Teaching Transatlantic Influence

PALS Note: Pedagogy and American Literature Studies is pleased to feature its first piece by a guest contributor. Caitlin L. Kelly is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Caitlin writes from the perspective of a teacher and scholar of British literature of the Long Eighteenth Century. PALS is excited to highlight this perspective of transatlantic literature and we relish the opportunity of featuring a guest piece challenging us, as Americanists, to (re)consider how we think of transatlantic literature in our own teaching. Caitlin’s piece operates within the paradigm of the study of transatlantic literature from the perspective of a scholar & teacher of British literature-a fact which allows us to consider the vexing questions of transatlantic literature from a perspective different from our Americanist roots and training. PALS looks forward to continuing conversations about American, British, and transatlantic literature in the coming weeks once we return from the semester break.

In discussions with my Americanist colleagues (my research focuses on British literature and culture of the Long Eighteenth Century), I find that we are often thinking about the same texts in very different ways. For example, recently I was talking with one of this blog’s contributors about Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. The novel is one of my own favorites: I’m currently writing an article on the role of devotional practice in it and I teach it (yes, in freshman courses) as often as I can. Part of the story I tell when I introduce the novel is, of course, about its role in the development of the genre. Though its status as the “first novel in English” is certainly up for debate, Pamela is nonetheless a foundational text in the history of the novel in English. Consequently, Richardson’s novel also shows up in my colleague’s research and teaching as a deeply influential figure in the formation of American literature and of America itself. Indeed, as G.J.  Barker-Benfield notes, Richardson’s influence extended across the Atlantic “where it suffused early American fiction as well as the fiction that continued to be imported from Britain in quantity” (50).

Given my specialization, I often joke with my colleagues who study and teach early American literature that they are really teaching in my area, in British literature. There is a legitimate question at hand though: what do we consider “American” literature and when does it emerge? In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoaned the lack of a distinctly American tradition, writing in “The American Scholar” that “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” And he wasn’t alone, of course. Walt Whitman sets out to be the first great American poet in Leaves of Grass and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels embody the idea of American individualism. But what do we do with literature written before this movement toward developing a distinctly “American” canon? What do we do with literature that was produced in England but devoured by colonists and early Americans  who still considered themselves as a part of an English literary tradition?

These questions, among others that I will raise in this post, have been on my mind quite a bit lately, especially as I think about Samuel Richardson’s novels. And, thanks to conversations I’ve had  with Americanist colleagues about early American literature, I increasingly find myself thinking about Richardson’s work in a transatlantic context. Each time I teach Pamela, I  find myself talking with my students more and more about its reception in colonial and early America. My students are almost always surprised to

Pamela Ben Franklin
Title page of  Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, fifth edition, two volumes as printed by Benjamin Franklin. Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia (photography via the American Antiquarian Society).

learn that Pamela was the first novel printed in America–by Benjamin Franklin no less–and it was also beloved by John and Abigail Adams. Abigail adored Richardson so much that she joked with John during their courtship that he was falling “short of the standard epitomized by [the hero of Richardson’s final novel] Sir Charles” (Barker-Benfield 51). In 1804, John would draw on Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, stating that “‘Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa’” (Barker-Benfield 51). As Lovelace represented unrestrained passion and Clarissa his victim, Adam’s perhaps surprising literary analogy was a warning against a completely unchecked, unfettered democracy that seemed to be emerging in the years following his presidency (Fliegelman 237).

Abigail_Adams
Abigail Adams. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both of the Adamses found in Richardson’s heroes and heroines models of good character and virtue–and, by extension, good citizenship. But in looking to Richardson for those models, the Adamses were looking back, not forward. As David McCullough notes, the Adamses were ambassadors to London at a time when “James Boswell could still be seen on occasion holding forth at the Globe Tavern on Fleet Street; the novelist Fanny Burney was soon to become a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte; Richard Brinsley Sheridan was still part owner and manager of the famous Drury Lane Theater” (342). When Abigail wrote of Pamela to Lucy Cranch, she admitted that even while Richardson has pushed the limits of realism too far in places, for those “who have been conversant in these old corrupted countries, will be soon convinced that Richardson painted only the truth in his abandoned characters” (Barker-Benfield 53). Despite this literati on their doorstep, the Adamses remained enamored by writers who “were all

John_Adams_(1766)
John Adams. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

dead and gone”: Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and Samuel Johnson (McCullough 342). Of course, we can’t forget that the future President and First Lady were also deeply influenced by Richardson’s epistolary style. In the early days of the republic, Abigail and John were often separated and their relationship was grounded in the letters they wrote to one another during that time. Abigail, as McCullough notes, looked to Richardson as her model for letter writing and acknowledged his influence on her (339).

In the way that the Adamses drew upon Richardson’s novels, we see them living their private and political lives through the lens of his characters, making these foundational English novels foundational to American literature and history as well. Like I said earlier, students are always a bit taken aback by these American connections, and it certainly makes sense given the way that “American Literature” versus “British Literature” is set up as a binary in almost all high school and college curricula. And, of course, the binary is only reinforced by the traditional separation of “American” and “British” literatures in most post-secondary curricula. While it is true that our approach to the intersections and overlaps between “American” and “British” literatures has become more nuanced with the use of terms like “Transatlantic literature” and “Hemispheric literature,” we have a way to go. In the case of the Adamses and Samuel Richardson, a novel like Pamela fits a transatlantic context mostly in terms of its influence (the story is set and takes place entirely in England), and that’s not necessarily how we think of transatlanticism in our research. So how do we think about transatlantic influences? And, more importantly,

How do we teach transatlantic influences within the boundaries of introductory courses like surveys that are defined in national terms?

I wanted to pose this question here because I am an outsider as a specialist in British literature. I am troubled by this question of teaching transatlantic influence because I–like most of you– am a product of the system that creates the problem. Because of that system, I have never taught a course in American Literature. While we all take courses “outside” our field at some point, we generally sort ourselves into two groups pretty early: people who study American literature and people who study British literature. And, by the end of graduate school, we have become people who teach Introduction to American Literature and people who teach Introduction to British Literature. Finally, we become people who apply for jobs in American literature and British literature. This begs another question:

If the division between American and British literatures begins in the undergraduate survey course and is reinforced throughout our scholarly training, what is the effect on our teaching and on our students?

While I don’t have an answer to this question or any of the others I’ve raised, I think these are questions that are well suited to the purpose of this blog–and I think that this blog is the kind of space where we can work toward answers to it. I hope that this post will spark a conversation that includes teacher-scholars who teach under all of the banners of the undergraduate curriculum: American, British, and Transatlantic/Hemispheric. These conversations, after all, can change the way that we teach and, in so doing, move us toward a truly Transatlantic and Hemispheric paradigm in literary studies.

Works Cited

Barker-Benfield, G.J. Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

“Benjamin Franklin: Book Publisher.” The Library Company of Philadelphia. Web. 2006.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” Digital Emerson: A Collective Archive. Washington State University. 30 November 2015.

Fliegelman, Jay. Pilgrims and Prodigals: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Contributor Bio:

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. At Georgia Tech, she teaches literature-based multimodal composition courses and serves as a Professional Tutor in the Communication Center. Along with research interests in religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, Caitlin is interested in digital pedagogy and the relationship between writing and literary studies. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.

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