In the Classroom: American Literature

17th August 2012

I taught writing and literature until last August when I finally landed a full-time job as an ESL instructor, teaching reading and writing. Though I really enjoy my job, I have missed teaching literature. Like, a lot.

Yesterday morning, the English department called and asked if I could take on an American Literature course in the afternoon, and I literally danced down the hallway to tell my co-teacher. I may have done a leap.

American Lit is my favorite course to teach because America, as an ideal/concept, is endlessly fascinating to me. I love reading something from 1852 that is still being discussed in newspapers today. The Declaration of Independence makes me beam from ear to ear, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” brings tears to my eyes always. So yeah, the leap down the hall was understatement.

This afternoon I pulled out The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter seventh edition, which I refer to in my syllabus as ironic, since it’s three inches thick and weighs about five pounds…

I thought I’d share with you our reading list and the overarching course question we discuss at the start of each semester:

American literature and its history are directly linked to how we think of America as a nation and ourselves as Americans – even if the two don’t always agree. Its literature is a constant conversation, evolving as time goes by while still asking the same questions of each generation. This course is designed to examine “America” as ideal while seeking links and corollaries in the literature between time periods and across gender, race, ethnic, culture, and class lines.

Because America is a composite of these components and so many more, one can argue that there is no American literature; however, these texts are all defined by a quickening, urgent sense of identity: What is an American? Countless authors still subtly and not-so-subtly explore the complex answers to this question, making the study of this literature interesting and necessary while calling for readers/students to be open minded to and critical of the ideologies put forth. So…what is America?

Background and Introduction to American Literature (Discussion of Orature/Journals):

  • Handouts on oral storytelling traditions and Native American oral literature; Native American Creation stories: American Indian Trickster Tales/American Indian Myths and Legends
  • Letters of Christopher Columbus
  • Thomas Harriot, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
  • John Smith, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles

Conversation on Puritans/Captive Literature:

  • John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
  • William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
  • Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration
  • Cotton Mather, “The Trial of Martha Carrier”
  • Jonathon Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” [Using Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shimates to emphasize importance]
  • Anne Bradstreet, various poetry

Toward Nationalism: Discussion of Age of Reason and Revolution:

  • St. John de Crevecoueur, “What is an American?” [I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the topic. Students will also examine current essays/articles responding to the same question.]
  • Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”
  • Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
  • Phyllis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” “Language”

National Conversation on Equality Including Civil War:

  • Sojourner Truth, “Speech to the Women’s Rights”
  • Margaret Fuller, “The Great Lawsuit” [Fantastic piece on equality between sexes; students will examine current similar articles]
  • Fanny Fern, “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” [I talked about this piece here and will use various articles to discuss]
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Slave’s Dream”
  • Abraham Lincoln, “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg”
  • Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” [Masterful speech]

Emerging American Literature: The Romantics:

  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
  • Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil”

Discuss American Realism & Naturalism: Why the Change?

  • Emily Dickinson, various poems
  • Kate Chopin, “The Storm”
  • Walt Whitman, excerpts from Leaves of Grass
  • Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”
  • Mark Twain, Adventure of Huckleberry Finn [Students will work in groups on discussion questions & discuss in class]

What Is an American? Have we decided yet? How and why is “frontier” so important to America?

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, from “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”
  • Theodore Roosevelt, from “The Strenuous Life”

Discuss American Conscience and Inequality, A Reprisal:

  • Booker T. Washington, excerpt from “Up From Slavery”
  • W.E.B. DuBois, excerpts from Souls of Black Folk
  • Music as poetry: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker

Post-World War I America: How do we continue?

  • Amy Lowell, “September, 1918”
  • Robert Frost, “After Apple-Picking”
  • Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” “Grass”
  • William Carlos Williams, “The Young Housewife” “Queen Anne’s Lace”
  • Ezra Pound, “To Whistler, American” “A Pact”
  • Claude McKay, “America”
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently” “I Forgot for a Moment”
  • ee. cummings, “next to of course go america i”
  • Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” “The Weary Blues” “Democracy”

The Modern Era:

  • Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire[show the film]
  • William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
  • Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”
  • Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing” “Careful”
  • Andre Dubus, “Killings”

Discussion of Voice: Why is it important? Who is silenced?

