Tag Archives: Puritans

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… 🙂