Transgression in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture: The Importance of the Inappropriate
This course will be based on the premise that transgression—the ostensibly inappropriate crossing of a boundary—is a two-way activity. Whether entailing the invasion of--or the overflow from within—ostensible boundaries and horizons, the case studies we’ll explore situate the transgressive act as inevitably relative to a specific socio-cultural context. As Thoreau puts it, “it depends on how you are yarded.” In the nineteenth-century US, one is “yarded” (quite porously, as it turns out) within (or outside of) what we might term a white, Protestant, bourgeois circumference of linguistic codes, social assumptions, standards of bodily beauty, and behavioral norms endlessly subject to contestation, invasion, or leakages. No doubt in a radically heterogeneous society of truly free exchange and reciprocal respect, much of what occurs in the nineteenth-century US as linguistic, aesthetic and social transgression would assume a much different character. To call such activity transgressive is to acknowledge (if scarcely to accredit the legitimacy of) hegemonic limits and taboos. A supplementary issue in this course, however, will be whether some modes which seem transgressive from one perspective escape that label from another. To what degree do texts which might be labelled “transgressive”actually introduce a massively altered mode of measure into the status quo, in the light of which values are radically altered, the horizon of the normative potentially changes, and ostensibly “transgressive” behavior undermines the very framework of assumption in which it is seen as such.
Let me emphasize that although it addresses a specific theme, this course is meant to cover a wide spectrum of nineteenth-century U.S. authors, and to study nineteenth-century cultural conditions in sufficient depth to provide students with a solid introduction to this historical period, contestatory, complex and variegated as this “period” no doubt is. Linkages back at least as far British Romanticism, and forward at least as far as Neo-Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Thing Theory will be encouraged. Background theorists will include Raymond Williams on hegemony, Bakhtin and Geoffrey Harpham on the grotesque, Mary Douglas on filth, dirt, and waste, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White on the meaning of transgression from the medieval fair down through the Victorian era, Virgil Nemoianu on theory of the secondary, and Slavoj Zizek on “the Ticklish Subject.” Primary readings will range across a spectrum nineteenth-century American texts; these will include readings in Poe, Frederick Douglass, Melville, Du Bois, Whittier, Clement Moore, Whitman, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Rebecca Harding Davis, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Stephen Crane.