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The National Epics

ENGL 321.401
crosslisted as: COML 321
instructor(s):
TR 10:15-11:45am
fulfills requirements:

In this course we will consider texts that become national epics. How and when might such imaginative texts emerge? Do they represent all the hopes and aspirations of all members of a nation? Nations change, demographics shift, and texts of yesteryear, once thought representative, may no longer serve, or may be read differently. New sagas take their place-- who reads The Song of Hiawatha now? We will study the literary and performative qualities of given texts, but also the struggles of the nations they represent.

The turn to nationalism signaled by this course title might seem surprising, or counter-intuitive. Globalism has become the default mode of academic study: global antiquity, global postmodernity, and so on. National Epics seeks not to deny the validity of such approaches, but rather to complement them: for it is clear that within current conditions of warp-speed global connectivity, cultural and political forms of nationalism are making a comeback. 5G networks proliferate, but with growing suspicion of the builders. Supply chains seem too long, diseases cross borders, and voters are swayed by protectionist, nationalist, and anti-immigrant narratives. It thus seems timely for us to review the cultural mechanisms of national identity, national pride, nation by nation. Especially if nations are to combine and address major challenges facing all humanity: climate change, the need for universal vaxxing.

Of course, most of us may be citizens of just one (or two) nations, but with awareness of long, hyphenated family histories: Chinese-American, Cuban American, Italian-American, Polish-American, African-American; also perhaps Lenni Lenape American, native American, or French Canadian. Some students in this course have taken the opportunity to investigate, for their final project, family histories (and hence their own, personal connection to "national epics").

The course begins in western Europe, but then pivots across Eurasian space to become gradually more global. Some nations and nations that we will likely address are as follows:

France, The Song of Roland                                                                                                     

Spain, El Cid                                                                                                                                  

Ireland, Sweeney Astray                                                                                                       

England, Beowulf                                                                                                                      

Scotland, Ivanhoe                                                                                                                  

Russia, The Song of Igor                                                                                                    

Mongolia, The Secret History of the Mongols                                                                         

India, Mahbharata                                                                                                              

Korea, Hong Gildong                                                                                                           

Vietnam, The Tale of Kieu                                                                                                        

China, Journey to the West                                                                                                     

USA: discuss!

There will be some scope for students to suggest national epics that we might study later in the semester; in Spring 2021 we read the great national novel of the Philippines and had a class, by Zoom, with a student's learned grandmother in Manila.                                                                                                                                                            

There will likely be four assignments, along these lines:

 Assignment 1: pass/ pass: a short meditation, of about 500 words or 2 pages, on the theme of personhood and nationhood. You may draw upon your own experiences here, or offer a response to texts and issues covered in class.  This will serve a tune up writing exercise and will be especially useful if English is not your first language. I will provide feedback. It will also allow me to get a more detailed and nuanced account of your interests, of what you might hope for in this class. 

 Assignment 2: short essay, chosen from a list of topics to be provided (and covered in class): 4 pages.

 Assignment 3: long essay brainstorm. Again, this need not be long: the chief point is to let me know how your thinking is developing, so that (again) I can suggest further reading, focus on critical issues, etc. Some class discussion of topics and issues arising might prove useful.

 Assignment 4: longer essay, 8-10 pages. Long, but not ridiculously long: compactness and concision are to be valued above omnium gatherum bagginess.

Long essays will be workshopped during the last two weeks of class.

 Assessment: assignment 1 p/f; ass.2 20%; ass. 3 P/F; ass. 4 70%; class participation 10%