English 016.302

Topics in Literature:

Instructor: Daniel Traister

Fall 2000

Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00-4:30 P.M.
Location: Lea Library, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

Instructor's office: Special Collections, Van Pelt Library
Phone: 215 898 7088

Instructor's email: traister@pobox.upenn.edu
Class listserve: traister16@dept.english.upenn.edu
Class resources: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/eng16resources.html




My syllabi are very detailed -- in fact, they are over-detailed -- about the courses I teach. Read this section now to avoid surprise, disappointment, or horror later. No one has to take this class who doesn't want to take it. If you do take it, however, you should know what you're in for.

I expect students to read, in addition to the assigned books themselves, a little bit of criticism and scholarship. "A little bit" means, and I quote, "a little bit." It does not mean "a lot." I am mainly concerned with the attentiveness, skill, and imagination with which you read the primary texts, the literature in question, that I have assigned.

"Recommended readings" (the "little bit" of criticism and scholarship just mentioned) are always "recommendations." "Recommendations" are something other than covert requirements. They will be mentioned, perhaps even distributed in photocopied form, when I think -- laboring under the quaint illusion that they might interest or be useful to you -- that they are worth my time and yours to mention or distribute. I hope you will read as much and as many of them as you can. "Hope" is not the same thing as "requires." "Requirements" are specified in the weekly readings that are assigned in the schedule below.

An important piece of advice:

Some of the works we will read are older even than I am. As a result, their language, like mine, may not be entirely familiar to you. When you are in any doubt at all, the single best resource for readers of English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary (known as OED). It is available to Penn students through the Library's website, as well as in its various printed forms. This dictionary will (of course!) provide you with simple "definitions." Also -- and much more importantly -- it offers historical definitions, that is, a record of how a word has been used over time. These, and not just "the definition," are what you want to examine when you use OED. This information allows you to see the range of different usages, meanings, and connotations any given word might have made available to someone using it during the century in which the writer in question was using it, in addition to its primary, obvious, or present-day denotative value(s).

This course meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 P.M. in the Edgar Fahs Smith Library (Tuesdays) and the Henry Charles Lea Library (Thursdays), both rooms on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. NOTE: You cannot bring food or drink to this room.

As noted at the top of this syllabus, my office is in the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library (also on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library). You can reach me there by telephone (215 898 7088) or in person at that location. Please call before showing up; I am not always at my desk. You can communicate with me as well by e-mail at


Discussions need not be confined to classroom sessions only: the class has an e-list

that I ENCOURAGE you to use. Use it for questions, comments, second (or third or fourth) thoughts, disagreements, restatements, or any other thoughts or announcements that you think might be of general interest (your birthday; a holiday; the birth of your new sister, brother, or child; your passing grade on, or your acing of, a calculus midterm). I will also use it for similar purposes.


This class is a seminar. In other words, while its overall shape may be determined by the syllabus and assignments you find here, in its day-to-day operations our class's direction depends upon you. You are responsible for making it work, for it will work through your discussion rather than my lectures. Hence, not only your attendance but also, and far more significantly, your participation will make a difference in (in fact, be the main cause of) its success -- or its failure -- and, let me repeat, will also be major factors in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness get in the way of making your points.

This course requires three short papers, each of about five to eight pages (approximately 1250-2000 words). They are due at intervals specified in the class schedule below (September 21; October 19; November 16).

A longer final paper of about ten pages (approximately 2500 words) is due at the end of the semester (December 20).

You may expect occasional unannounced quizzes on the readings. I will give more such quizzes if classroom discussion makes me doubt that you are keeping up with the reading, less -- or none -- if it is clear that you are keeping up with it.

This course will have no final examination.

Some additional points:


NOTE: The nature of the books to be taught in this course means that several of them are either out of print or available only in relatively expensive (and occasionally unattractively printed) modern reprints. You may wish to use the library in order to find circulating copies of some of these texts. You may also want to search various used book sources for better editions of books read in this course, some of which may even be cheaper than the modern reprints. Such sources include AddAll Used and Out of Print Search and Bookfinder. (I have a webpage that may offer more assistance than these two sites: Book Sources.)


