- Seriality and Susanna Rowson's Sincerity
What makes a work teachable? How do we prepare students to read early American authors and genres when virtually everything we will teach in such a course will be unfamiliar to them? Sheridan Blau, in The Literature Workshop, argues that one of the secrets to engaging teaching is providing enough context so that students can comprehend a work, without offering so much that we substitute lecture for student engagement and discovery. He uses the example of Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." With direct knowledge of World War II receding into the distant past, this splendid poem hovers on the edge of legibility for many students; absent knowledge that men operating machine guns were confined to the claustrophobic spaces of a ball turret for the duration of an airplane flight, students produce wildly creative but ultimately frustrating misinterpretations of "wet fur" and "black flak" (qtd. in Blau 191).1 With this question of context in mind, how can we prepare students to read early serial fiction? And perhaps even more to the point, why would we want to teach serial fiction, when there are perfectly good reprint editions of early American novels that provide, in a single volume, the kind of textual infrastructure to which our students are accustomed: a unified, coherent text; footnotes; chronologies; author biographies; critical responses; and the like.
In reading serial fiction, we give up these conveniences and create conditions that encourage students to teach themselves and to apply knowledge they have acquired in other contexts. Susanna Rowson's 1803–4 novel Sincerity dramatically and memorably animates the persistent inequalities faced by women and poor people in Anglo-American culture and the physical, social, and mental costs of living up to unattainable early-nineteenth-century feminine ideals. Moreover, teaching Sincerity as a text-in-parts encourages students to engage in metacognitive thinking about their reading experiences: it encourages them to think beyond the plot and reflect on reading as a process. Our class discussions thus oscillated between two central issues: interpreting how parts of Sincerity were embedded within multiple contexts, and interpreting how temporalities of reading shape interpretation. In this essay I will first explore why the novel-as-material-book has held a privileged status in American literary studies and what we might gain by moving beyond that model; then I will discuss how [End Page 162] teaching Sincerity with an emphasis on seriality facilitated student engagement in primary research and encouraged them to bring their own experiences as consumers of serial works to bear upon an early American literary text.
privileging the book
Scholars of British literature have historically been more attentive than scholars of American literature to the serial publication of long fiction, particularly with respect to Charles Dickens's work in magazines and standalone serials and to the triple-decker novels that were so popular among private subscription-based circulating libraries. By contrast, the serial novel receiving the greatest attention in nineteenth-century US literature is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, even though that text is more likely to be discussed as a unified novel than as a serial. Fiction in serial format formed an essential component of post-Revolutionary magazine culture. As Jared Gardner has pointed out, the two most prolific novelists of the early republic, Susanna Rowson and Charles Brockden Brown, ended their careers writing not standalone novels but periodical pieces, as did Isaiah Thomas and Judith Sargent Murray (140–41). The largely anonymous, more responsive, and more democratic form of the magazine clearly appealed to writers as well as readers. Why, then, has early US serial fiction—specifically early-nineteenth-century magazine fiction—received markedly less attention than its British counterparts?
This critical lacuna has been created partly by technological factors and by the reciprocal relationship between teaching and literary scholarship in the field of American literature. For most of the twentieth century, early American sentimental fiction—and it is fair to assert that while sentimentality is not the only mode in early American fiction, it predominates—was dismissed as sub-literary. The rise of feminist criticism, reader-response criticism, New Historicism, and...