Early American Literature in the Secondary Curriculum
by Seth Van Horne and Alexa Garvoille
In a time of growing emphasis on standards-oriented education, when teachers post competency goals in classrooms and students gain enumerated skills, English teachers increase their dedication to the state standards, especially when confronted with high-stakes testing and administrators looking to cut positions. These curricular documents, sometimes centuries in the making, represent to educators the ideals of knowledge paired with the rudiments of implementation. Sometimes, though, the standards can wear away at creativity and discovery, leaving departments with worn copies of inaccessible classics that they continue to teach year after year. However, close examination of the standards exposes occasional oversights that lead to innovative opportunities to set the curriculum right. Based on our experiences teaching American literature courses in North Carolina high schools, we believe the addition of a non-canonical novel popular in late 18th century America offers an opportunity to discuss in a new way what it means to be American, as well as addressing a curricular deficiency.
The early novels of America lend themselves to exploration of how literature and education can or should influence life decisions, as they strived to form the common opinions of the new republic. By discussing the goals of literacy in early America, students can question the goals of their own schooling, thus creating what Paulo Freire calls a “problem-posing education” (1970). In addition, students can use the novels as a springboard to evaluate of the morals expressed in the media that surrounds them. Pairing narratives produced during the boom of printing technology and those during the boom of digital technology allows students to engage in historical discussions and critique their own world. By teaching early American fiction, educators can bring character education into the classroom without imposing a set ideology on the students.
A 2003 report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies stated that, in order to engage students in urban environments, schools needed to offer “Relationships, Rigor, and Relevance” (Stipeck). At first glance, using two hundred year-old novels in order to foster relevance and relationships seems unlikely if not impossible. Yet, because they allows for investigation of the disempowered, questioning authority, and discuss literary communities, the parallels between the first years of the American republic and today offer the perfect opportunity to connect to and engage students.
Using the North Carolina Standard Course of Study (NC SCS) as a guide, we will examine how the traditional American Literature reading list misinterprets North Carolina content standards on “Colonial Literature.” We will then propose that the addition of an early American novel to the curriculum would both address the content gap and fulfill competency goals. Contrasting the current SCS with North Carolina’s original 1898 Course of Study reframes the curriculum through the new three Rs. In this article we will provide our readers with a background on the historical relationship between literature and the emerging republic, arguments for the relevance of this study in the classroom, and practical suggestions for implementation of two sample texts in high school English.
The pros and cons of incorporating an early American novel into the curriculum vary. We acknowledge that it takes valuable teacher time to invest in original research, including gathering primary source documents. Creating new units is always difficult, as it should be. However we hope this overview of the subject and examples provided should alleviate much of this stress. In order to justify the use of these novels to administrators and parents, teachers need only cite the relevance of the skills each reading can produce. These novels offer a fruitful dichotomy to explore by putting forward moral warnings alongside lascivious narration. They also allow students to practice deciphering the moral messages of different works of literature and media. As objects of advertising campaigns, targeted by corporations, affiliations, friends, and lifestyles, 21st century students need the ability to evaluate didactic messages both in and out of the classroom.
While time and tradition may work against curricular change, our students benefit from studying little-known works. Unable to look up summaries or purchase essays online, not faced with the same canonical fear of “getting it,” students can engage more authentically with the texts. In addition, the discussion of didacticism in reading, media, and education requires students to use higher-level thinking in the form of critique. As juniors in high school, students in the American Literature classroom are also developmentally prepared to use abstract thought to evaluate the texts before them. Examining these early works in public schools would offer English teachers and their students numerous advantages: curriculum integration between English and history departments (NC DPI xi), high-interest readings for students, and, of course, the ability to evaluate the didactic media of their own world. With little effort, teachers can create units that simultaneously include NCTE (National Council for the Teachers of English) and statewide standards and invite students to explore their inner selves and the world around them.
Including the Missing Texts: Standards and The 3 Rs
The content of the current North Carolina Standard Course of Study (2004) is based largely on the western canon and illustrates a world concept centuries of educators wished to communicate to citizens. Regardless of the contemporary English teacher’s goals, the contemporary English teacher’s reading lists reveal a set of moral lessons for Americans. Though educators are so often concerned with beginnings and foundations (the first president, the first great novelist, the Constitution), English teachers have failed to adequately address the beginnings of American literature. While Hannah Webster Foster, Susanna Rowson, and William Hill Brown are unfamiliar to many high school English teachers, those names tell as much about the foundations of America as the familiar tones of Cooper, Emerson, or Hawthorne. Writing at a time when national identity was taking shape in congress, revolutionary-period writers had their own national duties to fellow citizens. Novels provided readers with entertainment, but also sought to define the ideals of an emerging nation. While authors wrote sensationalist narratives replete with sex and murder to attract the interest of the reading public, publishers linked their profession with that of the legislators to promote the books as didactic tracts that would form the moral character of the country. Such a contradiction offers students a rich territory for critical debate (Competency Goal 4.03: “Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents.” NC DPI 111).
However, as of a 2002 survey of high school English teachers (Appendix), the typical North Carolina classroom addresses none of these early novels. The English III competency goals require that learners “[evaluate] the literary merit and/or historical significance of a work from Colonial Literature, the Romantic Era, Realism, the Modern Era, and Contemporary Literature” (Competency Goal 5.01, SCS 112). While this list of five eras seems to exempt the period between 1776 and 1820, “colonial literature” should encompass early American and revolutionary texts. Yet, upon examining the list of titles commonly used to fulfill these standards, not one example of colonial fiction appears (Appendix). The list incorporates numerous documents of the founding fathers, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, and even the letters of Abigail and John Adams; however, not one single work of “colonial” or “early” fiction makes its way into the classroom.
Partly, this omission could be explained based on terminology: “colonial” often calls to mind 17th century Puritans, for instance Jonathan Edwards (whose sermons are included on the list). “Literature” in terms of fiction was practically nonexistent with the Puritans, for whom “literature” was constrained to the bible, sermons, and religious tracts. By the early 18th century, laws forbade book hawkers selling chapbooks of stories from peddling their wares in Massachusetts (Davidson 41). The mid- to late-18th century brought the growth of cultural centers like Philadelphia and Boston, which created more diverse literary communities. In this way “colonial literature” in the colloquial sense of Puritan fiction is an oxymoron. Therefore, we extend our search for early American literature into the revolutionary period.
North Carolina teachers’ attempts at addressing this oversight have been inadequate. Our district, Durham County, requires English III classrooms study either The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible early in the school year; it seems the “Colonial Literature” requirement is being filled by revisionist historical fictions, written in 1850 and 1953, respectively, centuries distant from the period they depict. While both texts offer exemplary insights into colonial life, especially when paired with historical background, students need to “examine and explain how culture influences language” (Competency Goal 2.02, NC DPI 108) contemporaneously, not merely in retrospect. Historical knowledge has a central place in the English III curriculum, but exposing students to the distinctive style of early Americans authors adds a level of rigor to language study.
Not only do the authors use advanced vocabulary and a complex (and dated) syntax but, more importantly, they reflect the culture around them. Students may track how the author’s style implies the gender or class of the readers. The narrator of Susanna Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple, for example, addresses the reader as “he” “my dear sober matron,” and “oh my dear girls,” (Rowson 58, 59, 60). Considering the variety of readers described, students may debate the author’s reasons for including such references and who the intended reader truly was (or was not) (Competency Goal 4.04, “[identify] and [analyze] elements of critical environment found in text in light of purpose, audience, and context,” 112). Students may also critique what the use of language in addressing a particular audience implies about that class of people. If Charlotte Temple is, indeed, “for the perusal…of the fair sex,” students may consider how its contents reveal assumptions about women (Rowson 35). The novels, particularly those written in epistolary or confessional form, often use conversational language, which offers an even more authentic view into linguistics of the time. On a broader level, students may imagine how their own language in conversation, notes, emails, and texts implies an audience and a culture through its syntax, diction, and content. Instead of drumming literary conventions into students year after year, teachers should jump at the chance to offer a novel that challenges the language patterns to which they are already accustomed.
