I taught St. Herbert in my ENG 235 American Literature I course, a sophomore-level course taken primarily by students to fulfill the general education literature requirement, though there are normally a couple of English majors in each 35-person class.
This past semester, I used St. Herbert as the primary text for an assignment that calls on groups of about three students to give presentations to the class in which they make connections (thematic, structural, linguistic, cultural, etc.) between the assigned text—St. Herbert in this case—and either any of the other assigned texts, genres, movements, or themes from the semester or any contemporary text or current event. Their presentations must have a thesis or main point, must make specific references to the text(s), and should be between five and ten minutes long. The assignment falls towards the end of the semester so that students can draw from what they have learned over the past few months.
I normally use for this assignment eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poems and stories that are not anthologized and that I can safely presume that none of the students has been required to read in a high school English class. The texts for this assignment are the kinds of finds that early Americanists make by going down rabbit holes they discover when browsing through the Evans Early American Imprints. I want students to do original analysis of the text without the ability to find much, if any, commentary about the text online. Basically, the goal is to get the students to closely read and analyze the text. There is no lecturing or class discussion about the text prior to the group presentations.
Student reaction to St. Herbert was mixed, which, in a sophomore survey class, can be said about most items on the reading list. There are always some students who, when they do this assignment, enjoy the fact that they are working with an obscure text that not many American college students will read. An especially rollicking presentation by a group of students who really embraced the assignment called St. Herbert “a random and cray cray love story of early America” and proceeded to draw quite a few thoughtful connections between the romantic relationships in St. Herbert and those from recent movies.
One group discussed the gothic elements of the story—the lonely castle, the separation of St. Herbert from Louisa and their isolated imprisonments within the castle. Another group, taking its cue from Duncan Faherty and Ed White’s introductory essay, compared Ludono, the Native American character in St. Herbert, with the historical Logan. Yet another group looked at the theme of loss that runs throughout the story—loss of innocence, loss of happiness, loss of choice, loss of inheritance, of time, of words, of companionship, and so forth. Of course, some groups are less academically rigorous than these. And despite my pleas and warnings about merely summarizing the assigned text and failing to analyze it, there is always a group or two that just can’t seem to help themselves and do nothing but offer a broad overview of the story.
I noticed an attitude toward St. Herbert this semester that I’ve noticed before when students in previous classes were asked to engage an unknown text. It’s as if the absences of the “right answer” and the accepted reasons for why the text is important, according to Sparknotes or a Norton anthology, free the students to come up with their own interpretations and assessments of the text. Other students, however, are unhappy that there are no easily accessible online study guides or Wikipedia plot summaries, which is, of course, why I like to use lesser known texts like St. Herbert for the assignment. These students’ presentations tend to reflect their frustration with the text (be it a sincere struggle to comprehend the story or a lack of effort to do so). Chances are pretty good, then, that St. Herbert will be in the rotation to be used again for this assignment.