The American Revolution and Its Afterlives
This course will consider the American Revolution as a series of textual events—a series that may never come to an end. Our investigations of the war as a literary and cultural phenomenon will begin before the conflict itself, with a brief glance at the essay controversies of the 1760s that prepared the ground for armed revolt. We will then examine some of the founding documents of the rebellion—from political cartoons, broadsides, and popular songs to Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence. After tracing some of the textual causes of the Revolution, we will turn our attentions to its primary textual effects: international propaganda (both Patriot and Tory), journalistic, poetic, and dramatic accounts of life during wartime, partisan histories of the war’s “rise and progress.” The second half of the course will take up the various uses of the Revolution in American cultural memory after 1783: we will look at the war as moral lesson, as mythos, as farce, and as powerful touchstone for a number of social and political movements. Our range of texts and objects will be quite broad: we will look at paintings and engravings (by Stuart, Peale, and others), fragments of fanciful biographies (Weems on Washington; Simms on Marion), fiery invectives (William Apess, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton), historical novels (notably Herman Melville’s Israel Potter and Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s The Linwoods); rewritings of the Declaration of Independence, physical monuments and celebrations, coins and paper money, musicals (1776), movies (The Patriot) and television (South Park). Questions that we will look to answer include: What about the Revolution made it such a writing-centered phenomenon? How do aspects of the war, its causes, and consequences change over time? How does the cultural apparatus that grows up around the war articulate ideas about American personality as well as the American polity? What is at stake in every present’s drive to rewrite its past? What can the study of such revisionary practices teach us about the future of the republic?