“Not Even New York Was Enough to Lighten Her Mood”: Teaching St. Herbert in Brooklyn

Caroline Chamberlin Hellman

City Tech, City University of New York

I taught St. Herbert—A Tale in an American literature survey (beginnings-Civil War). Embarking with a discussion of the Lenape alongside Eric Sanderson’s miraculous Mannahatta project and concluding with Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, the class covered vast territory. As City Tech is located in Brooklyn, I tend to make the curriculum a bit more New York-centric than I might elsewhere. Our class studied Jacob Steendam’s “Spurring Verses,” one of the earliest real estate advertisements for New Amsterdam; visited the Brooklyn Historical Society to learn more about the early denizens of the borough, then the town of Breuckelen;  and paid homage to Walt Whitman at the site of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The way the syllabus shook out, St. Herbert was bracketed on one side by an excerpt from Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and the Declaration of Independence (initial and revised drafts), and on the other by Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. These works served as fairly fruitful bookends: students learned about the significance of printing and the periodical press through Franklin before experiencing an actual serial work;[1] the class had sentiment on the brain after the breakup rationale of the Declaration; and the mythic, fairytale-rendered setting of the Hudson Valley proved easier to comprehend after reading about St. Herbert’s sublime western New York landscape.

The students responded sympathetically to the text. Nickolas Calnek-Duffy noted that the author explored “extreme forms of devotion and love” and Youssef Baroud observed, “the story made you really feel for St. Herbert: the number of times he had to deal with horrible situations, and his decision to live the rest of his life in solitude.” Considering the connections between setting and sentiment, Justin Santiago pointed out that “even the New York attractions weren’t enough to lighten Louisa’s mood.” Mr. Santiago concluded, given the captivating story development, that he understood why people looked forward to the latest editions of newspapers and magazines.

As is often the case, the readings in the course corresponded with contemporary goings-on, with some events across the United States and some quite local. Suddenly, the tenets of Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, along with The North Star’s motto, “”Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren”—were all around them in the news, along with the usual opposing viewpoints, some little changed from the nineteenth century, it seemed. As for St. Herbert, the class and their professor (a later Caroline) concurred that love and loss, whether in the context of a ruined castle in a dark forest in western New York or on a 21st-century Bronx street, were also ephemeral.

[1] A serendipitous copy error led to students initially receiving pages 1-29 of the text, which meant that Caroline and Albudor’s reunion was not part of the text and was presented the following class. In the meantime, I sent an email explaining that a most worthwhile conclusion to the story was yet to come; students thus got a taste of serialization, however unplanned.

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