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Histories of Forgetting

ENGL 781.301
R 12-3

From the late 17th century, disturbances and disruptions of memory loom ever larger in the western social imaginary. From Locke to Freud, individual and collective relations to the past—the very identity and character of persons and institutions—seem increasingly to depend on what has been lost or excluded from memory. In America, forgetting has frequently seemed to many observers like a kind of self-inflicted destiny—at once an inevitable condition and an active pursuit. This course on 18th- and 19th-century American literature and culture remembers, or pieces together, some histories of what Gore Vidal has called the “United States of Amnesia.”

We’ll begin with the emergence of Lockean epistemology and the plight of modern memory. How much history do you need under liberal rationalism? How much of the past must you possess in order to govern, sympathize, write, love, mourn, fashion an identity, or project a future? Is memory the foundation of the social? Is it inimical to happiness? Who and what must you exclude in order to realize a particular vision of justice or sovereignty or friendship? What’s the cost of obtaining the history you most desire, or of ridding your memory of its stupefying encumbrances?

From Puritan historiography to 18th-century autobiography to antebellum fiction, we’ll trace developments in the hermeneutics of memory as well as in specific forms of recollecting and forgetting, such as lyric, history, life narrative, translation, the anthology, the library, and the photograph. Likely authors include Mary Rowlandson, Cotton Mather, Edward Taylor, Jonathan Edwards, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Samson Occom, Tom Paine, Charles Brockden Brown, Benjamin Rush, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus. Integral to our weekly meetings will also be a range of theoretical texts, extending our analysis of modern memory through Nietzsche’s “active forgetting,” Freud’s theory of repression, and beyond to more recent genealogies of forgetting in Heidegger, Benjamin, Foucault, Yerushalmi, Anderson, Derrida, Caruth, and others.

Students will submit periodic response papers and deliver an in-class presentation—the latter in conjunction with a bibliography exercise—and they will write an article-length final essay. And, yes, there will be at least one memorization exercise!

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