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Intro. to American Literature

ENGL 200.001
instructor(s):
MWF 1

Many (if not most) of the recognized and honored American writers of the past were profoundly unpopular in their time, and most of the immensely popular writers of the past are no longer read and admired. How did this come to be the case? This course will be organized around the opposition between popular or mass literary culture on the one hand, and elite literary culture on the other hand. Is there a real difference between the "vulgar" appeal of popular literature and the "refined" pleasure to which unpopular books appeal? To give ourselves some focus, we'll concentrate on novels. The basic premise of the course is that the literary field (the total of published works) is conflictually structured by this distinction between popular and elite writing, and that writers create their works with the aim of appealing either to a broad audience or a select one. We'll read some of each kind of writer and try to understand, for instance, why Nathaniel Hawthorne (who is revered by literary critics now), had a very small audience in his lifetime, while Louisa May Alcott (whose critical reputation is not as high) was passionately read by millions. Among the popular works we'll read: Hannah Foster's *The Coquette* (1797), Hugh Henry Brackenridge's *Modern Chivalry* (1792-1815), George Lippard's vastly popular 1844-45 "urban porno-gothic" novel *The Quaker City* (a seamy tale of rape, murder and scandal set in Philadelphia in the 1840s), E. D. E. N. Southworth's 1859 *The Hidden Hand* (featuring a cross-dressing heroine who rescues maidens, fights duels, and breaks criminals out of prison), and Alcott's *Little Women* (1868-69). Among the less popular: Charles Brockden Brown's *Wieland* (1799), Hawthorne's *The Blithedale Romance* (1851), Herman Melville's *Pierre* (1852), Elizabeth Stoddard's *The Morgesons* (1862).