For two years, I have taught a course called “American Literature to 1900.” While this sort of broad survey course is routine at colleges and universities, my course is offered in an untraditional format (but one that is becoming more common): this course is an eight week, online course aimed at Master’s-level students, many of whom are secondary school teachers seeking additional graduate credits in their specific discipline in order to comply with new state education standards.
In selecting materials for this course, I knew I wanted to expose my students to authors and works that are not frequently covered at the undergraduate level. I wanted to select texts that would expand their knowledge of the period and at the same time resonate with common themes that we explore in American and British literature courses. I also needed to select texts that were feasible to cover in an accelerated, online format. I have found that two eighteenth-century American novels—J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797)—work well in meeting these goals. These texts also allow us to have fruitful discussions on several key areas typically covered in the American survey, including the development of the novel and concepts of American identity. As such, these selections provide students with an avenue to employ familiar critical approaches in a new venue.
Format and the Development of the Novel: Both Crevecoeur’s and Foster’s novels use an epistolary format, which provides an opportunity to discuss the development of the novel in the United States in the late eighteenth century. Crevecoeur’s text in particular puts great pressure on readers to view the text as a straightforward, nonfictional account. I find that discussing Farmer James’s conversations with his wife and minister in Letter I about his inadequacy to conduct a correspondence with a learned European man help students to see the fiction for what it is, as his concerns contradict the very nature of the letter itself, which is delivered to readers in an eloquent and cogent fashion. Once we turn to Foster, students appreciate how her inclusion of letters from the perspective of multiple characters complicates our understanding of the primary characters and their motivations.
What Is an “American”? Although students may not be familiar with Crevecoeur or Letters, many remark how familiar “Farmer James” feels to us and his emphasis on a pastoral and agrarian landscape resonates with our idealized conceptions of America's past. Farmer James’s choice not to participate in the Revolutionary War on either side, as discussed in Letter XII, provides us with an opportunity to examine the breakdown of his ideals. Foster’s world of parlors and focus on relationships provides a stark contrast to the world of Crevecoeur’s farmer. Although Foster’s text seems, at first glance, to be removed from the concerns of the Revolutionary War, pairing this text with excerpts from Cathy Davidson’s The Revolution and the Word allows my students to better examine how Foster’s text engages with political ideas, including freedom and choice. Both Foster’s and Crevecoeur’s novels allow us to consider how residents of the colonies navigated the transition between “British subject” and “American.”
Theory and Criticism: While theory isn’t a particular focus of this course, both Crevecoeur’s and Foster’s texts provide students with an opportunity to apply a variety of critical approaches. Both texts feature complex constructions of masculine and feminine roles, to which students can apply theories from feminist / gender criticism. Crevecoeur’s text resonates with environmental approaches to literature through the Farmer’s idealization of a pastoral landscape. Issues related to work, money, and class provide students with an avenue to apply Marxist approaches.
One of the benefits I have found to teaching these texts is that they provide students with an avenue to discuss other eighteenth-century texts that they are more familiar with, particularly the novels of Jane Austen. Although my secondary school-teacher students may not go on to teach Crevecoeur or Foster to their own classes, our discussion of these texts results in a richer, more nuanced understanding of both the beginnings of the American novel and the connections between British and American literature.
Kelsey Squire, Ohio Dominican University