  1. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. David Bevington, et al. (New York: Bantam Classics Series, 1988) -- ISBN: 0553213067

  2. William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. David Crane (New York: Pocket Books, 1988) -- ISBN: 0671731432

  3. George Walker, Theodore Cyphon; or, The Benevolent Jew (London 1796) -- out of print: BULKPACK

      So far as I know, this book has not been reprinted since the first quarter of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly not be able to find any copy of it, let alone an affordable copy of it, other than the photocopy distributed in class.

  4. William Gilmore Simms, The Yemassee, ed. Joseph V. Ridgely, Masterworks of Literature Series (New Haven: N C U P, Incorporated, 1964) -- ISBN: 0808403370 (but apparently out of print: BULKPACK)

      An electronic version of this novel is available in two parts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (this URL takes you to part one; at this site, you can look at the text in html or go to a facsimile of the original, which, if you wish, you can print out page by page). A modern scholarly edition was published in 1994 by the University of Arkansas Press; it lists for $44.00 and is available at a discount from various online new booksellers. The American Book Company published a decent textbook edition in 1937 (reprinted by Hafner in 1962). Houghton Mifflin published a Riverside Edition paperback in 1961. Twayne published an edition in 1964. Used copies are easy to find on used book online services.

  5. Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1970) -- ISBN: 0813101263

      The interested student will want to watch D. W. Griffith's exemplar of an early American cinematic triumph, the classic Birth of a Nation, based on this classic American novel. An electronic version of Dixon's text is available from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For those who think that The Clansman is as bad as it gets, the same author's The Leopard's Spots (1902, also available from UNC-Chapel Hill), will come as a revelation.

  6. Andrew Macdonald, The Turner Diaries: A Novel (Barricade Books, 1996) -- ISBN: 1569800863

  7. Opie Read, My Young Master, ed. Wayne Mixon, Library of Southern Civilization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987) -- ISBN 0807113956

  8. S. Weir Mitchell, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker -- out of print: BULKPACK

      An electronic version of one small part of this book, in its magazine serial format (with illustrations), is available from Cornell University's Library. This book is extremely easy to find (and it should be very cheap) on used book online services.

  9. Mildred Walker, Winter Wheat (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992) -- ISBN: 0803297416

  10. William Demby, The Catacombs, Northeastern Library of Black Literature (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991) -- ISBN 1555530990

  11. Edward Eggleston, The Circuit Rider, ed. William P. Randel, Masterworks of Literature Series (New Haven: N C U P, Incorporated, 1966) -- ISBN: 0808400789 (but apparently out of print: BULKPACK)

      The University Press of Kentucky reprinted the book in 1978. Used copies are easy to find on used book online services.

  12. Gene Stratton Porter, A Girl of the Limberlost, Library of Indiana Classics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) -- ISBN 0253203317

  13. Meredith Nicholson, The Main Chance -- out of print: BULKPACK

      Used copies are easy to find on used book online services.



    Week 1 -- Thursday, September 7


    Week 2 -- Tuesday/Thursday, September 12/14

      Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

      Recommended: Sven Birkerts, "MahVuhHuhPuh," The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), chap. 1, pp. 11-32

    Week 3 -- Tuesday/Thursday, September 19/21

      Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

      PAPER 1 (due Thursday, September 21):

      Shrew is a play frequently performed, often assigned to students, and much written about. Of Merry Wives, none of these things is true, even though its author is also Shakespeare. Shrew receives much more, and much warmer, attention than Merry Wives. Can you offer any reasons to account for this difference in the reception of these two plays, both written by the writer whose works lie at the very heart of "the English canon" but only one of them seeming to enjoy "canonical status," by virtue of anything intrinsic or extrinsic to these plays? Is Shrew "better than" Merry Wives? If you argue that it is, then by what standard? that is, measured in what way? And, of course, how is it "better"? Or, asked a little differently, how would one "know" that it's a better play?


