ENGL 452 A: Topics in American Literature

Meeting Time: 
MW 2:30pm - 4:20pm
LOW 105
Bob Abrams
Robert Abrams

Syllabus Description:

English 452A, Autumn 2021

M, W 2:30-4:20, Low 105

Prof. Robert E. Abrams

Office: B427 Padelford    

Office hours, Virtual, by appointment (to be announced)

Phone 206-765-0547,  E-mail: rabrams@u.washington.edu 


               Alien Landscapes, Mysterious Places, in 19th Century American Literature: 

                                         The Limits of "Manifest Destiny" 

As the American settlement spreads westward during the nineteenth century, native American names for places and geographical features—Tahoma, Musketaquid,  and Michilimackinac—are displaced by white, Anglicized place names: Mt. Rainier, Concord River, Mackinaw.  Currier and Ives lithographs envisage an American landscape dotted with well-tended farms through which prosperous and happy American families ride in open-air carriages. The continent becomes elaborately mapped and pictorialized from coast to coast. In this manner, American geography and sense of landscape takes shape in the popular national imagination according to the logic of US “Manifest Destiny,” which affirms the ostensible spread of American “settlement” all the way to the Pacific. We’ll begin this course by studying how American print and visual culture seems to confirm this spread of a mapped, “settled” nation westward.

In dramatic contrast, however, the more interesting phase of this course will address the way certain nineteenth-century American writers explore an underlying placelessness which cannot be directly known, perceived, and described, but surges up in the way landscapes and seascapes—and even strange household interiors in works such as Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”—begin to resist perceptual expectations,  to elude tidy and confident descriptive capture, and to fall between transitions in perspective.  In literature ranging from Moby-Dick to Hawthorne’s evasive and cryptic tales to the scenes of desolation in Thoreau’s Cape Cod, point of view wavers along a borderline between a scarcely conceivable sense of somewhere and a more elusive sense of nowhere,  according to Thoreau’s proposition that “not till we are lost. . .  do we . . . realize where we are.”   Moreover, an underlying not-at-homeness emerges as well in certain native American speeches mourning the apocalyptic waning of lost worlds, as well as in certain passages in Douglass’s slave narratives and in Du Bois’s  The Souls of Black Folk probing the African-American experience of not-at-homeness in depth.  For a multitude of reasons, a mistrust in the way print and visual culture during this period foregrounds and standardizes an American sense of landscape and place haunts and troubles the literature which we'll be studying in this course.  At bottom, the underlying frailty of at-homeness and sense of place bitterly learned by tribal peoples haunts the white American imagination as well.

The objective of this course, then, is to explore an underlying skepticism in the endurance and stability of sense of landscape and place as such skepticism haunts the American imagination in the nineteenth century.  But we’ll also explore the possibility that skepticism of this sort has a value of its own as it meditated upon by American authors across a spectrum of texts.

Primary readings in  Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois,  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Chief Seattle (the putative author of a “Speech” actually encompassing colliding viewpoints and voices) ;  secondary readings will include William Boelhower on landscape as a registry of cultural power, Angela Miller on nineteenth-century American painting, and chapters from my own book on “landscape and ideology”; supplementary cultural materials will include maps, paintings, and Currier and Ives lithographs. Most readings will be available on Canvas to minimize the strain on student budgets, with the exception of Moby-Dick, which is available for purchase at the UW Bookstore.


Important Notice:

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Faculty Syllabus Guidelines and Resources. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form available at: https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/ (Links to an external site.).


ASSIGNMENTS:  Two essays (4.5 to 5 pages, give or take a little wiggle-room), in 14-point font, with one-inch margins all around, are required. The first is due at 11 PM, Monday, Oct 18 and the second is due at 11 PM, Weds, Dec 8.  You will find prompts and instructions for these essays ahead of time in Announcements in Canvas. 

Instead of a final exam, you are required to write a series of one-page, single-spaced essays summarizing what you have learned at the end of each week, beginning the week of Oct 4, and ending the week of Dec 6. (Your essays may be somewhat shorter if only one class session and an accompanying reading or set of readings is assigned for the week.)  At the end of the quarter, gather all essays together in a single file, and submit them to me by 11 PM, Tues, December 14.  Key each essay to the week you are summarizing by placing the date of the first day of the academic week  (for example, “Monday Oct 4”) at the top of the essay.  A set of highly intelligent, detailed, and exceptionally well-written essays will receive a 4.0 grade and will count 1/3 toward your overall course grade.  A satisfactory set of essays will receive the grade of "Satisfactory," and your overall course grade will then be based on your two essays, which will each count 1/2.   A below-satisfactory but minimally acceptable set of essays will receive a grade ranging from 2.9 to 2.3 based on quality of writing,  level of detail, and other such factors, and here, as in the first case, this grade will count for 1/3 of your total course grade, with each pf your longer essays counting 1/3 as well.  

