the print culture of the time. As with other magazines and, later, story-paper serials, St. Herbert appeared on the page surrounded by other items. The magazine itself was sentimental and middlebrow but appealed to American aspirations under the humble masthead motto UTILE DOLCE: “useful and agreeable”; its contents ranged from literary items (including translated European works) to opinions and advice, anecdotes about famous people, and puzzles (the solutions were the names of eligible young New Yorkers). Reading St. Herbert in this context during its original run in 1796 would no doubt have worked to the benefit of the story and its pacing. As has been noted already, characters in St. Herbert are “constantly wasting away from melancholy” (Faherty 1, emphasis added). The 18th century audience would have had a week’s interval between installments to appreciate the sentiment-heavy narrative with its neat boxed structure (story-within-story) and to cleanse the palette by perusing the other items in the periodical; however, the pace of the narrative is increased exponentially in its collected form, and the constant wasting away is easier to notice and criticize.
The Native American Mystic Job in “St. Herbert”
By Kevin Pyon and Jessica White
A first reading of St. Herbert’s encounters with the Cayuga Indian presents to the reader a clichéd portrayal of the “mystic” Native American. His belief in the pantheistic “Great Spirit” who governs all of Nature and humanity and his flowery diction serve to reinforce in readers (perhaps both then and now) stereotypical conceptions of Native Americans perpetuated in other stories and mediums. Interestingly, his sorrows initially liken him to the Biblical Job; nevertheless, his lesson to Herbert about “the man of gratitude” being the “only happy man” elucidates nothing about the contentious realities of the US history of race relations.
The “Good Indian” in “St. Herbert”
By Jenna Lewis
St. Herbert—A Tale reinforces the essentialist misrepresentation of Native Americans as a romantic people. The “Cayugo” Indian Ludono exemplifies stereo-typical characteristics commonly associated with Native Americans: he is a mystic with visions, a wise sage who serves as a spiritual guide to St. Herbert, and a colorful representative of a “vanishing” race. St. Herbert describes him as a “good Indian” (28), who perceives the cruelties of life, such as the murders of his wife and children, as an opportunity to learn a moral about giving to others. Unfortunately, in the ideological framework of the tale, Ludono is only a “good Indian” because he refuses to retaliate against his enemies, blames himself for his bereavement and loss of land, and, of course, because dies, basically without putting up a fight against the injustice he’s suffered. But why elaborate on this absurd portrayal of an American Indian? After all, as the titular character, St. Herbert’s sufferings are far more unbearable…right?
The Gothic “Roller Coaster” and a (Somewhat Thwarted) Reader-Response to “St. Herbert”
By Miles Britton
For the first few pages of St. Herbert—A Tale, I was convinced I was starting on the path of a traditional Gothic narrative, set in America, a narrative extremely similar in both style and content to much of British Gothic literature. The opening scenes very much play out along the familiar lines of a Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe novel. I just kept wondering when the ghosts were going to finally show up. But they never do, and the tale veers from the Gothic into any number of wildly different literary directions. Overall, the novella is an intriguing patchwork of multiple literary forms, making it a fascinating and rather unconventional roller coaster ride for the reader.
“St. Herbert” and the Reading Experience: Its Discontents and Pleasures
By Morgan Pruitt and Jonathan Wells
Readers of St. Herbert.—A Tale might find the plot of the narrative to be repetitive—multiple characters die from overpowering emotions—and a little less than captivating. However, “St. Herbert” has many interesting qualities that make it an engaging text to analyze. Such qualities, including its descriptive rhetoric and its use of Gothic conventions, invite readers to engage with the text and perhaps to even enjoy the melodramatic adventures of St. Herbert.