Saturday, October 15, 2011

For Credit: Something Completely Different!

I didn't say so in class, but it's on the syllabus: we're finished (for the moment) with Tristram Shandy (but we'll be coming back to it!) and moving on next week to The Female American. Read to the end of Vol. 1 (p.98) in advance of Tuesday and plan to complete the book as a whole by Friday.

If you've been annoyed and frustrated by Tristram Shandy, The Female American will be something of a relief. It's another of those C18 novels that says exactly what it means and tells a coherent linear story. (For those enjoying Tristram Shandy and regretting that we can't forge ahead with it--and there are a few of you, right?--this abrupt shift may seem disruptive. Know that I do it advisedly. Shandy is sort of like pesto or pecan pie or bleu cheese--even for those who like it, one can quickly cross the line between enjoyment of just enough and revulsion at too much.

The Female American is, as you will see, something of a response to Robinson Crusoe. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Tristram Shandy, it is profoundly non-canonical. Like Fantomina, it moldered unnoticed and ignored on the shelves of a few rare book libraries until the 1990s, when the fresh new wind of cultural studies blew the dust off it.  Thus far, the Broadview edition I ordered for the course is the ONLY modern print edition of it available--and I believe it's been the first edition since the early 1800s.  There is as yet little scholarship on it (as those of you signed up for secondary literature posts will discover!), but the novel is getting taught and discussed.

So what do you think: what are the reasons for resurrecting a forgotten text like this?  Are they good reasons or not?  A week on the syllabus devoted to a firmly noncanonical book like this one is a week that we're NOT spending on works that have stood the test of time: the novels of Fielding, Richardson, Defoe, Burney, Sterne (and those omitted from the syllabus altogether, like Swift and Smollet).  Does it warrant the time we devote to it?

Try NOT to answer this question in the abstract--wait until you've done a little reading, so you have some textual (not just theoretical) basis for your ideas.

Deadline: Tuesday (10/18), start of class.


  1. The introduction to “The Female American” suggests that the inter-racial feminine protagonist and anti-imperialist undertones may have attributed to this novel’s lack of popularity in comparison to “Robinson Crusoe.” During a time where a woman should be placed within the domestic sphere and a man is allowed to travel and explore, Unca’s character may have been seen as a threat, a poison that might infiltrate the minds of young English women. Although I would agree, that these may have contributed to the novel’s lack-luster welcome, I do believe that it contains not only anti-imperialist traits, but also imbedded imperialist ideas. On page 37, Unca’s father tells his brother that “We have no right to invade the country of another, and I fear invaders will always meet a curse” (Burnham 37). When news from the Americas reaches England of the massacre of hundreds of Europeans at the hands of the natives, the above excerpt claims that perhaps the massacre is God’s punishment damning imperialism. Although imperialism may be outwardly castigated, this novel still maintains ideas that were used to promote imperialism seen even during the nascence of English Imperialism in the 1600’s.
    The main ideas that show ingrained ideas tied to imperialism include the native women’s preference for the white European male and the lack of a strong patriarch to rule the natives. In Fletcher’s “The Island Princess,” the native women prefer the Portuguese over their own non-European men. Likewise, in “The Female American” this idea is still adhered to with both Unca and Alluca’s desire to marry Winca (the protagonist’s English father). The European man is still superior to the native man. Instead of a native man being angered by the princesses’ infatuation with Winca, the native men simply allow their women to be “taken” by the white man thereby acquiescing to their “inherent” inferiority. This is an idea that remains unquestioned even after about (Fletcher 1647, Winkfield 1767) 120 YEARS!!!
    Another idea that may have been used in other pieces of literature to promote imperialism is the lack of a strong native male patriarch. Yes, Unca’s people have her father, the king. He is a generous and wise king, but he lacks a male heir. Furthermore, even while king, we see how the princesses held much power, even the power over life and death. In order to keep Winca alive, the king and Unca had to HIDE Winca from Alluca and eventually send Unca and Winca to live elsewhere. If he had truly been the strong patriarch envisioned by Europeans, then this native king should have been able to control his daughter’s actions. The lack of a male heir, the absence of other male competitors, and the possibility that if Winca had accepted Alluca’s offer, he would have become the European king of a native tribe, shows a supposedly weak native society primed for conquest. In fact, not only are they ripe for being taken over, but they also NEED a rational European male to lead them. The lack of non-European men to show the inherent femininity and supposed weakness of racial others may be seen in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in which the only male within Cleopatra’s court is a eunuch.
    I do agree, that overall this piece is anti-imperialist, however, I still believe that there exists imperialists ideas imbedded in the novel that romanticizes the natives and the Englishman’s role in the New World.

  2. I agree with Kirsten about the cause of the lackluster reception of this novel. Unca is a character who is intended to rival Crusoe, who is one of the most successful characters in 18th century literature. Even today, we seem to base each novel we read in class around a theme from Crusoe's adventures.
    I believe that it is important to discuss opinions that may not have been popular, because history has proven that humanity can be wrong as a collective. This is not to say that there is a definite right or wrong in this situation, but this book was never really given much of a chance according to what I have read in the introduction.
    Then again, maybe history will prove me wrong (or stupid) about the reception of this book. This book copies "Robinson Crusoe" almost perfectly, with a character change being the only real difference. I can understand and respect the fact that people wouldn't want to read the same thing over - even if the first time they read it was a life changing experience. This sort of thing happened to me personally when watching "The Hangover" and its sequel. Although the second one copied the first (which I thoroughly enjoyed), it just wasn't the same because I'd been there before and knew what was going to happen. The element of surprise wasn't there.
    Overall, dusting this book off of the shelf may be an enlightening experience because it brings a new set of ideas from the time period into play, but I find that I cannot blame the people of the 18th century for not wanting to pay to read the same story twice.