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Mourning America: Emerson and Douglass

ENGL 558.301
W 12-3


This course will focus on the relations and differences between these two “representative men” of the nineteenth century, and will suggest that Emerson and Douglass are perhaps America’s greatest defenders, precisely because they are perhaps its greatest mourners.  If they each suggest that America, as the realization of the promise of the right to representation for everyone, does not yet exist and therefore must be mourned, they also suggest that the writer who remains faithful to the ideals of democracy nevertheless can perform, and perhaps help realize this promise through acts of writing.  By putting Emerson and Douglass alongside each other, the course seeks to stage a kind of dialectical interchange that will enable us to revise our understanding of both of these writers, especially in relation to issues of slavery, racism, and capital.  Demonstrating that Douglass’ strategies of writing have relays with Emerson’s will enable us to bring out the radically political and historical character of Emerson’s writings but also the profoundly literary elements of Douglass’ political writings.  

Using the writings of these two key figures of the nineteenth century as a kind of measure, the course will seek to understand the governing cultural and political rhetorics through which nineteenth-century America thought about such issues as race, slavery, nationality, manifest destiny, westward expansion, and identity.  Their writings will be read as both symptomatic and critical of the discourses that shaped the terms of these issues and debates.  Although most of our time will be devoted to close readings of Emerson’s and Douglass’ writings, we also will be reading texts by, among others, Thomas Paine and Daniel Webster, and also several contemporaneous texts devoted to race and scientific racism, manifest destiny, physiognomy, ethnology, geology, and all the other discourses that, together, worked to define and consolidate economic and racial privilege during this period.