With approximately 2.3 million people in federal and state prisons, and an unknown number of people in its detention centers abroad, the United States “leads the world in producing prisoners” (New York Times, 23 April 2008). What is more, imprisonment disproportionately impacts racial minorities and the poor: as of 2008, 1 in 11 African-Americans, 1 in 27 Latinos, and 1 in 45 whites were in prison, and over 50% of people in prison earned less than $10,000/year before being put behind bars (“One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” Pew Charitable Trusts). This situation has a complex cultural history this seminar will examine by reading the literature of crime in early North America. We will read 17th, 18th, and 19th-century fictional and political texts written about crime and by criminals: texts about crime on seas and rivers, in the cities, and on the “frontier;” texts about public execution; texts about how race, sex, gender, and class inflect criminality; texts about slavery and the rise of the prison system. Our tasks will be to understand how the very ideas of crime and the criminal were formulated between the 17th and 19th-centuries, how that formulation was a conflictual and contested process, and what role literature played in that process. This will be an interdisciplinary course combining fiction, history, and political theory.
This course counts as an Cultural Diversity in U.S. course in the College's requirement.