Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
This semester, I again find myself teaching two surveys on early America (situated in both English and History Departments). Each semester, I try to mix up the program and reading list a bit to keep it interesting for myself, and this semester, I’m again surprised by students’ general interest coming into the courses and, by the end of the semester, my overall choices (and their reception). I always have the highest of hopes . . . thinking students will be surprised at what they find.
For example, I first taught James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) back in 2010, and, while I extended the discussion of the novel to three straight weeks, I ultimately felt really good about the results.
I haven’t had another class so enthusiastic about the work since this class, and so I’ve secretly vowed to myself that I’d continue teaching Cooper until I’ve found another class so invested. (I fear I might have to break my vow before this magical moment happens again!)
From the literary side of things, there have been some great surprises and successes, including Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee: Written By Himself. On the history side, as I’ve shared in previous posts, the video-making have seemed to strike a chord with a good number of students.
This semester, I found myself in a strange state of confusion one week over the name John Trumbull. In both classes, I had to take a moment and check in on my notes or slides to remind myself when and where I was teaching.
The confusion was simple: These two men–cousins, with the same name, born in Connecticut just six years apart–both contributed to the American Revolution. Attack of the Trumbulls. The painter and the poet.
(June 6, 1756 – November 10, 1843)
The more famous–or more often remembered or visible–of the two Trumbulls, John Trumbull has been called “the Painter of the Revolution.” A graduate of Harvard College, during the American Revolution, he served as an aide to both Gen. Horatio Gates and George Washington. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was a scene later portrayed in one of his works. In 1780, he was captured and arrested by the British army and served seven months in a London prison.
Following the war, Trumbull returned to the U.S. and, in the mid-1780s, visited both Britain and France where worked on the majority of his paintings. Many of those related to the Revolution, including The Declaration of Independence and Surrender of General Burgoyne were purchased by the U.S. Congress. His famous portraits include subjects like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
(April 24, 1750 – May 11, 1831)
Trumbull, the poet, studied law at Yale. While still a student, he contributed a number of essays to newspaper in Massachusetts and Connecticut, most famously a set of ten articles published by The Boston Chronicle in 1769-70, under the name “The Meddler”.
Just prior to the Revolution, Trumbull published The Progress of Dulness (1773), a satirical poem attacking the Tom (Brainless), Dick (Hairbrain), and Harriet ‘s (Simper) youth as fops and coquettes and college curricula as archaic and inadequate. Reviewing this text, the poem is much more readable than the more popular M’Fingal (and might be a work I assign in future semesters).
M’Fingal, a mock epic canto, was published in 1776. The poem went through over thirty editions through the next few decades and is by far Trumbull’s most popular work (though from my estimate not widely taught in recent decades either). One nineteenth-century critic said that it “penetrated into every farm-house and sent the rustic volunteers laughing into the ranks of Washington and Greene.” It’s references to the Bible, Homer, and Milton are often lost on students today, although the parent-child metaphor it maintains is one that could connect it to other writings. It presents an interesting, and humorous, take on the debates and discriminations between Whigs and Tories, as the narrative follows the misadventures of its eponymous hero as he tries to sway New Englanders to the Loyalist position. For Trumbull, both sides are dull, long-winded, and superficial. Trumbull is best positioned amongst the poets and satirists of the Revolutionary writers, including the “Hartford Wits,” David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, and Lemuel Hopkins.