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Topics In American Literature

ENGL 286.301
TR 10:30-12

In the 1830s, a loosely organized group of young Americans launched a cultural and intellectual assault on the comfortable assumptions of church, state, and society. They came to be known as Transcendentalists (though many of them rejected this label), in part because of their focus on crises of the spirit and because they had strong affinities with German Idealism and British Romanticism. Their aggressive efforts to reform political and economic relations--including race- and gender-relations--bewildered and enraged many in the older generation, and they contributed to major reform movements such as the anti-slavery crusade. These efforts also yielded some of the most famous and influential American literature of the nineteenth century, from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays to the nature writing of Henry David Thoreau to the feminist works of Margaret Fuller. We will study these three writers intensively. We will also read widely in the fiction, poetry, essays, sermons, and letters of their contemporaries and collaborators, including Elizabeth Peabody, Orestes Browson, the Alcotts (Bronson and Louisa May), and Nathaniel Hawthorne. We'll consider the ways in which the Transcendentalists were inspired and provoked by some of the towering figures of European culture: Kant, Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle. We'll also look ahead to the Transcendentalists' extensive influence on American literature of the later-nineteenth and twentieth centuries and on our contemporary understanding of liberalism and selfhood.

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