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American Lives: Self-making and Self-expression in the Nineteenth Century

ENGL 283.301
instructor(s):
MW 3-4:30

This course examines the idea of "the self" as it emerges across genres in nineteenth century American literature. While we conventionally think of the self in a static sense, as the"real me" inside the particular bodies, faces, clothing, houses, cars and jobs we inhabit and present to the world, the readings for the course show nineteenth century writers thinking through and testing this conventional notion of the difference between what Emerson called "the me" and "the not me." We will examine these questions through various types of sources, from the literature of conversion, liberation, and testimony that we usually think of when we think autobiography; to more selectively phenomenological works of self-expression and self-scrutiny that take the form of the essay or the poem; to novels of development that variously mimic or mock the conventions of biography and autobiography. In sum, this course aims both to traverse the American tradition in unaccustomed ways, and to give students a sense of the historical particularity of what counted as private, personal, or interior to nineteenth century minds.

Readings may include: William Apess, Child of the Forest; Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Emerson, "Self-Reliance" and "Experience," Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Melville, Pierre; Thoreau, Walden; Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn; Whitman, "Song of Myself"; Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide World, in addition to various critical and theoretical sources. Course requirements will include a mid-term essay and a final essay, various one-page response papers, and active classroom participation.