Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

The Honors Essay

ENGL 311.301
TR 1:30-3

This course will examine selected episodes in the history of American literary culture, from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, episodes in which the question of literature's public role arose in a particularly acute fashion. We will first read the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who originated the theoretical term "public sphere" to designate the critical space of open public debate on matters of general interest that emerged historically in roughly the eighteenth century. We will then proceed through a number of linked units. (1) We will read in the literature of the post-Revolutionary period, with special attention to the works of Judith Sargent Murray, an American writer of the 1790s (novelist, dramatist, essayist), who embodied and also commented on the difficulties surrounding a woman's participation in the public sphere. This unit will involve some archival work (i.e., research in original documents), most likely at the Library Company of Philadelphia. (2) We will look at an unusual national forum, sponsored by the Century magazine in the 1880s, that attempted to reflect upon the Civil War and Reconstruction and to rejoin the South and the North in a national dialogue. Among the essays, memoirs, poetry, folklore and other writings published by the Century were several serialized novels, among them Henry James' The Bostonians and parts of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. We will look at the difference it makes that they were first circulated publicly as magazine serials, and see how these novels, now read as literary classics, were then integral parts of a fractious struggle over the social life of a multiracial nation. (3) We will conclude with perhaps the most celebrated recent controversy in the cultural public sphere, the furor surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. The issues of race, gender, sexuality, and public decency that arose in the Mapplethorpe controversy have a long historical foreground that we will be in a better position to understand in the wake of our earlier investigations.