What We Can Learn from Old Books

Julie Voss

Lenoir-Rhyne University

I included St. Herbert in an undergraduate course entitled “Early American Literature,” which spans from the Colonial period to 1820 (though, in this semester, we didn’t read anything later than 1800).  We read St. Herbert at the end of the semester, after a sampling of Colonial and Early National texts and, particularly, after three other novels: The Power of Sympathy, Charlotte Temple, and Wieland.  I placed the text on the syllabus before reading it myself, and I committed my class to offering a presentation related to the novella for our university convocation program.

In our initial discussion of St. Herbert, my students wondered what we were going to do with this text.  When I pointed out that the novel’s being published more than once suggested it was well-received, one student asked, “Why?”  And, indeed, in comparison to other readings from the semester, St. Herbert didn’t seem to offer much to explore.  However, because we were committed to a public presentation, we had to push ourselves to think about what we could do with this text and, more specifically, what we could share with a general audience that would be worth their time and attention.  In pursuing this discussion, my students found that there was much more to St. Herbert than they had initially thought, and we put together a public presentation entitled “What We Can Learn from Old Books” which, in our minds, was subtitled, “Or, Why Bother Reading St. Herbert.”

After some discussion, the students divided their work into three topics: why books get “lost,” what the novella tells us about entertainment then compared to now, and what message it offered to its original readers and what message it (maybe) offers to today’s readers.  Students in the first group explored the problem of an unknown (and female) author, the limitations of magazine publication, and the impact of potentially unpopular themes.  The second group looked at the proliferation of characters, the complexity of the layered plot structure, and the number of “coincidences” involved in the plot—which they saw as mostly at odds with modern readers’ (or viewers’) preferences for stories.  And the third group looked at the family relationships in the novella, particularly at the parent-child conflicts over companionate marriage, which offered an interesting contrast to Charlotte Temple.

In the end, my students put together an informative and interesting presentation, sharing with their peers some of what they found amusing in reading this text (A gothic castle in New York?  Really?  And it just happens to be owned by Louisa’s uncle?) and, more importantly, sharing some of what they learn from reading old texts—or reading anything, for that matter.  Although none of them will put St. Herbert high on a list of recommended texts, this experience reinforced for many of them the rewards of digging deeply into literature—even texts that don’t, at first read, grab their attention.


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