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Introduction to American Literature

ENGL 200.001
instructor(s):
MWF 10

Note: Majors seeking to fulfill the usual English 200 requirement may do so by taking English 82 or 83. (Seniors, with special permission from the Undergraduate Chair, may use 282 or 283 in place of 200, 82, or 83, especially those concentrating in American literature before 1900).

Meeting common misgivings about classic American literature head on, this section of English 200 will concern itself with the tension between material "reality" and textual extravagance in classic works of the late 18th through late 19th centuries. Reading texts by such authors as Irving, Brockden Brown, Melville, Whitman, Douglass, Stowe, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Twain, James and Jewett, we will probe the functions of symbol, allegory, lavishly figurative language, baroque plotting, outside characters, ornate settings and exaggeration and obscurity of all kinds in American texts produced before the first World War.  At the same time, we will be tracking the specific national transformations and traumas this literature engages.  What is gained, one might ask, when Stowe's polemical anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin makes Tom's journey to a plantation also a descent into Hell and also a descent into Egypt?  What effect do Stowe's multiple allusions have on the specific policy changes her novel would promote?  On the other hand, what can Whitman mean when he says in a journal entry that he wants Leaves of Grass to have a "plate glassy" transparency?  Can literature ever attain to the transparency of glass, and how transparent anyway is a transparency so self-consciously wedded to the inventions of its own day?  How clear is glass or a newspaper full of facts or an austere sentence or the eye that seeks the "real"?  This course will make its implicit concern the American reader's demand for the very transparency and accessibility that much American literature refuses.