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Feeling and Society in American Fiction

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

What is the role of feeling in social change? The premise of this course is that literary forms like the novel and the short story have their deepest impact by shaping and fostering feelings of belonging. The dominant marriage plot encouraged readers to see middle-class family as the natural way for the genders and generations to belong to each other and to American society. But "family values" and issues were as much debated in the nineteenth century as they are today, and Americans faced a number of challenges to this marital norm, from polygamy to "free love" and the exit strategy of divorce. Increasingly fiction offered readers new ways of mediating feelings that they belonged (or didn't belong) to particular social groups.

We will examine a range of nineteenth-century American literary works for the way they formed and reformed feelings of belonging. How do highly personal feelings like love and intimacy create (or erode) particular social bonds? Why did some novelists begin to replace the plot of wedlock with one of "deadlock" and marital unhappiness? How did fiction about the figure of the artist reorder ideas about social belonging? How did questions of intimacy play a part in the explosive racial issues of this period? To explore these questions we will read works by Melville, Hawthorne, Chopin, Jewett, Hopkins, James, Wharton, Sui Sin Far, and Dreiser.