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Cultural Crossings

ENGL 282.301
instructor(s):
MWF 10

Following Evecoeur's famous 1782 question, "What, then, is the America, this new man?," countless cultural critics and historians have attempted to define a singular American character or identity. More recently, many have sought to discard such a unitary conception of Americanness in favor of a multicultural picture of American character, in which the differences among various ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual identities have been foregrounded. Critics of so-called multiculturalism have protested, in turn, that it disunites America by slotting people into separate categories. In this course, we'll enter this ongoing discussion in a particular way: many of the most interesting and compelling works of early American literature describe acts of cultural crossing, the transformation of identity. Can a "white" person actually become an "Indian"? The earliest genre of mass literature in the United States, for instance, was the captivity narrative-the story of a white person captured by Indians and more or less successfully transformed into an Indian. Can a citizen shift into and out of various social identities at will? The *Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs* (1798) told the story of a shady character who variously impersonated a minister, a counterfeiter, a schoolteacher, and a financial agent. Hugh Henry Brackenridge's rollicking *Modern Chivalry* (1792-1815) featured an ignorant Irish immigrant who nevertheless was mistaken for an Indian, a philosopher, and a rare species of bird. Herman Mann's *The =46emale Review* (1797) told of Deborah Sampson, who passed for a man in order to be a soldier in the American Revolution. Can a slave become a free person (and vice versa)? Can a woman become a man? Can an unregenerate sinner become a saint? Why would some black people want to pass for white, and why would some white people choose to "black up"? What does a culture truly believe about identity if it embraces stories and performances of people whose most fundamental identity changes so radically?