Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

The Comic Tradition in 19th Century American Literature

ENGL 583.301
T 12-3

According to E.B. White, "Analyzing Humor is like dissecting a frog; that is, it can be done, but the frog tends to die in the process."  In this course, we are going to try to kill frogs.  We will investigate American literary humor both historically--looking at comic and satiric treatments of gender and domesticity, of class, of "business," of slavery, of race, of "American" character and regional character of immigrants,  etc.--and theoretically.  We will read a few works in the "canon," but much of our work will be by authors who are no longer in print, so most of our reading will be from photocopied bulk packs.  Readings will probably include excerpts from Washington Irving's The Sketchbook; Frances Miriam Whitcher's The Widow Bedott Papers; James Lowell's The Bigelow Papers; excerpts from Caroline Kirkland's A New Home--Who'll Follow?; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, "I and My Chimney," "Cock-a-doodle-do!," "The Apple-Tree Table,"and "Bartleby the Scrivener"; Sarah Willis Parton's (Fanny Fern) "satires" from Fern Leaves; Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Fireside Stories; selected satires, hoaxes, and burlesques by Edgar Allan Poe; Mark Twain's Roughing It, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and selected short works; George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood's Yarns; selected tales of "John Phoenix"; Charles Farrar Brown's Artemis Ward: His Book; Marrietta Holley's My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's or My Wayward Pardner; selected stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman; selected stories by Charles Chesnutt; Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings; The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, edited by John Morreal; and selected other shortstories by various authors.

I see this primarily as a reading course, so rather than assign a large paper, I will have each student write several short papers to be presented in the class.  One of these will be on a book of criticism or theory to be drawn from a list I will provide at the beginning of the term.  

Prerequisites:  a sense of humor, and faith that some of the frogs will live!

Note: This course is open to advanced undergraduates with permission of the instructor.  Seniors only may take this course in place of the usual

fulfills requirements