The American Novel

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

1. Rationale

This course requires the reading of several (3-5) canonical novels which are approached both historically and analytically. Each novel is explored in depth to determine its uniqueness and relationship to the form, the development of the genre, and its place in the American literary landscape. Beyond such formal study of the genre, the course will explore both universal literary themes and those themes particular to American society and culture. Students also closely examine how the rhetorical and stylistic choices of authors enhance the meaning of the works.

2. Topics and Themes Emphasized

  • The idea of the Great American Novel
  • The master narrative
  • The up-from novel
  • The compendious “mega novel”
  • The romance of the divide
  • Authors’ rhetorical and stylistic choices
  • Empathy

3. Methods and Sample Assignments

  • Find parallels to the novel in a work that reimagines The Scarlet Letter.
  • Trace and analyze one of Faulkner’s “familiar preoccupations” in Light in August.
  • Explain how Ahab functions as a tragic hero in Moby-Dick.
  • Explore the historical basis for the Beloved.
  • What similarities are there between Margaret Garner and her story and Sethe’s in Beloved? In other words, what facts are present in Sethe’s story?
  • Chapter 132 of Moby-Dick has been called “ the most moving chapter in this book.” Explain, in detail, how this is, in fact, true.
  • In-class close reading:  What rhetorical devices does Heller use [in Catch-22] to enhance this particular scene? Explain how this choice correlates to one of his deeper themes in the book.
  • Creative Option #9 [for Catch-22]: Be a CID man for a day. Type up a formal report (satirical, of course) summarizing your investigation of Washington Irving (Alias: Irving Washington) and its possible connection T.S. Eliot. Have fun. Be brilliant!
  • Read the flashback on pages 84-85 of The Road. Describe how the boy’s perspective and the father’s perspective differ. How does McCarthy’s world exacerbate the natural conflicts between parent and child? Be prepared to share your answers aloud with the class.
  • In two paragraphs, explain what separates good from evil in The Road?
  • Track a motif throughout The Road and present your findings to the class. In a clear thesis, explain what the motif represents throughout and how it connects to the work as a whole.
  • In her novel Beloved, what literary techniques does Morrison use to “fill in the blanks” that the traditional narratives left out?

4. Expectations for Students

Reading: Nightly assignments, number of pages depends on the density of the text.

Writing: Journal writing, short answer quizzes, essay quizzes, short papers, critical essays. Generally, for the critical essays, students are encouraged to develop their own topics.

Listening and speaking: Part of a student’s grade is based on her or his class participation. Students are expected to initiate discussion; panel as well as individual oral presentations are assigned.

Collaborating: Students should expect to collaborate with at least one other student for in-class work and occasional group presentations and/or assignments.

5. Reading List

Titles and authors most likely will be drawn from the following list:

Accordion Crimes, Proulx
Beloved, Morrison
Blood Meridian, McCarthy
Catch-22, Heller
A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway
The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck
The House of Mirth, Wharton
Invisible Man, Ellison
The Known World, Jones
Light in August, Faulkner
Middlesex, Eugenides
Moby Dick, Melville
A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving
The Road, McCarthy
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe

The Dream of the Great American Novel, Buell

rev. 2/18

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