  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Louise Erdrich, “Dear John Wayne”
  • Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
  • Julia Alvarez, “The Mother”
  • Martin Luther King, “I Have A Dream”
  • Sandra Cisneros, “Woman Hollering Creek”
  • Sherman Alexie, “Do Not Go Gentle”
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” “Pawn Shop”
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, “No Name Woman”

Whew! I know that’s a lot, but we generally discuss most of it, particularly as I have different activities for different sections, and in some places, students will be teaching selected pieces, so they will not all be reading all the works. In the past, we have had some really insightful conversations. One thing I will be doing again is first day/last day material. I pass out post-it notes to students and ask them to write the first few words that come to mind when I say the word “America.” That opens up our discussion. I ask them to keep in mind the words they wrote down as we continue the semester, and on the last day before finals, I ask the same question. Seeing the thoughtfulness and intensity students put into their second post-it is so rewarding (for me, at least).

So, what do you think? I think I better get to re-reading… πŸ™‚

  • I have to admit that I’m not a fan of early American Literature. Don’t get me wrong, I find the history of the United States fascinating, and I love to read about it, but a lot of the readings to me don’t feel like literature, and it’s hard for me to then go on and write an essay about it. This stems from me also preferring British Literature, but that’s another matter entirely. I do enjoy the poetry and fiction aspects, but the essays, pamphlets, etc. don’t interest me as literature. My college separates this into American Literature I and II. I’ve done horribly with the first half considering it’s mostly the type of stuff I’m not interested in, so I’m retaking it in the spring (final semester) for a better grade. I guess I’ll be bothering you if I need help, haha.

    Enough of that ramble…I hope you enjoy your class! There’s nothing better than getting to talk all semester about something you’re passionate about. πŸ™‚

    • I don’t know that many people *love* it, and partially I think it’s because it’s so foreign to us. A lot of what it is, we would document in photographs or quick documents. It can be dense, for sure. But I always show a great PBS video, and I think the Sarah Vowell convo helps, too. If you see it as framework and view it a bit more analytically in those terms, it isn’t too terrible.
      Plus, we’re finished with it pretty quickly, simply because of how much there is to cover. And feel free to bother me. πŸ™‚

      • Liz Dague

        What PBS video do you show?

  • One of the books I remember most vividly from my American Lit survey course was Jean Toomer’s “Cane”. It was both lyrically exquisite and highly contextual, and had a rather different structure from most of what we had been reading. I also remember reading Frank Norris and John Dos Passos as something uniquely American, along with Jack London and John Steinbeck. That’s a distinct, western form that I always tie in my mind to the late 19th and early 20th century Socialist movements in the US (although that’s more Steinbeck than London, I suppose).

    I do love your inclusion of Ezra Pound, though. Difficult, both in form and in personality. If I were to throw anyone in toward the later end, it’d probably be Gary Snyder (a personal favorite of mine) and either Richard Yates, Richard Brautigan or maybe John Irving.

    Very comprehensive list overall, though. Makes me want to take a class

    • I actually thought Cane was on there, but I looked, and it isn’t. Maybe in a past semester.

      I do distinctly remember Frank Norris and The Octopus or Octopus (?) It’s been a while.

      And, believe me, I’d love to add Steinbeck, but it boils down to choice, and I champion Elllison’s Invisible Man, simply because I think it’s under utilized.

      • I can understand that. And Ellison is underutilized, and it’s not as controversial as people make it out to be. Heck, I had one class that used Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

        Still, it sounds like an interesting class.

        • Not in the least, and I prefer it to Native Son (which it’s most often passed over for).

  • Julie Merilatt

    Oh, for women’s suffrage I highly recommend Jailed for Freedom by Doris Stevens.

