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Enlightenment and its Discontents

ENGL 286.301
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30
fulfills requirements:
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

In a 1784 lecture, Immanuel Kant at once posed and answered a famous question: “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s conclusion—that the age of Enlightenment is that in which “man” finds the courage to “make use of his understanding without direction from another”—is suggestive, but not exhaustive. In the centuries since Kant’s inquiry, the trope of “Enlightenment” has been used to explain those sea-changes in natural philosophy, religion, politics, economics, education, gender and family structure, literature, painting, and personal comportment that shaped the 18th and 19th centuries. This course provides a literary introduction to some varieties of Enlightenment in the Americas: reading essays, sermons, plays, novels and poems written between 1690 and 1845, we will trace the rise and progress of the ideologies and technologies of Enlightened thought in the Colonies, the Caribbean, and in the newly United States. Beginning with the witch trials in Salem and ending with the industrialization of the American landscape, we will look at different textual elaborations of spiritual doubt, scientific method, materialism, rationalism, liberalism and capitalism. We will also examine a large number of works that critique or interrogate the shifting ideals of Enlightenment, including theological materials from the Great Awakening, slave narratives, Gothic fictions. We will be particularly attentive to the political, economic, and cultural roots and consequences of Enlightenment thought, especially with respect to the following questions: Was the American Revolution a necessary product of the Enlightenment? Was plantation slavery? Was the modern “self”? What happens to the categories of race, class and gender as they encounter (or are produced by) the Enlightenment? What is the place of religion, sentiment, and irrationality in an Enlightened world? How do material circumstances (technological, economic, print-cultural, geographical) work to define Enlightenment ideologies? What is to become of the un-Enlightened? Primary readings will likely include works by Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Phillis Wheatley, Samson Occom, John Marrant, Philip Freneau, William Bartram, James Grainger, Edward Long, David Rittenhouse, Thomas Jefferson, Judith Sargent Murray, Hannah Webster Foster, Benjamin Rush, Charles Brockden Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, William Apess, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass.