American Literature: The Early Nation
An introduction to American literature and culture during the decades leading up to the Civil War. This is a period that: 1) struggled with numerous issues of race, slavery, gender, and class; 2) strove to develop a national mythology and identity against the backdrop of shifting national boundaries, increasing immigration, worldwide empire and trade, and a heterogeneous population; 3) tried to salvage religious faith in the wake of modern science and the Enlightenment; 4) and took democracy seriously enough to trace through its implications even to the point where, as in the case of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, such implications start to become startling and strange. The period is much too complex to be organized into a dominant, easily defined thesis or polemic, and in fact the aesthetic strategy of choice for many of the writers whom we’ll be exploring is the ambiguous interchange of perspectives and voices without closure or synthesis. The “question,” as Melville at one point writes of his own literary method, tends to remain “more final than any answer.” Nature itself, as Thoreau emphasizes, becomes a site where perspectives so alter and shift and we can never get any closer than “nearer and nearer to here.” Pre-Civil War literary language in the U.S., I should caution, is dense, complicated, and often difficult to read—although enormously rewarding and eloquent—and students enrolling in this course should be prepared for encountering difficult language, and for reading it closely and carefully, as they explore authors such as Emerson and Melville.
Emerson. The Portable Emerson.
Thoreau. The Portable Thoreau.
Hawthorne. The Portable Hawthorne.
Whitman. Leaves of Grass (selections available online).
Margaret Fuller. Summer on the Lakes.
Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Herman Melville. Moby-Dick