    Week 4 -- Tuesday/Thursday, September 26/28

      Walker, Theodore Cyphon -- BULKPACK

    Week 5 -- Tuesday/Thursday, October 3/5

      Simms, The Yemassee -- BULKPACK

    Week 6 -- Tuesday/Thursday, October 10/12

      Dixon, The Clansman

    Week 7 -- Tuesday, October 17 -- NO CLASS: FALL BREAK

      Thursday, October 19

      MacDonald, The Turner Diaries

      PAPER 2 (choose topic 1 or 2; due Thursday, October 19):

      (1) Each of these last four novels is racist in one way or another. Does anything make you feel more (or less) warmly about any of them, or all they all much of a grim muchness, all pretty much a disgusting waste of everyone's time? Is there even one of them to which you would urge renewed attention, perhaps even -- well, "popularity"? Why? (Or why not?)

      (2) "The Turner Diaries is the most repulsively racist and unredeemed . . . [of these books]. It should not be taught, read, or disseminated. The book should simply be ignored. In fact, were it possible really to destroy every single copy of it, then it should be destroyed." Comment.


    Week 8 -- Tuesday/Thursday, October 24/26

      Read, My Young Master

    Week 9 -- Tuesday/Thursday, October 31/November 2

      Mitchell, Hugh Wynne -- BULKPACK

    Week 10 -- Tuesday/Thursday, November 7/9

      Walker, Winter Wheat

    Week 11 -- Tuesday/Thursday, November 14/16

      Demby, The Catacombs

      PAPER 3 (choose topic 1 or 2; due Thursday, November 16):

      (1) In most respects, the books of these past four weeks (Read, Mitchell, Mildred Walker, and Demby) are much less troublesome in just about every way than the four books we read during the preceding four weeks (George Walker, Simms, Dixon, MacDonald). Which of them, do you feel, least deserves to be brought back into anything even approximating public attention, and why?

      (2) The element that has deposed these four novels from whatever regard they might once have commanded is their politics. Comment, concentrating on any two of them.


    Week 12 -- Tuesday, November 21

      Eggleston, The Circuit Rider -- BULKPACK

      Thursday, November 23 -- NO CLASS: THANKSGIVING

    Week 13 -- Tuesday/Thursday, November 28/30

      Porter, The Girl of the Limberlost

    Week 14 -- Tuesday/Thursday, December 5/7

      Nicholson, The Main Chance -- BULKPACK

    A final paper (approximately 2500 words) is due on December 20. You are invited to select your own topic for this paper but, whatever that topic is, you (1) MUST have discussed it with me, (2) it MUST have had my approval, and (3) that discussion must have taken place no later than the end of Week 13 (December 1, 2000).

    Some examples of possible final paper topics

    (1) You have a candidate for a book that merits revival. Defend your choice.

    (2) The whole point of creating "a canon" in the first place is to spare anyone the need to read the sort of garbage we've spent this term reading. A literary canon is functional; it serves a comprehensible, human, and even a humane purpose; we're better off with it than we would be without it. -- Argue that point of view, using at least three specific examples, both positive and negative, at least one of them a book not read for this class.

    (3) Books that do not "make it" into the canon may not be as "good," somehow or other (and whatever that notion means), as those that do; and yet, finding -- discovering -- books that no one else has thought worthwhile is among the things that gives readers the greatest of pleasures. Literature is not a contest: readers can find things that are enjoyable, things that are worth reading, almost wherever they turn. -- Argue that point of view, using at least three specific examples (positive), at least one of them a book not read for this class.

    (4) Argue against that point of view, arguing that literature is (as it were) a contest and that the purpose of a literary education is not to "discover" unregarded works on one's own but rather to learn how to read intelligently and well those books that have crossed the finish line. Use at least three specific examples of your positives and of your negatives, at least one of them a book not read for this class.


    You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

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