A Quiet Joke in Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie

The freelance work I have noted doing (here, here, and here) has continued, as might well be expected; I continue to have bills to pay, so I am continuing to work to earn money with which to pay them, and writing lesson plans is work congenial to my skills and talents. As I write this, I am working on a lesson plan for a work of early US literature, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. I’d heard the author’s name during my graduate coursework–one of my exam areas was early American literature–but hadn’t read the book, and I have to note that I found it a largely enjoyable read.

A portrait of Sedgwick, from the 1902
Literary Pilgrimages in New England to the Homes of Famous Makers of American Literature;
I am told the image is public domain,
and I assert that it is used for commentary.

Reading to draft a lesson plan demands reading with a particular level and type of attention; writing a lesson plan demands thinking like a teacher, and for me, thinking like a teacher works in tandem with thinking like a scholar. That is, when I taught, I did so with an eye towards helping students to find their own information in the texts they read, and that meant doing the same thing, myself. Thus, as I read, I look for little puzzles in the works I read, small puzzles from which meaning can be teased out. And, because I am the person I am and I had some success with using the approach in the past, a focus of that search is on jokes and quips of one sort or another. They stand out to me in many instances–and I go hunting for them when they do not. Sometimes, the hunt takes some doing; often, it needs but little searching to find such quarry as I would pursue. Sometimes, too, it pops up unexpectedly (although I expect to see it more often than I think most people do), and such was the case for Hope Leslie as I read it.

Some of that humor, particularly the way in which it manifests in the novel, is folded into the lesson planning; it allows for focus on particular literary techniques that I think students will benefit from investigating. But I also keep in mind that I should not be doing students’ work for them, even as I used to offer models (such as this) and now continue to indulge my own interests and inclinations by drafting the occasional essay (or something like one) that addresses one of the “little puzzles” I find in a lot of what I read. Accordingly, there is (at least) one thing that I am keeping out of the lesson plan in favor of addressing it myself, and it inheres in the name of the Fletcher family dog: Argus. That name is a lovely little bit of irony, one that offers a humorous setup for the tragedy that soon after befalls the Fletchers in the novel.

The namesake is not the dog…
The image is Jacob Jordaens’s 1620 Mercury and Argus, which I am told is public domain and which is used here for commentary.

Admittedly, “early American literature” and “humor” are not necessarily closely yoked in popular conception, with the possible exceptions of Irving and Twain. Certainly, such early American literature as treats the early Puritan colonists does not tend that way; Hawthorne and Edwards are perhaps the most frequently taught authors, and their works do not lend themselves to people rolling on the floor, laughing. Even such critics as focus on humor in such works–Pascal Covici in Humor and Revelation in American Literature: The Puritan Connection, Gregg Camfield in Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, and Michael Dunne in Calvinist Humor in American Literature offer examples–note the tendency to be taken aback by the emergence of humor within such works. Then again, popular conception does not tend to make much of early American literature–or any early literature, really, “that old shit” being something many folks avoid when they can (likely a result of having been taught it badly early on–but that’s a different discussion entirely).

Hope Leslie is not an exception to that, really. Again, I had not read the novel previously, and I sat for a doctoral comprehensive examination in early American literature (about which some information appears here and here); if even I did not read the book, it can hardly be thought that a great many of my contemporaries would have done so. Too, even the scholarship that focuses itself on the novel–which, again, I enjoyed reading; I commend said reading to others, as well–does not much treat its humor, although there are nods towards Bertha Grafton as being a focus for many of the in-character jokes made, as well as others towards comments about sexual and gender politics at work in the novel. But the extensive introductory notes Carolyn L. Karcher leaves in the edition of the book I read–the Penguin 1998–do not treat the topic of humor at all, and that despite being directed towards Karcher’s “students at Temple University, the imagined readers [she has] kept in mind while preparing the introduction and annotations,” a group that my experience suggests might well benefit from such attention, as would more general readers.

Springfield (The Simpsons) - Wikipedia
This one? Maybe…
The image is from The Simpsons Movie, hosted here, and is used for commentary.

That said, there are humorous bits to be found throughout the novel, not only those centering on Bertha Grafton and sexual and gender politics. One example of such appears relatively early in the book, in Volume I, Chapter IV. At that point in the novel–and it was originally published in 1827, so I think spoiler warnings no longer meaningfully apply–Everell Fletcher and Digby are on watch at the Fletchers’ estate, Bethel, which is at some distance away from the fortified village of Springfield and which has received some warning of an imminent attack by remaining members of the Pequod people, whom the colonists had driven nearly to extinction in a sneak attack perhaps a year earlier. They have reason to be wary, obviously, the more so because Digby had fought in the earlier conflict and therefore has direct experience with the people in question (and would himself be an appropriate target for revenge). Amid their wariness, the Fletchers’ dog, Argus, gives notice of having perceived some interloper; Everell calls off the dog, which then returns to where it had been sleeping and, presumably, to sleep.

The name derives from Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed watchman into whose keeping Hera gives the transformed Io. He is supposed to be ever-vigilant, although he is bored to death by the interloping Hermes; he is commemorated in the peacock’s tail. The character is therefore associated with watchfulness and (gaudy) splendor, making the assignment of his name to a sleepy Puritan hound something of an irony in itself, much on the level of calling a big person “Tiny.”

Part of humor, however, is in its layering of meanings that do not necessarily accord with one another. In the case of Argus in Hope Leslie, there is reason for watchfulness, as has been noted; the threat of attack is specific and imminent, and there is no mercurial figure to afflict the hound with fatal ennui. (Indeed, both Everell and Digby are commented upon as being steadfast, the latter with some aspersion). The dog therefore fails to live up to his namesake–partly, because Argos Panoptes faltered in his own vigil, if under much more compulsion than the dog. The failure adds another layer of meaning to the irony or enriches that inherent in the name.

For readers aware of that irony, who can find in it a bit of laughter, there is a break in the tension of the passage, something not unlike the porter scene in the Scottish play (with which Sedgwick appears to have been familiar, due to the inclusion of quotation from and reference to the same throughout the novel). Prior to the fleeting mention of the hound–it is named only thrice in the novel, and those three times are in close proximity in the text–those on watch are apprehensive in the night; immediately after, Everell confronts Magawisca, one of the last surviving Pequods and a servant in the Fletcher home, regarding the imminent attack; and not long after, Bethel is ravaged by Magawisca’s father and people, Everell abducted along with another, and several members of the Fletcher family killed. The irony offers a short-lived respite from the stress of events in the plot, highlighting the impact of the tragedy that follows by the juxtaposition–for at least some readers.

It is a small thing, perhaps, and in some senses, any such look at literature is a small thing. But it is of small things that the world is made, and even if it is small, a delight is still a delight.

No joke: I could stand a bit of help to keep doing this kind of thing.

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