New Assistant English Professor, Dr. Michael D'Alessandro and Learn About His Fall 2017 Courses

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Michael D’Alessandro holds an M.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale University and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Boston University. His principal research focuses on American literature and theatre history in the long nineteenth century. Whether studying well-known works of the literary canon or long-forgotten theatrical melodramas, D’Alessandro highlights the significance of social class within nineteenth-century reception. He also teaches twentieth- and twenty-first century American literature, film, and performance history, and his published work focuses on authors such as Frank Norris and William Faulkner. His articles have appeared in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, The New England Quarterly, Mississippi Quarterly, The Eugene O’Neill Review, and Studies in American Naturalism.

Before arriving at Duke, D’Alessandro served as Lecturer and Assistant Director of Studies in Harvard’s History and Literature Program. At Harvard, Yale, and BU, he designed and taught several seminars, including “American Romantic Fiction and the Occult,” “Utopias and Dystopias in American Literature,” “The City in Modern American Drama,” and “Melodramatic Theatre and Early Silent Film.”

Currently, he is working on a book project entitled Staged Readings: Sensationalism and Class in Popular American Literature and Theatre, 1835-1875. Examining the overlaps between print and popular theatre, Staged Readings analyzes how working- and middle-class citizens shifted between roles as literary consumers and theatrical spectators in nineteenth-century America. The study reads works of popular fiction (George Lippard’s The Quaker City, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask; or A Woman’s Power) against best-selling theatrical melodramas (The Drunkard; Undine, or, the Spirit of the Waters). With special attention to archival documents—including playbills, diary entries, parlor theatre manuals, etchings of tableaux vivants—the project seeks to expand the history of class-driven consumer culture. 

English 269: Classics of American Literature, 1820-1860

Classics of American Lit:  1820-1860What makes a “classic” of American literature? Why do a handful of texts endure while others have fallen by the wayside? By reading a variety of well-known texts from the U.S.’s arguably most prolific period of early literature, we pose—and attempt to answer—these questions. While the syllabus contains many texts that have long remained in the canon, our course also includes works that have reappeared through recent historical recovery. Collectively, these texts illuminate pivotal political debates, social movements, gender struggles, and ethnic clashes from 1820 to 1860.

Though each class focuses on a distinct subject or author, we also ask questions about the progression (and often regression) of American culture. For instance, how did early America’s women writers carve out spaces as authors and activists? How did authors of color circumvent or undermine a dominant white culture through their writings? How did American writers engage gothic and occult trends gaining popularity in the U.S.?  Texts include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as works by Dickinson, Melville, Douglass, and Poe. Cinematic adaptations will be central to the class; films will include Dario Argento’s The Black Cat (1990), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2015). Evaluation will be based class participation, one presentation, and three short papers.

English 890S: Transatlantic Melodrama

English 890S: Transatlantic Melodrama

This course is a graduate seminar examining theatrical melodrama in its many incarnations over the long nineteenth century. Though modern audiences often dismiss the genre, critic Eric Bentley asserts that melodrama “is drama in its elemental form; it is the quintessence of drama.” Our investigation of this claim centers the course. Yet instead of tracing melodrama backwards through other genres, we will examine a range of theatrical melodramas and try to define how and why the genre has persevered for so long. Critics such as Bentley, Peter Brooks, Linda Williams, and Amy Hughes have determined several characteristics of the genre—including clear polarizations of good and evil, extreme expressions of emotion, and sensationalistic displays of the human body in peril—and we will seek to build upon this discussion.

Our conversations about melodrama will most often address the social and cultural functions of the genre. Melodrama underwent several permutations within its three most popular national homes: France, England, and the United States. Accordingly, we will compare features from melodrama’s many sub-genres, such as the Gothic melodrama, the temperance melodrama, and the New Woman melodrama. Most importantly, we will attempt to track how melodrama remained such a valuable political weapon as it migrated through the different countries. Melodrama emerged in Parisian theatres out of the same democratic principles surrounding the French Revolution; soon after, English playwrights used the genre to draw attention to such social issues as factory worker exploitation and urban crime. In America, nineteenth-century dramatists utilized melodrama to engage public debates over prostitution, slavery, and industrialization.

Primary readings will be supplemented with a series of critical articles analyzing the genre’s shifting definitions and historical contexts. Though the course is based in dramatic literature, we will trace the influence of melodrama across media—including fiction by Walt Whitman and forgotten city-mystery novelists, silent films by D.W. Griffith and others, television soap operas, and blockbuster disaster films—in order to help us to understand melodrama’s pervasive influence within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Evaluation will include class participation, two oral presentations, and a final term paper.