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Madness of American Literature

ENGL 486.942
TR 1:15-4:45 pm

Virtually all of American literature is touched by madness.  We’ll explore this American literary condition from the birth of modern psychiatry in the 18th century to the beginnings of psychoanalysis in the late 19th century.  Mental illness is the explicit subject of works by some of America’s greatest imaginative writers (including Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry James, and Charles Chesnutt), and by some its boldest physicians, activists, and philosophers (including Benjamin Rush, Dorothea Dix, and William James).  Moreover, a vast portion of American literature is both an expression and exploration of the psycho-social derangements of slavery.  We’ll also investigate diverse writings in which experiences of creativity, sexuality, religious inspiration and apostasy, and political upheaval are understood and represented in relation to aberrant mental states.  And we’ll trace the range of meanings of madness, from specifically medical diagnostics all the way to discourses of difference as such—with implications for cherished American ideals of independence, self-reliance, and self-making.  Readings will also include works by historians and theorists of madness, such as Michel Foucault, Shoshana Felman, and Sander Gilman.  One of our class meetings will be devoted to a field trip to the Pennsylvania Hospital—one of the earliest and most important psychiatric hospitals in the world—in conjunction some extraordinary writings by one of its 19th-century inmates.  Course requirements include regular participation in class discussion; one very short essay; a 15-minute presentation accompanied by an annotated bibliography; and a longer, research-based essay.

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