Classics of American Literature, 1820-1860

ENGLISH 269.01

What 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 12 Years a Slave(2015). Evaluation will be based on multiple exams, a series of short essays, and class participation.