Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Forward to the Nineteenth Century

For the past couple of weeks I've been ruminating the various aspects of my pastoral project—the Olson paper, ideas for an anthology, plans for a book—trying to decide, in effect, where to plant my Archimedean fulcrum. On the one hand I've been reading a lot of poetry and criticism, particularly Olson and Oppen, and thinking about how their paths of innovation lead toward the postmodern pastoral. On the other hand I've been sunk deep in theory, most especially that of Fredric Jameson, and constructing what might be meant by a postmodern pastoral. My habits of mind lead me to get more excited about writing big-picture theory than I do about the more painstaking and empirical task of criticism. But whichever end of the fulcrum I emphasize, I'm going to need both if my dissertation ideas will be reborn as something fresh, relevant, and urgent.

But goodbye to all that, because August is here and I need to get my syllabi in shape. Today it's not the Modern Poetry course that preoccupies me but the hoary old survey class, Nineteenth-Century American Literature. This is a repeat course, unlike Modern Poetry, but I'm not satisfied with how things went last semester so I'm making some changes. The most basic change is switching anthologies from the Norton to the Heath—the latter puts more emphasis on presenting the spectrum of nineteenth-century cultural writing than the Norton, which is a canon-making machine. The representation of non-white-male authors in the Heath is much higher than the Norton, and their notes suggest a more overtly politicized approach to the material (that is to say, they don't pretend there's a politically neutral stance from which to regard these texts). At the same time, all the classics that I want to teach are still included, and often in superior versions: the 1855 version of "Song of Myself," "Bartleby" and other major works by Melville (no Moby-Dick, but the excerpts provided in the Norton seemed to confuse my students more than enlighten them), a cluster of Hawthorne stories plus the entirety of The Scarlet Letter, plenty of Emerson, Frederick Douglass' Narrative and "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", a useful chunk of Cooper's The Pioneers, stories by Washington Irving, etc.

Last year I broke the course up into five units: Lighting Out for the Territory (we read all of Huck Finn), The Original Sin of Slavery, What Was Transcendentalism?, American Gothic (Poe, Hawthorne, Melville), and Containing Multitudes (Whitman and Dickinson). I will use units again this year, but I want them to be more cumulative this time, so that each text we read will have clear roots and antecedents in what went before, to give my students a stronger sense of literature as conversation and contest. And I'm letting go of Huck Finn (and also of Walden, another long book we read in its entirety) for the sake of greater breadth: I want to start earlier in the century and end later. Finally, I want to regionalize/spatialize this great unwieldy "American" beast—so after some initial questioning of the "American," I want to devote each unit to a different region of the emerging nation and its distinctive literatures. But I won't necessarily think of "regions" in the conventional way. So:

- Becoming American: This section will focus on the earliest moments in the American experience as they were being recapitulated, celebrated, and criticized by nineteenth-century authors. Texts will include some propagandistic poems by Lydia Sigourney, Washington Irving's scathing satire on the white campaign against Indians from A History of New York, "Rip Van Winkle," Emerson's "The American Scholar," three chapters from Cooper's The Pioneers, excerpts from Catharine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie. The urge to separate from Europe, and the urge to at once destroy and assimilate American "wildness," will be counterposed.

- New England Transcendentalists: This unit will focus largely on the theory and nonfiction associated with New England in the first half of the century. We'll read Emerson's "Nature" and "The Poet," Margaret Fuller's "American Literature," Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," "Walking," and some excerpts from Walden.

- Slavery and the South: In addition to Douglass's Narrative and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we'll read some of the abolitionist rhetoric addressed directly to Southerners (particularly Angelina Grimke's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) and two Southern apologists, Caroline Lee Hentz and George Fitzhugh (the latter is particularly interesting for his quasi-Marxist argument—saying in effect that the feudal institution of slavery is kinder than capitalist wage-slavery). We'll also read some Civil War literature: bits of Mary Chesnut's Civil War and some of Melville's Battle Pieces and Whitman's Drum-Taps (kind of a back-door into Whitman).

- American Interiors: Two parts to this unit. One focuses on women's writing and the ways in which they subtly or overtly revise the more usual narratives about American values and expansion. So that means pieces from Fanny Fern, excerpts from Caroline Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow? (my mostly midwestern students will no doubt be amused by her depictions of a wild and untamed Michigan)), and Dickinson's poems. But the other part will focus on the rise of "psychological" literature: Poe stories and poems, some Hawthorne stories, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

- Containing Multitudes: I'm keeping this title for Whitman, but I also want this unit to address the rise of industrial-urban America after the Civil War. There's a useful section or "cluster" in the anthology titled "Literacy, Literature, and Democracy in Postbellum American" that addresses the question of which Americans get to speak and shape America. I'd also like to include Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron-Mills," Melville's "Bartleby" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," and finish up with Henry Adams's famous chapter on "The Virgin and the Dynamo."

This is a lot to cram into fifteen weeks, and I'm sure the actual syllabus will be more selective than this list indicates. I'm also not sure if the thematized units shouldn't be taken more loosely, because there are texts I'm interested in teaching that are hard to categorize in this fashion (where do I put Daisy Miller, for example?). I need to strike a balance between a larger narrative about American self-fashioning and the perverse individual will of each text to be itself alone.

When I've worked this all up it will be time to address the last class I'm teaching this fall, which I've also taught before: Introduction to Creative Writing. This time I'm using a textbook I've found that's not bad, principally because of the critical vocabulary it offers to young writers. But that's another post.

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