St. Herbert as an Introduction to Early U.S. Fiction

Laurel V. Hankins

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

I incorporated St. Herbert into a 13-student senior seminar. The topic of the seminar was Early U.S. Gothic Fiction, 1780-1860. We spent our first class discussing excerpts from J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, but St. Herbert was the first text of the semester to receive a full 150-minute discussion. Each class meeting half of the students gave short presentations and the other half served as respondents. St. Herbert proved to be an excellent text to introduce students to some major themes of early national fiction. St. Herbert became a familiar touchstone for the class, and students continued to refer to it throughout the semester. Two students wrote about St. Herbert in their final papers.

Because this text occurred so early in the semester, much of our discussion was spent thinking about what characterizes early American Gothic novels. Students also read an excerpt from Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word; this was a very useful pairing and provided students with enough information to have an informed but not overly-determined conversation. Several students started their presentations by asking “what is Gothic about this text?” and “what is American about this text?” These questions led to more refined questions: Has the gloomy castle of Gothic novels lost its power in this New World landscape? Does Maurisson’s failed plan to imprison St. Herbert’s mother and the final happy marriage between Albudor and Caroline suggest that the new republic has left behind the tyrannical patriarchs of the Gothic genre? As one student noted, the isolated mansion is at least as much a site of comfort as it is a site of terror.

Students were also interested in complicating these neat readings of national progress. One student opened her presentation by asking what we make of the fact that the final couple’s happiness is a result of three previous generations’ fatal unhappiness. Do Maurisson, Maurisson’s mother and sisters, St. Herbert, Julius, Louisa I, Louisa II, and Ludono haunt the novel’s conclusion? This thread also led to a conversation about the stability of sympathetic attachment in the early republic. Students were initially intrigued by the emotional excess that characterizes the men in the novel—this allowed us to address early Republican theories about sympathy and social cohesion. If affectionate marriage represents consensual citizenship, does the novel suggest that although the new republic has triumphed over villainous aristocrats, it remains vulnerable to individual citizens’ erratic emotions? The novel criticizes non-consensual marriages, but also seems anxious about the uncontrollable attachments that supplement consensual marriages. Are the suicidal lovers and tyrannical parents in St. Herbert exceptional object lessons or representative of larger social conditions? One student noted that at times the characters seem to be their own worst enemies. This conversation circled around the question of the true ‘villain’ in the novel: social conditions or flawed individuals. This line of inquiry nicely anticipated our next text, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, and its preoccupation with motivations and intentions.

Eventually the class started questioning these didactic and allegorical readings of the novel. If affectionate marriage is a model for citizenship, does the novel express anxiety about the expectation that private desire should correspond to public duty? We spent some time thinking about the mansion as a space of marital deferral—does the novel criticize early republican attempts to institutionalize feeling? Has the Gothic mansion become a space of retreat from oppressive social convention? One student, wondering if the tyrannical parents in this novel represent Old World kings or New World republicans, found Davidson especially helpful here.

The novel’s brief mention of a “rich young Carolinian heiress” also allowed us to do some prep work for later conversations about Gothic representations of the South, work that had started the week before with Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. Through characters’ movements between New York City and the wilderness, St. Herbert also continued Crèvecoeur’s anxiety about the effects of isolation and sociability. This discussion led to the function of Ludono: does the romantic fantasy of the Vanishing American attempt to domesticate the novel’s Gothic elements into a tidy moral about “gratitude, fortitude, and usefulness” (28)? What traits does Ludono’s character allow the novel to appropriate as specifically American? How does this act of appropriation depend on his death? This conversation led to one student’s final paper comparing St. Herbert to Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok.

I was fortunate to be able to experiment with St. Herbert in a small senior seminar, but the students’ immediately productive response to the text also suggests it would be helpful in a larger introductory class. The text’s manageable length and the eminently teachable PDF Duncan and Ed have produced make it an easy substitute for a longer, more-frequently taught early American novel and might actually free up room in the syllabus for an additional text. One topic my seminar only briefly touched upon was St. Herbert’s initial serial format; I imagine that the Just Teach One Project’s upcoming endeavor with The Columbia Magazine will help us develop effective strategies for teaching the rich periodical culture that contextualizes many early novels.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *