Early American Literature: Crime and Criminality
With approximately 2.3 million people in federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and migrant detention centers (“Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020,” Prison Policy Initiative, March 2020), and an unknown number of people in its detention centers abroad, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners. What is more, imprisonment disproportionately impacts racial minorities and the poor. This statistical situation has a complex cultural history our seminar will examine. We will read 17th, 18th, and 19th-century fictional and political texts from early North America written about crime and by people who were criminalized: texts about crime on seas, frontiers, and in cities; texts about public execution; texts about how race, sexuality, gender, and class inflect criminality; and texts about slavery and the rise of the prison system. Our tasks will be to understand how the very ideas of crime and the criminal were formulated between the 17th and 19th-centuries, how that formulation was a conflictual and contested process, and what role literature played in that process. This will be an interdisciplinary course combining fiction, history, and political theory.