Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Topics 19th Century American Authors:

ENGL 383.301
instructor(s):
R 1:30-4:30

This course explores the redefinition of civil life in nineteenth-century America by concentrating on how punishment, prisons, and incapacitation not only became critical to the ideology of democracy and freedom, but also shaped a genealogy of property and possession essential to what Thomas L. Dumm in Democracy and Punishment has called "the American project." We will be expanding our understanding of what constitutes this exclusive locale throughout the semester.

Some of the questions crucial to our investigations follow: How do narratives of the past get told by law? How does the mobilization of history trump arguments about justice? What are the legitimate rights of the state over the liberty interests of the incarcerated? What is the relation between the status of criminal as "slave of the state" and slave as property or thing?

Using primary and secondary historical materials and legal texts, as well as fictional re-enactments of incarceration and criminality, the course will attempt to make sense of the diverse and contradictory images of law that intervene in everyday life through strategies of containment and exclusion: chain gangs, special management, treatment, or control units and capital punishment.

Central texts: Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales, Herman Melville, Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces"; Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life; Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon Writings, Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, and John Locke, An Essay on Human Understanding, as well as various legal cases.