Crimes and Criminality in Early America
With approximately 2.3 million people in federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and migrant detention centers, 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. In the Summer of 2020, the largest popular mobilization in American history undertook a mass resistance to this ongoing crisis, calling for the abolition of police and prisons. This course will seek to examine the long cultural history of these contending forces, focusing upon both the processes of criminalization and the concurrent resistances to them. We will primarily read 17th, 18th, and 19th-century fictional and political texts from 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 always a conflictual and contested process, and how that process echoes in our contemporary, shared world. This will be an interdisciplinary course combining fiction, history, and political theory.