- Six Lessons from the Just Teach One Project on Recovering Susanna Rowson's Sincerity
Lesson 1: You might not be teaching the classes that provide the easiest contexts for the Just Teach One project (jto), but that does not mean that you cannot participate in the opportunities jto provides for involving students and faculty in collaborative recovery work. Were I creating a course in which to teach Sincerity; A Novel in a Series of Original Letters, I would have taught a topics class for English majors on early American women writers or literature of the early American republic, courses that would have historicized the text and raised issues prominent in the recovery of Susanna Rowson as a prolific author, an educator, a playwright, and an editor. My ideal course would have included Rowson's Charlotte Temple, Foster's The Coquette, and some writings by Judith Sargent Murray, as well as secondary sources about women's education in the 1790s, early American magazines, conduct literature, and coverture.
Instead, my predetermined course assignments for fall 2015 included "The Salem Witch Trials" (an upper-level course for majors), "Approaches to American Literature" (a lower-level course with a diverse population, ranging from education majors seeking their English endorsement to non-majors taking it to fulfill university "written communication" requirements), and a topical first-year seminar titled "Jane Austen: Property and Propriety." I decided I could insert Rowson's Sincerity into the "Approaches to American Literature" course, which I was teaching as a course focusing on social issues of the 1820s. I placed it after Hope Leslie, Hobomok, and a unit on the Boudinot-Gold letters collected in To Marry an Indian. Students would already have encountered both nonfiction letters and letters within novels, and our earlier texts would have invited discussion about marriage, women's education, women's economic rights, and the ways texts rhetorically and structurally critique patriarchy. Although Sincerity clearly stuck out on the syllabus as the only primary text not written in the 1820s, I figured there was enough thematic connection with other texts to make it work.
I then took a hard look at my first-year seminar class. These are classes that do not fulfill major requirements, so there is more leeway to adjust course goals and experiment with pedagogy. I announced on the first day that we would [End Page 172] be reading Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Sincerity. The last novel, I explained, would replace Pride and Prejudice on the reading list. It was not written by Jane Austen; it was not even (really) British. But it was set in England and Ireland and in roughly the same time period as the Austen novels, and, in fact, a later version (retitled Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife) was actually published in the very same year as Austen's most beloved classic: 1813.
No one complained, but I was worried. I wish I had already (re)learned my Lesson 2: Susanna Rowson is indeed a transatlantic figure, and her writings were published and read in both England and America. Rowson created memorable British and American characters; her settings likewise demonstrate her awareness of life on both sides of the Atlantic. The recovery of Rowson as a transatlantic figure remains underexplored territory. The 2006 Pearson anthology Transatlantic Romanticism (Newman et al.) includes excerpts from Charlotte Temple but no other Rowson texts. Rowson is not included in this anthology's series of "transatlantic exchanges" on republicanism, women's rights, or other issues, nor is she featured in the sections on transatlantic reception of authors. Rowson is similarly underrepresented in other transatlantic collections. Arguably, Rowson's is a voice that belongs more firmly in such discussions. Why not teach Rowson with Austen?
My Austen class provided a wonderful opportunity to consider Rowson outside of strictly American contexts. Class discussions of narrative voice in Northanger Abbey informed students' approach to the text. They noted that Sarah's letters could express intense emotion. They connected these moments to Catherine Morland's indulgence in the gothic as a way to exert agency in her mundane life. For example, in the first letter, Sarah describes her marriage to Darnley: "A coach was at...