INCOMPLETES: I quote University Incomplete Policy directly: “Incomplete grades may only be awarded if you are doing satisfactory work up until the last two weeks of the quarter.” What this means is that if you request an Incomplete, you will need to have completed all work required up to Nov 27.  That would include your first essay plus weekly summarizing essays through the week beginning Nov 22.  If you receive an Incomplete, you will then be given the opportunity to complete the course by the end of Winter Quarter.

The following statement was prepared by the Committee on Academic Conduct in the College of Arts and Sciences. It amplifies the Student Conduct Code (WAC 478‐120).
One of the most common forms of cheating is plagiarism, using another’s words or ideas without proper citation. When students plagiarize, they usually do so in one of the following six ways:
• Using another writer’s words without proper citation. If you use another writer’s words, you must place quotation marks around the quoted material and include a footnote or other indication of the source of the quotation.
• Using another writer’s ideas without proper citation. When you use another author’s ideas, you must indicate with footnotes or other means where this information can be found. Your instructors want to know which ideas and judgments are yours and which you arrived at by consulting other sources. Even if you arrived at the same judgment on your own, you need to acknowledge that the writer you consulted also came up with the idea.
• Citing your source but reproducing the exact words of a printed source without quotation marks.
This makes it appear that you have paraphrased rather than borrowed the author’s exact words.
• Borrowing the structure of another author’s phrases or sentences without crediting the author from whom it came. This kind of plagiarism usually occurs out of laziness: it is easier to replicate another writer’s style than to think about what you have read and then put it in your own words. The following example is from A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker (New York, 1989, p. 171).
o Original: If the existence of a signing ape was unsettling for linguists, it was also
startling news for animal behaviorists.
o Unacceptable borrowing of words: An ape who knew sign language unsettled linguists
and startled animal behaviorists.
• Borrowing all or part of another student’s paper or using someone else’s outline to write your own paper.

Schedule of Readings 

Sep 29: Course Introduction.   

Oct 4:  Lecture and Slide Show: Landscape and Visual Culture: Colonialism through the Nineteenth Century. Supplementary reading: Abrams, Introduction to Landscape and Ideology in American Renaissance Literature, pp. 1-18; Fisher, Still the New World, pp. 42-51.  IMPORTANT: IT WILL HELP ENORMOUSLY IF YOU CAN BRING A LAPTOP OR OTHER PORTABLE DEVICE TO THIS SESSION, SINCE ALL VISUAL MATERIALS WILL BE AVAILABLE IN PAGES IN CANVAS.  VISUAL MATERIALS WHICH WE WILL REVIEW ARE ALL DESIGNATED AS “IMAGE” OR “IMAGES’ IN PAGES.

Colonial American Geography in Retrospect

Oct 6:  Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown." Supplementary reading: Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America, pp. 7-12.

Alienation of Landscape in Whittier’s Snow-Bound:

Oct 11:  Whittier, Snow-Bound  

Poe in an Age of Exploration and Imperialism: The Limits of Appropriative Western Space

Oct 13:  Poe, “Descent into the Maelstrom,” “Ms. Found in a Bottle”

Landscape, Space, and the American Transcendentalists

Oct 18: Emerson, selected readings: Omit “The Divinity School Address” but read all the rest of the selections.  FIRST ESSAY DUE.  SEE INSTRUCTIONS WHEN THESE BECOME AVAILABLE IN ANNOUNCEMENTS.

Oct 20  Thoreau: (1) Walden, selections; (2) Walking; (3) Selection from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Supplementary reading: Abrams, Chapter 2, pp. 41-55, in Landscape and Ideology. 

Oct 25: Thoreau, Cape Cod.                                                                                                                                                  

Oct 27:  Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider”

Nov 1: Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, First Assignment.  Supplementary reading: Miller, Empire of the Eye, pp. 10 (bottom para)-14.

The Landscape of Manifest Destiny in the Shadow of Indigenous Peoples

Nov 3:  Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, Second Assignment. Supplementary reading:  Boelhower, Through a Glass Darkly, pp. 69-76; Abrams, Landscape and Ideology, pp. 93-101

Nov 8:  “Chief Seattle’s Speech” (the initial printed version from the Seattle Sunday Star, October 29, 1887); also Preface to the speech. 

Space, Race, American Slavery and Its Long Aftermath

Nov 10: Frederick Douglass, selections; Abrams, Landscape and Ideology, 109-118; DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, selections; Ralph Ellison, “Harlem is Nowhere.”  Also, in Pages, two paintings by Eastman Johnson, “A Ride for Liberty” and “Life in the South” 


Nov 15: Moby-Dick¸ with a focus on chapters 1-19, and 23. 

Nov 17: Moby-Dick: with a focus on chapters 32, 35, 41, 42, 44, 48-49.

Nov 22: Moby-Dick, 55-56, 87, 93, 99, 104, 111, 118, 135, plus the “Epilogue” 

Nov 24:  Open Class Session

Derangements of Building Interiors

Nov 29: Melville, “Bartleby.”

Dec 1:  Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Dec 6: Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”


















Catalog Description: 
Exploration of a theme or special topic in American literary expression.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
April 13, 2021 - 8:22am