University of Colorado Denver
I taught St. Herbert this past fall in an upper division survey course: American Literature to the Civil War. The course proceeded roughly chronologically, and so we read the novella shortly after covering works such as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. It was a wonderful and productive addition to the syllabus. First, because it originally appeared in The New-York Weekly Magazine, St. Herbert allowed the class to talk about the phenomenon of serialization and the role that newspapers played in the emerging republic (something already touched upon in conjunction with Franklin’s Autobiography). The fact that the novella’s authorship is hazy—the author is identified only as “Anna”—allowed us to discuss the conventions and risks associated with publishing in early America, especially for women.
Initially, my students were a bit frustrated by the elaborate framing mechanism and by the repeating subplots that St. Herbert employs. Moreover, they were deeply dubious about the many characters (usually men) that die from broken hearts. But this ultimately led to an interesting conversation about late eighteenth-century literary conventions and in particular the “man of feeling” popularized by Mackenzie’s novel by the same name and typified further by Goethe’s Werther. St. Herbert’s male protagonists are cut from the same cloth—they, too, seem to value sensibility for its own sake and engage in gushing displays of emotion. This discussion was particularly helpful because it tempered students’ understanding of Republican America as a period marked by the Enlightenment values of scientific rationality and controlled civic discourse. St. Herbert, in other words, worked as an effective foil to the founding documents of American literature and literary history—an alternative to the pragmatic reasoning of Franklin, Jefferson, and even Wheatley. It provided a fuller picture of late eighteenth-century literary America, one that established transnational connections to both German Idealism and the English seduction novel. St. Herbert also set the stage for the gothic tales and sentimental literature that we took up later in the semester.
Finally, the novella led to an excellent conversation about canon formation. No student had ever heard of St. Herbert, and most were surprised to learn that American literature is made up of scores of lost and forgotten texts that were hugely popular in their own day. That these texts are becoming increasingly available through web-based initiatives like the Just Teach One project was also a surprise, since most of my students are used to thinking about older American literature in terms of scholarly editions, not the internet. For many of my students, then, the discussion was fruitful both for its insights into late eighteenth-century America and for what it revealed about academic publishing today.
Many thanks to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the invitation to participate in the Just Teach One project and for their excellent edition of St. Herbert.