Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

19th Century Literature in Dialogue

ENGL 073.001
MW 2-3:30

Mark Twain once offered an explanation for the Civil War that is as counterintuitive as it is provocative. "It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war," Twain wrote, "and it was he, also, that made those gentlemen value their bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war." According to Twain, British novelist Walter Scott caused the Civil War, and he did so by telling stories.

This course takes as its point of departure Twain's infamous and puzzling comment. Our concern will be to examine his claim, testing its strength as a serious historical observation while at the same time considering how Twain's humor depended on the type of improbable and illogical paradox that his claim exemplifies. We will ask what it means to locate the origins of a major national conflict in literature, particularly literature that is not remotely concerned with either the nation or the conflict in question; we will ask, too, what happens when we displace explanations of political events onto art. More specifically, we will study Twain's claim that Scott's fictional explorations of English medieval chivalry, on the one hand, and of the Scottish Jacobite Rebellion, on the other, shaped the culture of the Southern states so profoundly that it led them into a devastating war.