Special Topics in 18th and 19th Century Lit: American Crime: Theater, Fiction, Film, 1800-1914

English 290S.2.01

Public drunkenness, prostitution, arson, kidnapping, assault and battery, homicide: these are just a handful of the crimes that became increasingly prevalent in the United States throughout the long nineteenth century. In this course, we examine many of the period’s plays, novels, and silent films that reflected a culture of seemingly never-ending vice. Our discussions center on how these different media affected specific groups of consumers. Playwrights, fiction writers, and filmmakers all utilized formal tools exclusive to their respective medium when depicting violent and nearly pornographic scenes of crime. The course moves across Northeastern urban capitals of sin to brutalizing Southern plantations and through the often lawless Western frontier. By tracing how artists exploited and sensationalized crime, we engage national debates regarding social class advancement, immigration, Native American removal, slavery, and sex trafficking.

The syllabus covers plays including W.H. Smith’s The Drunkard, Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, and Clyde Fitch’s The City; novels such as Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods and Frank Norris’s McTeague; short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Louisa May Alcott, and films including The Great Train Robbery and Inside the White Slave Traffic. Supplemental readings feature exposé journalistic sketches, police gazette reports, and theater reviews as well as secondary source readings from social and political history and performance studies. In reading all our primary texts against these materials, we attempt to separate the era’s real-life crimes from those existing only within the literary imagination. Evaluation consists of a series of short essays, two oral presentations, a final research essay, and class participation.