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Fancy Things and Ordinary Objects: The Stuff of Early American Literature

ENGL 200.307
TR 10:30-12pm

In James Fenimore Cooper’s “Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief,” (1843) a psychic, linen handkerchief-narrator journeys from the flax fields of France to a shop in New York City and offers, along the way, peculiar and illuminating commentary on the various persons and things involved in the handkerchief’s manufacture and circulation as a luxury commodity. Cooper’s narrative asks us to imagine what a handkerchief could possibly have to say. In this course, we will consider the role of things and objects in literature over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America and explore the ways in which literary texts mediate relations between people and material objects. The nineteenth century was a period of substantial social and technological changes that enabled the rapid growth of mass-consumer culture, but the proliferation of cheap commodities was also related to shifting labor conditions—from coercive or exploitative wage contracts to indentured labor and racial chattel slavery. How might the history of the transatlantic slave trade and global commerce alter our understanding of the relationship between texts and objects? Our readings will relate to specific material artifacts, like handkerchiefs and shells, as well as broader generic and cultural topics, like textile manufacture, colonial exchanges, and racial archaeology. Looking at works by writers such as Philip Freneau, Frances Harper, Sarah Orne Jewett and Charles Chesnutt, we will interrogate the formal elements employed by these authors to represent material settings and social conditions within the frames of the domestic, national, and beyond.


As a Junior Research Seminar, this course is designed to introduce students to literary research methods, and assignments will include working with primary sources and archival materials, both in online databases and in the library’s Special Collections. We will build strategies for analyzing relevant criticism and close reading texts. For the final project, students will have the opportunity to choose between a 10-15-page critical paper or a creative project that engages with works on the syllabus, but projects may also incorporate other, more contemporary material.    

fulfills requirements