Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

American Literature of Dissent

ENGL 286.302
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

The United States is a nation founded on dissent and some of the most enduring works of American literature deal with topics that were politically controversial at the time.  As a way to keep the reading list under control, the course will focus on two different highpoints of dissent in the United States: first the controversy over slavery in the 1850s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  While these texts attack American social and political institutions and contain sentiments that seemed radical, their authors often maintained literary traditions and framed their protest within boundaries that made sense to their readers.  This course will attempt to examine the ways in which these text fit into their historical period and what significance they hold for a larger discussion of dissent in the United States.

While this course will ask many questions about these books, the focus will remain on three questions:
1)  What did these books mean to the people who read them when they were published?  Why did some sell so well?
2)  How did these books fit into national political and social debates in America?  How did they fit into the society they criticized?
3)  Can these texts help us develop a sense of the effectiveness of print for conveying dissent?  What limits does print face?  What genres work to convey dissent?

Plan:  This course will consist of two halves.  The first two thirds will be a typical “course” in which I select the readings, present the historical and literary context, and frame the questions and you all, as students, read and discuss. Because we are asking questions about books as part of a reader’s experience, we will incorporate visits to the archives (both at Penn and at The Library Company in town).  At the end of that section, you will write a paper about a text of your choice and some of the archival material we have looked at.  The second third will begin with some texts that I chose but demand much more of you.  In this half, you will generate the texts that we read and will take control of much of the discussion of those texts.  You will need to present the historical context and decide what materials we need to see in order to understand these texts.  At the end of this half, you will write a longer paper based on that work which will answer the question “How did dissent circulate in the late 20th Century?  How did that process shape the meaning and reception of these texts?”

Reading List
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno”
John Greenleaf Whittier, selected anti-slavery poems
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
William Wells Brown, Clotel or the President’s Daughter
Charles Chesnutt “The Passing of Grandison” “The Goophered Grapevine”
Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Malcom X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Martin Luther King, “Letter From the Birmingham Jail”