The literature is more than rigorous: it is engaging. Before reality television, there was the early American novel. Purportedly true tales of murder, seduction, and social disgrace filled these compact narratives which excited the sensibilities of 18th century readers. Viewers today follow televised ritual humiliation and cinematic tales of betrayal and retribution for the same reasons. Like the video game or social networking system of the present, in early America, the novel was the new, risqué medium, sweeping the nation through the combined innovations in printing and the establishment of the lending library. Yet high school students do not study the time in American literature when the novel began its meteoric rise, filling libraries and salons, falling into the hands of not only ladies but also men, maids, and menial laborers (Davidson 28). We protest not on the scale of a special interest group lobbying for the inclusion of a book on a list, but as teachers looking for new ways to engage and challenge our students. The rise of the novel in America, along with the disdainful remarks of our forefathers on the genre, provides teachers with a fascinating parallel to our own times that we should exploit.
Books are not only texts which allow interplay between writer and reader, but are also products. Students must learn to see communication, not only books but movies, games, commercials, songs and emails, as products designed and marketed to specific readerships. By discussing the history of the novel in the United States, teachers can not only create interdisciplinary connections but can help their students develop awareness of themselves as producers and consumers of information. American literacy, which developed alongside the popularity of the novel, provides an additional historical connection. Examining the goals of the novel with those of early education allows students to relate their own academic experience to both those presented (or omitted) in the fictions and in the primary source pedagogical documents. In the following section we aim to provide a few examples from the development of the novel and education in America and demonstrate the novels’ relevance to classroom implementation.
The Novel as Product
Novels in America at the time of the revolution were as much products of the publishers as they were of the authors (Davidson 79). Most books in the United States before the revolution were imports. Trade slowed to a standstill during the Revolution, giving American publishers a window in which to establish their own market before trade re-opened at the close of the war. Still, printers had to import most of their supplies and content from England (74). In this competitive market, publishers took a huge risk whenever they had to publish anything new. This was particularly true of fiction, which had to compete with centuries of (pirated) British texts. The costs of printing, combined with the risks involved, meant that most American publishers produced books for a small, local market (76). Since they were taking the majority of the risks, knew their clientele and controlled the means of production, publishers had to act as editors, publicity agents and producers all at once.
Relaying facts about the development of the novel as a historical reality not only provides context for students but invites a slew of critical activities. The NCTE calls for “Students to adjust their use of spoken, written and visual language (e.g. conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate with a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes.” Those same standards call for students to “to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace” (National Council 3). Students analyzing early American book markets consider how publishers adjusted and chose texts to suit their audiences based on those workplace demands. Publishers had to chose new novels and determine how to advertise them. This sets up the analysis of audiences to help teach students to modify their own writing and does so in a realistic context.
Due to the competition and the difficulties of printing, most people in the late eighteenth century could not afford to buy books. In Revolution and the Word Cathy Davidson writes that a carpenter in 1800 would make $1 a day, but a novel would cost between $.75 and $1.50, and an unskilled laborer would be giving up two days wages (85). Books, in short, were a luxury most people could not afford. Yet afford them they did, by joining lending libraries. These libraries worked through subscriptions, each member contributing and then able to borrow books from them (88). As such, libraries became the number one source of books for most readers. Due to popular demand, most of these books were novels (89).
Discussing the economics of the novel also invites discussion of modern economic issues. The first copyright laws protected publishers from global competition, providing a discussion of globalization. The cost of books invites an interdisciplinary analysis of how much we spend on entertainment today. Students can study how television and movie producers analyze the market and what determines which shows get made. The dangers of piracy and the protection of copyright demand discussion of modern piracy in music and media. These are not just connections to today, but a genuine opportunity to teach students to analyze the world around them using examples from two hundred years ago.
The competition during the revolutionary period led to advancements in printing technology. Whereas a novel might run between 350 and 1500 copies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by 1830 newspaper copies of books could run over 30,000 copies (75 – 76). These changes came primarily due to new innovations which made paper cheaper. Before 1800 paper represented roughly 20% of the cost of a book, now it was only 7% (Altbach 161). Congress also passed and enforced copyright laws, protecting publishers from pirating. Tariffs on foreign books also helped bring down the price of publishing (Davidson 97). Consequently, where Charlotte Temple was considered hugely popular by selling 40,000 copies in a decade, James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers sold almost 9% of this figure by the day after it was released in 1823 (Southam 1). At a time when Americans were deciding what it meant to be part of a republic, changes in technology allowed novels to reach an unprecedented audience.
The amount of information available due to cheap paper pales in comparison to the communicative power of new technologies. A September 2008 CBS news survey found that people between 13 and 17 years of age send and receive an average of 1,742 text messages per month (Reardon). Research firm IDC estimated that 97 billion email messages went out in 2007 alone (40 billion of which were spam) (Leggatt). If ever there was a time when changing technology was once again democratizing information, it is now. Studying changes in the novel and the fear it caused can help students understand the role of electronic communication for them today.
The Novel as Community
Reading in the 18th century was often a communal event. Letter reading and writing was a hugely popular form of entertainment, and epistolary manuals with instruction on how to write correct styles, formats can content for different types of letter throughout the eighteenth century, often running at least five editions (Bannet 13). The guides included instructions on reading those letters aloud, including pronunciation guides and how to properly hold the paper when addressing a group (27). The expectation was that letters would be read aloud. The popularity of the epistolary novel mirrored these manuals. Like actual letters, they were often designed to be read aloud to a group as well (28). The epistolary novel and instruction manuals shared popularity reveal the importance of letters in colonial society as a communal event, through sharing them aloud, and as a cultural standard, through the rules and proscriptions.
Early American novels, therefore, offer an opportunity to talk to students about community. People in the eighteenth century (lacking television and malls) would hang out and read to one another. Letters connected families across the country. Epistolary novels revealed the way people thought about the events in their lives and the lives of those around them. Asking students to consider how they connect to people opens up the possibility of creating that connection. Write a letter to your students. Have them write to each other, or to you, or to a family member. Asking students to mirror novels by writing about people in their own lives or stories they have heard about creates opportunities to foster those all important relationships in the classroom.
The Novel as Democracy
Analyzing novels as products should not reduce them to merely pieces of consumer information. Novelists and publishers saw their role as encouraging democracy. In terms of pure economics, writing and publishing novels was not lucrative and often lost money. Yet publishers produced over 100 American books before 1820 (Davidson 99). They did so in small part because they believed they were creating and defining the cultural atmosphere of the new republic.
The popularity of the novel, through the emergence of the library, meant that novels had a vast audience. Moreover, this audience was non-elite and aware of the ways in which the republic failed to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. New readers were not wealthy land owners (indeed they could not even afford their own books), and were not invited into the halls of the constitutional convention. Instead, they were the landless laborers who would not have the vote for another sixty years and women, who would not have it for another hundred and twenty. The texts they read mirrored their positions; these were not exclusively sermons or instruction manuals, but focused on the lives of common or disadvantaged people (105). Novels were, in short, a form of democracy, giving voice to the common man and woman.
Gentleman legislators and members of the highest offices of the nation, far from the lowly social position of the average reader, condemned the novel. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, fierce political rivals, both took time to attack the genre (104). This attack came about because, in the wake of the revolution, Americans were still struggling to sort out the bounds of authority and freedom in a world with a president instead of a king (105). If the republic were going to survive, it would need to exist on a set of cultural as well as governmental principles (Mulford xvi). Critics saw the novel as “subversive,” undermining the authority of a fragile government (Davidson 24). Given its support of the disenfranchised, this fear was not entirely unfounded. The Algerine Captive by Royal Tyler mocks politicians of the day. The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown was based on the lives of some of Boston’s wealthiest politicians and was attacked by John Adams himself. Critics dismissed novels as gossip and a waste of time. The condemnation of the novel as morally questionable, as a waste of time and energy, highlights the founders’ fear of overwhelming freedom in a world without monarchy. This provides the opportunity for educators to emphasize just how terrifying and difficult the prospect of democracy seemed.
