This course surveys American literature from the colonial period through the end of the 19th century. Reading literature from America's first attempts to define itself as a nation to the beginnings of our own century and its "modern" culture, we will explore how literature tries to understand and explain who we are, as a nation and as individuals. We will focus on questions like the following: How have different authors understood "America" and "Americanness"? What does it mean to talk about a collective national identity? How does American culture shape and contest national or individual identity? We will address themes such as: American individualism versus democratic collectivity; independence versus tradition, both in terms of national politics and a literary "canon"; the changing status of identity categories such as class, gender, and race; and the American frontier as a contested space of adventure and national self-definition.
The course will begin with early colonial texts, including short pieces from John Smith's account of Jamestown and Pocahontas, as well as selections of Puritan poetry and prose. We will move on to works by authors such as Jefferson, Franklin, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Jacobs, Douglass, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Chestnutt, and Chopin. We will sample works from different literary genres, reading several novels, a range of poetry and short stories, and at least one early play. Requirements will include lively class discussion, a take-home mid-term exam, and a final essay.