American Literature 1600-1920

One-semester course
Open to 10, 11, 12
Range of difficulty 1-3

1. Rationale

Some core questions for this course are: What does American Literature have to say about the American promises of freedom, equality and independence? What makes “American Literature” American? What distinguishes American Literature from World Literature? Are there transcendent themes in American Literature? This course also provides students with an introduction to and overview of the literature of the United States from early American writings to 1920. There are many possible approaches to the study of American Literature. A teacher may choose a chronological approach starting with Native American and pre-Colonial literature and move through the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Or, a teacher may choose texts from different periods using a single theme or set of themes as a common thread. Grouping American Literature by genre is yet another possible approach.

2. Topics and Themes

• Democratic Principles: Freedom, Equality, Independence
• The dialectic between American History and American Literature
• Canonical vs. Non-Canonical Works and Who Decides
• The American Dream
• Class and Materialism
• The Individual in Society
• Religion in America
• War and Peace
• Race
• Gender
• Insider vs. Outsider
• American Aesthetics
• Satire
• Family
• Relationships

3. Methods

The primary methods are close critical reading, discussion, brief lectures, formal essays, journaling, and informal “writing to learn” exercises. Connections are made between works, historical contexts and themes.

4. Expectations for Students
In addition to the department-wide expectations, students are expected to be capable readers and good writers. Students are expected to come to class prepared with observations, thoughts and questions on the nightly reading. In class, students are expected to participate regularly and to listen carefully to one another. Later in the course, students are expected to draw conclusions, make intertextual connections between, and generalizations from the reading.

Reading: Students have nightly reading that varies with the difficulty level of each text: for example, The Scarlet Letter, 20 pages; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 30-35 pages.

Writing: Students have regular formal and informal writing assignments. 4-6 formal essays in the course, plus reading journals, in-class “writing to learn” exercises, and activator questions to stimulate discussion. Students are expected to keep notes on the reading, lectures and class discussions.

Exams: There is a semester examination in January.

5. Reading List and Other Materials

The Scarlet Letter
Benito Cereno
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Puddn’head Wilson

The Awakening
The Yellow Wallpaper
Ethan Frome
Spoon River Anthology
A Mercy

Short Stories:
There are many stories taught. The following are the most commonly taught:
selections from Sun Songs
“Rip van Winkle”
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
stories from The Portable Poe
stories from The Portable Hawthorne
“Bartleby the Scrivener”
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County”
“The Story of an Hour”
“Desiree’s Baby”
“Gift of the Magi”
In Our Time (Hemingway)

The Crucible

There are many poems taught. The following are the most commonly taught poets and/or titles:
Anne Bradstreet
Phyllis Wheatley
Emily Dickinson
Leaves of Grass and Civil War Poetry, Walt Whitman

Non Fiction:
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards
“A Plea for Captain John Brown”
“The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass
“Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts” and Walden, Henry David Thoreau
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ken Burns’ Mark Twain, The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, Glory

General Texts Available: American Short Stories, The Mentor Book of American Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Poetry

6. Bibliography
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Kaplan
Walt Whitman’s America, Reynolds
God and the American Writer, Kazin
No Place of Grace, Lears
The Great Circle, Yu
The Cycle of American Literature, Spiller
The American Novel and Its Tradition, Chase
The Flowering of New England, Brooks
The American Transcendentalists, Miller
The American Renaissance, Matthiessen
Literary Democracy, Ziff

Sample Assignments:

1. In the opening lines of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck alludes to the “boy book” Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Do you think Huck Finn is also a “kid’s book”? Why or why not?

2. In Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, many people – men and women – are accused of witchcraft and are rounded up by the constables. Here, ever-so-briefly, is the situation: confess to being a witch, and you will be whipped, imprisoned, punished …… but not killed. Do not confess, and it will be assumed that you are, indeed, a witch and you will be killed. If you “turn in” other witches, you will be dealt with less harshly. What a choice.

Your assignment is to write an essay addressing this question:

John Proctor’s Decision – What Would I Have Done? In at least 5 paragraphs, please discuss the factors that went into John Proctor’s final decision at the very end of the story. Then talk about what you would have done, and why, if you were faced with the same factors during the same time period.

rev. 10/17

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