- Canonical Predicaments
Susanna Rowson always loomed large as we planned and organized what has become the Just Teach One (jto) project. No other figure seems to signal, simultaneously, the tremendous power of canon transformation and the stalling of that exciting project. It is at once almost impossible to imagine the early American literary canon before the recovery of Charlotte Temple and remarkable to think that an author so widely taught in our time remains so little known, the vast majority of her works out of print. Our very first text, the novella Amelia: or the Faithless Briton (first serialized in the Columbian Magazine in 1787), was proposed in part as an attempt to disrupt narrowing readings of Rowson's best-seller, which had come to do double duty as paradigmatic sentimental novel and seduction tale. The preparation of a classroom-ready edition of another Rowson novel, then, was an undertaking of special significance, and one we pursued only after several semesters of trial and error. While there were several candidates for a teachable Rowson text—we talked about The Inquisitor, Trials of the Human Heart, and Mary, or the Test of Honour, among others—we ultimately settled on Sincerity for several reasons, above all its more moderate length and its serial periodical publication. The participation of thirteen teachers around the country, five of whom we asked to write more sustained reflections for this forum, reminded us yet again of the importance of a scholarly community for recovery work and of the diversity of responses.1
We had each taught the novel several times, and in our conversations about those classroom experiences the frequent touchstone was Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings. Ngai's interest in expanding the breadth and depth of aesthetic and political analysis is multifaceted, but among other things she notes how "[s]omething about the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions" (11) over the "sites of emotional negativity" (1) that almost "disable" other works "from acquiring canonical distinction" (11). What this has meant is not simply a skewed canon but also an analytical blindness about the "unusually knotted or condensed 'interpretations of predicaments'" associated [End Page 194] with other emotional modes (3). Ngai's discussion, it should be noted, includes among the "higher passions and emotions" of the literary canon the well-studied sympathy of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel—Stowe is a frequent reference—to suggest that the alternative canon that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s has suffered some of the same distortions.
Ngai's formulation seemed a fruitful way to think about a work like Sincerity, which, while written within a powerful tradition of sentimental fiction, moves the sentimental mode in new directions. Expressive sympathy is there, to be sure, but it seems to shift from the central episodes of the plot to the framing of the narrative, above all with Anne's sympathy toward Sarah, as expressed to Elinor. This relocation of sympathy from the primary characters to the readers not only ironizes the dynamic so evident in, say, Charlotte Temple but also creates a new set of problems, including how readers might relate to or even comprehend the emotional palette expressed by Sarah: self-destructive indifference, humiliation, paralysis, resentment, envy, equivocation, and so on. Ngai's primary interest in ugly feelings is perhaps their involvement with "suspended agency" (1), which is an apt description of the helplessness evoked by the reading of Sincerity and another reminder that late-eighteenth-century sentimentality cannot be reduced to a simpler precursor for a more aesthetically fine-tuned nineteenth-century achievement. To put it another way, Sincerity demonstrates Rowson's ongoing experimentation across and, in this instance, late in her career with the sentimental mode and its oddities. To use another of Ngai's formulations, its "gaps and illegibilities" might signal "interpretations of predicaments" literary scholars have yet to explore (1). What this meant for jto was that Sincerity offered opportunities for illuminating critical discussions within and outside the classroom while also posing significant challenges, above all regarding a sense of the novel's lack of aesthetic focus.
These observations might suggest that our interest in Sincerity was...