In order to address the accusation of immorality, revolutionary publishers and authors often introduced their texts as examples and warnings. Seduction novels were instruction manuals for HOW NOT TO BEHAVE. Heroines who allowed themselves to be seduced regularly ended in ruin and death. These novels claimed to educate young women about the dangers of the world and to help create a single, common American morality. William Hill Brown even addresses The Power of Sympathy to “the young ladies of United Columbia,” revealing his own, intentional construction of morally didactic text. This project fit in with the authors' attempts to create an American democracy while simultaneously combating their critics' fears that novels would destroy America through subversion.
The Novel as Education: Moral Didacticism in Schools
The female readership of revolutionary novels through the next century gave rise to the female educator of the industrial revolution. Thus women, who had gained literacy by reading early novels, soon gained agency in the classroom of America’s common schools. Whereas novels replete with cautionary morals had once been dedicated to their “fair sex,” by 1900 women led 71% of rural classrooms in which they transmitted the morals to the nation’s next generation (Hoffman). The shifting role of women in promoting literacy in America parallels the shift from educating the masses through entertainment to educating them through a public school system. In both arenas, the goal of literacy and literature was to form a coherent political body that shared a language and a set of values.
Nation and literacy link at the roots. Over the world, language study falls under the title of the nation of origin rather than the process––reading, writing, or grammar. While in America, middle school students may only study “Language Arts,” soon enough, they move onto the more serious high school “English.” Language study and literacy have always served national purposes in America, especially. With such a diverse population of immigrants flooding into the ports by the time of independence, a young America needed to provide a standard educational system with language instruction in order to create a cohesive populace. In the movement towards universal education in the early colonial period, Americans used the common language to communicate the shared values of a nation. Today, secondary teachers across the nation continue this value-based education, promoting canonical works that speak to the glory of the American identity, working as double agents for literacy and patriotism, or what it means to be a “good” American. However, seldom do teachers explicitly educate students about the philosophical and historical nature of didacticism in education and reading.
The first line of North Carolina’s current Standard Course of Study, written by the Chair of the State Board of Education, boasts, “North Carolina has had a Standard Course of Study since 1898” (NCDPI iii). Having established the nation’s first public university at Chapel Hill in 1793, North Carolina is proud of its educational standards. That 1898 course of study offers pragmatic examples of implementation, with the suggestion that “weary” teachers “must study and keep up with their profession, or fall out by the way and make room for those who are progressive,” evidence that educational best practices were already being broken and reinstituted (199). An 1845 report from the first superintendent, Calvin Henderson Wiley, provides more background on the goals of schools. The standards of 2004 and the earliest report on North Carolina schools are not so different: both emphasize the importance of preparing students to be productive citizens, both socially and morally. The 2004 SCS aims to form, “contributing members of society,” “collaborative workers who possess…the desire to contribute to the improvement of society,” and “responsible,” “informed citizens in a democratic society” (4, 7, 83, 8). Wiley, too lays out the basis for education in North Carolina: “To make a nation truly great and happy, its heart and mind should both be educated” (23). The repeated emphasis on “society” and “nation” reinforce the role of education in creating a manageable populace.
Wiley, however, alludes to an additional aspect of education not so freely aired in the current SCS: the education of the heart. “Extreme care … should be taken to improve the heart and subdue its passions,” he explains (23). The direct link between didactic novels and education lies in this “schooling of desire” (Bohlin 18). Character education, a movement of values-based teaching first promoted in the early 1990s, seeks to establish a school environment that promotes active reflection on morality in an effort to curb teen suicide, pregnancy, murder rates as well as counteract the barrage of media messages students decipher every day (Lockwood). While critics of character education argue that the “hidden curriculum,” or values message, of the program is more didactic than is effective, the notion of prescribing morality through literacy education has carried on as an American issue since the earliest days of Puritan religious education (Giroux). The dissenters, however, bring up the point that character education, whether between the walls of a classroom of the covers of a book, can seem stifled. The disparity between the good intentions of the educators and the occasional failures of the program, the superficiality of which “[s]tudents are quick to size up,” parallels the disparity between the intentions of early American publishers and their authors, who, like adolescents, were seemingly often more interested in gossip and seduction than utter moral righteousness (Bohlin 4). Coincidentally, in 2001 North Carolina passed the Student Citizen Act, which enforces the implementation of character education in public schools (NC DPI, Character Education). An educational policy debate could give students one more opportunity to understand their role as citizens in America; ironically, the educator can encourage character development in students by asking them to question its validity.