    • Thanks, Julz! I’ll take a look.

  • I’m coming to take your class. Haha! What a great reading list.

    • Come on down!

  • American Lit was one of my favorite classes in college. I loved how the history of our nation, the evolution of our society, was made apparent in the written word.

    • Yep. And I still love it.

  • Your class sounds so fascinating! I really miss taking classes, especially literature, and you’ve reminded me exactly why. Fantastic reading list and I bet the discussions will be amazing.

    • Thanks, Meghan. I miss taking classes, too, but this is one of those classes where it’s less like work and more like sitting in class.

  • Sommer

    That’s it…I’m going to college again. Can I take your class for free? πŸ˜‰

  • Lindsey Stefan

    You are making me really miss my days as an English major. I always wished I had room for a few more courses – who needs gen ed courses anyway??

    • Haha! Yes, much more interesting classes (in my opinion).

  • heidenkind

    Congratulations! That’s exciting. πŸ™‚ I like that you include Sherman Alexie.

  • Jennifer Waggoner Hartling

    Look at that awesome long list of absolute goodness!! Ooh! Heck, I’m excited for you, wish I could come sit in your class πŸ˜‰ Congrats girl!!

    • Thanks! And yeah, it’s a looong list but a good one.

  • Guest

    I’d love to take this class! I’m excited for you too!

    • Thanks! I’m hoping it will be a good one.

  • Guest

    I’d love to take this class! So excited for you. New school year means new supplies and new excitement and new books!

    • Yea for school supplies! Just wish they weren’t so expensive.

  • I haven’t ever studied American lit but I can understand your fascination with a certain topic, it’s a reason why I’ve decided to take some lit courses along with my history ones this year.

    Your list looks so interesting! I haven’t heard of all of the texts and authors, but it’s certainly a good variety of works. Add me to the list of those wanting to take your class. Yeah, I’ve definitely got to take some lit courses this year.

    • I MISS taking classes, and I’m so glad you’re getting to because I know a while back that was possibly off the table. I can’t wait to see how your semester gets on.

  • Ronny Parkerson

    Congrats on getting the course! It is a great syllabus. Brings back old memories of my undergrad English major days at TAMU-Commerce in the 1960s. Good luck with it.

    • Thanks, Ronny! I’m so excited and ready to get started.

  • If you ever get further into early American, I recommend a book called Governing the Tongue. It’s nonfiction criticism and one of the best books I read during grad school. Such a fascinating time period.

    Anyway–love that you have Trickster Tales on your list! I always had classes start with the Puritans but there’s so much before that!! The Minister’s Black Veil! Also loved The Storm–one of my favorite short stories. Love your Post-World War I America section and I so need to read A Streetcar Named Desire (can’t believe I haven’t).

    Ooooh, and Gloria Anzaldua!! I’ve been thinking about re-reading Borderlands/La Frontera.

    Thanks for sharing Jenn!

    • Thanks for the recommendation! Yeah – it’s tough because a lot of the beginning stuff is so dry, but I think it’s important to touch on the Native American experience and how it’s shaped our own stories and lit (not to mention how it’s affected us otherwise).

      Streetcar is fantastic. Watch the film. It’s pretty darn close and an excellent representation.

  • Cris Fitz

    I teach American Lit in college as well, with the same text. I loved checking out your reading list, which is pretty similar to mine – we just did Bradford yesterday! Fellow teachers in my institution choose to pick a certain time frame and only teach from there, but like you, I like doing a comprehensive course on American literature.

    Good luck this semester!

    • Cris – Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! I can certainly understand why people would choose to focus on certain areas, but there’s so much I want to include, and with a one-semester American Lit class, I feel I need to do so.

      Have you read or used the St. Martin BACKGROUND READINGS FOR TEACHERS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE? It’s really interesting and has some great essays as well as different approaches to teaching Am Lit, including topical or “problem” texts. It would take quite a bit of work to rehaul my syllabus, but I do like thinking about different approaches.

      Hope your semester goes well!