19th c. US Lit: Myths of Community, Realities of Dissonance
In Quest of an American Focal Center: Myths of Community,
Realities of Dissonance, in the 19th Century U.S.
Prof. Robert E. Abrams
M, W: 3:30-5:20
An exploration of the powers--and limits--of cultural mechanisms seeking to impart integrity and focus to a sprawling US society during the nineteenth century. To some degree we’ll study US art and culture in general--maps, Currier and Ives prints, and other cultural artifacts through the lens of which cultural wholeness and identity are imagined--as well as major theorists and critics of the nation-building process such as Homi K Bhabha and Sacvan Bercovitch. But the major focus will be on how the problem of a US focal center plays itself out in literary texts. To what degree does a US national imaginary become persuasive and credible against a backdrop that includes increasingly globalized, trans-national space, racial and class division, Indian removal, immigration, regionalism and civil war? What sort of cultural work do national myths, symbols of unity, and rhetorics fusing American society with utopian aspiration and divine providential will perform–-or fail to perform-–throughout this period? Readings that throw the question of national identity into relief against a troubled backdrop will include “Chief Seattle’s Speech,” Whittier’s SNOWBOUND, Margaret Fuller on her encounter with native tribal peoples of the upper American Midwest, selected fiction by Hawthorne and Poe, selected writings by Frederick Douglass, DuBois’s THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, fiction by Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Chopin, and Stephen Crane, and, finally a close reading of excerpts from Henry James’s THE AMERICAN SCENE, which from its turn-of-the-century vantage point will help both to sum up and to sharpen our discussion of the problematics of the US national imaginary. Let me add that this should emerge as an excellent course for graduate students whose knowledge of nineteenth-century U.S. culture and literature is thin, and who are interested in a reasonably comprehensive of survey of major texts, albeit conceived through the lens of an overarching theme.