Asking students to write about their own view of the goals of education and entertainment (books and media) can spur an authentic discussion in the classroom (Competency Goal 3.01: “establish and defend a point of view”). Students may also find the study of early documents on North Carolina schools fascinating in their explicit summoning of moral goals. By opening the floor to students, teachers can both avoid the “non-interference policy” that leaves schools utterly divorced from explicit discussion of values and still support Freire’s problem-posing education, which itself fosters democratic individuals.
The history of education in America suggests that one key goal is to ensure all citizens understand the laws and thus form a mor(ally) perfect Union. Discussions of didacticism and moral formation go beyond the classroom to society at large. The struggle to define the role of popular entertainment continues today. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently began to pay Viacom (which runs television networks including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and BET) to include social messages in their television scripts and run advertisements about healthy living (Arango). These messages have already started with an episode of Law and Order: SVU. President of United States operations at the Foundation, Allan Golston, said to the New York Times that, “television in this vein was essential because the foundation could reach more people than through direct support of education” (Arango). The decision to make morally instructive programming parallels the moral missions of Early American novels and reveals many of the same fears about the integrity of society. Studying both allows students to question the purpose of their own education and how much influence popular literature (including media) has on them.
Examples of Early American Novels
The didactic nature of early American novels is best revealed through examples. Examining just two of the most popular novels from the end of the eighteenth century The Coquette and Charlotte Temple, will reveal the ways in which didacticism intertwined with the roles of women and democracy in the emerging republic. Other novels to consider include William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, and Charles Brocken Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. We have selected the two texts we believe would appeal most to the students we have encountered in our work in North Carolina.
Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel The Coquette (1797) is the story of Eliza Warton. Eliza is torn between two suitors: Mr. Boyer, who she thinks is too stodgy, and Mr. Sanford, who is unreliable. Her indecision eventually drives away Mr. Boyer, while Mr. Sanford marries another woman for her money. Sanford and Eliza have an affair and Eliza, in typical seduction novel style, becomes pregnant. She dies alone in the countryside, far from her friends and without a husband.
The novel was popular, going through thirteen editions before the end of the nineteenth century (Mulford xli). Foster based the novel on the life of the highly publicized death of Elizabeth Whitman, a lady of Hartford Connecticut who delivered a stillborn baby before passing away at the Bell Taverns in Danvers, Mass in 1788 (xliv). Critics made her story into a didactic lesson about proper morality almost immediately. The Massachusetts Centinel September 20, 1788 edition even wrote that “she was a great reader of novels and romances and having imbibed her ideas of the characters of men from those fallacious sources, became vain and coquettish” (xlv). Attacks on Miss Witman embodied the moralizing sentiment that novels at the time were supposed to embody.
Both Elizabeth Whitman’s life and Hannah Webster Foster’s treatment thereof invite examination of didacticism, women’s roles in society and democracy as a whole. The criticism of Eliza for her actions, the repeated advice that she find a husband, highlights the espoused morality of the time. Simultaneously, though, Eliza is a sympathetic character; her decision in the novel form as much due to her role as an American woman in the late eighteenth century as due to her own decisions. Her tombstone at the end of the novel, which urges readers (both in the novel and out) to “throw a veil over her frailties, for great was her charity to others” suggests a far friendlier reading and undercuts the overt moralizing of a woman dying through letting herself be seduced. This was the moral ambiguity which so terrified early founders.
These themes connect to three of the six North Carolina primary competency goals, with room for the other three. In a 140-page text made up of brief letters, students can analyze the historical significance of a text (Competency Goal 5.01), by looking at the discussion surrounding novels. They can “assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents” (Competency Goal 4.03), by looking at whether Eliza’s problems emerge due to her coquettish style or her place in society. Finally, students “demonstrate the ability to read, listen to and view a variety of increasingly complex print and non-print argumentative texts appropriate to grade level and course literary focus, by . . . identifying and analyzing personal, social, historical or cultural influences, contexts, or biases (Competency Goal 3.04) by looking at the need to include didactic reasoning in these early American novels. Students can learn to interrogate the world around them and examine themselves within the scheme of American history all at once.
Susanna Rowson, herself a didactic author cum educator, established a girls’ school in Boston, for which she wrote both curriculum (including manners and morals) and textbooks, eight years after publishing her bestseller, Charlotte Temple (Kirk 14). Rowson’s novel, originally titled Charlotte: A Tale of Truth for its original London printing in 1791 and later personalized into Charlotte Temple for subsequent American audiences, offers readers a morally wrought commentary on education along with a sensational narrative. Just as modern classics franchise into movies, posters, spin-offs, and endless reprints, Charlotte Temple became a distinctly American tale, inspiring over 200 American editions and numerous traveling theatrical reprisals of the story.
The story of Charlotte, a young British schoolgirl seduced, kidnapped, and taken to America by a British lieutenant quick to lose interest, offers Americans both a story of pathos over which to weep and a didactic opportunity to showcase the kindness of their nation. After arriving in America, Charlotte is soon forsaken by her seducer and left to fend for herself, pregnant and depressed. Throughout her toils and further abuses her American neighbor, Mrs. Beauchamp, offers her asylum and friendship. After giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte dies in the presence of her father come from England to find her and her savoir Mrs. Beauchamp. A love story turned tragedy, the novel offers itself to cautionary moralizing about the dangers of seduction, the kindness of community, and the forgiveness of parents.
One central point of interest for students is the discussion of how and why Charlotte makes the decisions she does. Faced with choices between duty and romance, education and adventure, trust and healthy skepticism, Charlotte could be seen as the means of her own downfall. However, in the Preface, the narrator mourns those who, like Charlotte, are “spoilt by a mistaken education” (Rowson 35). This phrase turns the blame on Mademoiselle La Rue, the French schoolteacher in charge of looking after Charlotte when she is first seduced, instead encouraging the young girl to forget her family and sail to America. La Rue, along with the other seeming villains, the seducers Montraville and Belcour, offers an excellent character for analysis, as many scenes show these characters as morally ambiguous.
An entertaining and manageable read at about 130 pages, Charlotte Temple offers opportunities for students to address five of the six North Carolina primary competency goals. Students “discover multiple perspectives,” in the classroom in debating the reason for Charlotte’s downfall for which they must provide “textual evidence to support [their] understanding of and … response to [the] text” (Competency Goal 1.02, 1.03), and “examine how culture influences language,” by locating didactic passages of narration and discussing their effectiveness (Competency Goal 2.02). In order to further explore the impact of didacticism in popular entertainment like the traveling plays of Charlotte Temple, students should analyze the moral imperatives suggested in various media (sitcoms, commercials, music videos, songs, etc.), thereby “recognizing propaganda as a purposeful technique” in “non-print argumentative texts” (Competency Goal 3.01, 3.04). Finally, by pairing the discussion of didacticism and Mademoiselle La Rue with a discussion of the role of education, students can “synthesize ideas” between their own educational life and that of Charlotte (Competency Goal 4) and “interpret the significance of literary movements” in relating the appeal of Charlotte Temple to those citizens prevented from having a full education. By focusing on the education strands of Charlotte Temple, students can evaluate moral choices in a context immediately relevant to their own lives.
We do not mean these examples to confine or limit teachers. Instead, we should work together to imagine the country at its founding. With our students, we can envision who was included in defining our country. We see their lives and their anxieties, their dreams and their nightmares, their greatest aspirations and their worst failures.
We can imagine all of these things because they still exist today. Where Adams feared the novel, we fear Myspace. Where publishers gave moral rules, modern entrepreneurs rewrite television scripts. Where texts once questioned roles and social places, our students now take their place.
Our task is still to create an American culture; that we have unified standards at all reveals this purpose. Yet in a democracy, that culture must be one of questioning and critical thinking. It is a culture which not only produces healthy citizens, but engaged and challenged students. Over two centuries after Rowson, Foster, Brown and Tyler struggled to define the limits and expectations of freedom in a new republic, it is our task to do the same.
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