Northern Illinois University
St. Hebert was one of the few fiction selections on my syllabus this semester and it worked well for introducing students to important conventions of 1790s fiction and the critical conversations about those conventions.
I began our discussion by pointing out, alà Jane Tompkins, how early American fiction has long been critically neglected as too British, too sentimental, or just not “good.” In the typical classroom, the study of early American fiction has been relegated to a few now canonical texts. Discussing the objectives of the Just Teach One project enabled students to have some sense of why issues of canonicity matter. They were generally enthusiastic about being in the vanguard for this cutting-edge pedagogical project and eager to discuss the politics of text selection in literature anthologies—a point that I find Just Teach One makes real for them.
St. Herbert is a love story complete with a companionate marriage, disapproving sets of parents (who were once rivals in love themselves), and several interconnected plots that open up generations of reflection on family strife, mourning, and coping with loss. The initially serialized publication begins with a frame story: a young man named Albudor is searching for his lover, Caroline, when he discovers a gothic-style castle hidden away in upstate New York. To his surprise, the castle is occupied by an elderly man, George St. Herbert, and his small staff of servants. In melancholy fashion St. Herbert reveals his complicated story of loss as a kind of warning to Albudor, whom it seems—like St. Herbert—has arranged to elope with his lover (although the novel’s conclusion complicates this initial assumption).
In class we discussed some of the conventions of sentiment and gothic writing and we considered how and why St. Herbert employs those conventions. Why, for instance, the gloomy castle in New York? Why does the novel introduce story after story of suffering and loss? We debated the charge that early American novels were too British (did this story really need a castle?) and what newly national Americans might have been trying to accomplish by building their own castles or including them in fiction.
We also took up the question of national loss via Julia Stern’s work on mourning and melancholia in 1790s US fiction. As Stern argues, these themes are a means of reconciling the fear, confusion, and loss following the break with Great Britain after the American Revolution, but they also express the subsequent disappointment over shortcomings in American freedom for those excluded from citizenship. This discussion was particularly helpful for beginning to understand the Cayuga Indian character, Ludano. Ludano urges St. Hebert to carry on in the face of adversity; and unlike his real life model, Logan, he never charges white Americans with racially-motivated criminal action that results in his personal misfortune. What does the text accomplish by invoking Logan and removing all of his anger? Although we were running short on time, this was a productive discussion coming out of an earlier unit on Indian Removal where we had spent several days studying Black Hawk’s Life. It was obvious to my students how the novel had removed all the possibility of settler colonial guilt by significantly changing Logan’s story of loss into a “teachable moment” for St. Herbert.
My students had very little contact with serial publication and were quite interested in learning more about early American magazines, their readers, and serial publishing. I could imagine teaching St. Herbert in a unit on early American periodicals and exploring some of the issues of The New York Weekly Magazine in which it appeared. Given some guidance and a good dose of Jared Gardner’s The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, this might also be a fruitful research assignment for students to investigate on their own.
In short, I found the experience of teaching St. Herbert to be particularly productive and I once again applaud Duncan and Ed for another judicious text selection.
Elmer, Jonathan. On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Gardner, Jared. The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Stern, Julia. The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.