A Survey of 19th Century American Literature – Sample Syllabus

19th Century American Literature Course Syllabus

Screenshot from The Atlantic article on P & P covers through the ages.

Course Description: A survey of American writing of the nineteenth century, this course will examine themes central to America’s early writers, including the role of the individual, the education of women, the problem of slavery, and the importance of religion. As we read selections from some of the greatest writers in the American literary tradition, we will seek to test Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s assertion in her book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, that questions of race and racial identity inform almost all early American writing. From the fierce call to independence of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the dark horrors of Edgar Allan Poe, we will delve into the adventuresome spirit of one of America’s most literary centuries.

Required Texts: Students are required to purchase a course packet of readings and Edgar Allan Poe’s Six Tales of Fear. An English-English dictionary is also recommended.

Grading: There will be one comprehensive exam at the end of the course. Students will be asked to identify passages from the readings and answer literary, historical, and comprehension questions based on the passages. The exam will be graded out of 20 points.

Class Participation: Although class participation is not mandatory, it is highly recommended. This is a lecture-seminar class that revolves around active discussion of the texts. For that reason, students are expected to participate in class. Class time is a chance for you to practice your spoken English, and practice articulating and defending your ideas. It is also a time to listen to others. The more you participate in class, the more interesting our classes will be. Attendance will be taken at the beginning of every class. At the end of the semester, students who have attended 90% or more of the classes will receive an extra 5 points on the comprehensive exam.

Lateness: Students need to be on time. Latecomers miss important early announcements and disrupt the class, as well as annoy the professor.

Group Presentations: Students will sign up to do 20-minute group presentations based on the readings. Each group will decide how to do their oral presentation. In the past, successful student presentations have included 1) a skit that acts out a text. Students could choose to write a play based on Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Daughter” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” for example; 2) a close-reading and explication of the text, including important vocabulary words and historical facts; 3) A mock trial in front of a panel of “judges” where two “lawyers” argue whether a book is appropriate reading material for Muslim readers, primary school students, etc.; 3) A presentation of outside research information, including a biography of the author and relevant literary history; 4) A game that uses the class as the players to teach about an aspect of the text, etc. Whatever your group decides, your presentation should be as lively, interesting, and interactive as possible. Students who successfully give an oral presentation will receive an extra 5 points on the comprehensive exam.

Note: You are responsible for knowing the contents of this syllabus. Please keep it in a safe place and refer to it from time to time to make sure you are aware of course policies.

A Survey of Nineteenth Century American Literature

Reading Schedule (subject to change)

Week 1: Introduction

Selection from Playing in the Dark (1993) by Toni Morrison

How to give an oral presentation

I. The American Gothic

Week 2: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson”

Week 3: Edgar Allan Poe, cont’d. “The Mask of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Week 4: Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836)

II. Slavery and the American Literary Imagination

Week 5: Preface from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Week 6: Selections from Frederick’s Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)

Week 7: Selections from William and Ellen Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860)

III. New England Transcendentalism and the Role of the Individual Will

Week 8: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

Week 9: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), selected poems

Week 10: Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivner” (1853)

Week 11: Herman Melville, cont’d.

III. Slavery’s Lasting Legacy

Week 12: Selections from Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868)

Week 13: Kate Chopin: “Desirée’s Baby” (1894)

Week 14: Final Exam Review (2 sessions)

Final Comprehensive Exam


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