American Literature I

Course Description:

A survey of American writing from the time of exploration through the mid-nineteenth century, this course examines 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. We will learn about major literary movements—Puritanism, Transcendalism, the American Gothic, and American Romanticism, among others—by reading in backwards chronological order. As the 19th century Danish philospher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Beginning with a discussion on colonizing Mars and ending with readings from Genesis, this course will examine how American writers were influenced by and built upon the writers that came before them. From Ahab’s hubris in hunting the white whale to Benjamin Franklin’s humble maxim (“Imitate Jesus and Socrates”), we will delve into the adventuresome spirit of America’s infancy.

Required Texts:

The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 1

Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward

Baepler, Paul, ed. White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives

A Glossary of Literary Terms

A good college dictionary (American Heritage preferred)

**Students should also expect to pay a fee ($6-$15) for the out-of-class fieldtrip, and should expect to purchase their class anthology for approximately $6.00.

Course Requirements and Policies:

I. Class Participation: This is a seminar class that revolves around active discussion of the texts that we read. For that reason, students are expected to participate in class. Class time is a chance for you to practice articulating and defending your ideas and also a time to listen to others. The more you participate in class, the more interesting our discussions will be (partly because we all enjoy hearing ourselves talk but mostly because each student brings a unique perspective to the discussion). Students will be graded for their participation in every class. If you contribute positively to the discussion, you will receive a check plus; if you do not contribute at all, but you come to class and pay attention, you will receive a check. If you disrupt the class in any way, you will receive a check minus. If you do not come to class, for whatever reason, you will receive a “0” for the day. At the end of the semester, your class participation grade will be averaged from the grades you have received for every class. Class participation is 25% of your final grade.

II. Attendance: Students need to be on time. Latecomers miss important early announcements and disrupt the class as well as annoy the instructor. If you come late to two classes you will be marked with one absence, resulting in a “0” for one class participation grade, and a check minus for the other. Because class time is a central part of this course, students are expected to attend every class. There is no acceptable number of excused absences. If something comes up that requires you to miss a class, you need to let me know ahead of time so that I don’t think you’ve submarined for the semester; otherwise my natural assumption is that you don’t care about the class, your performance, or your grade. If you do not maintain 80% attendance you automatically fail the course.

III. Group Fieldtrip & Oral Presentation: After the first two weeks of the semester, students will sign up to participate in local fieldtrips to historical sites important to the study of early American literature. Each student is required to go on at least one fieldtrip, and may participate in more than one. After you visit the site you have chosen, your group will do a 20-minute oral presentation based on your fieldtrip and on outside research on the topic assigned. I encourage you to use audio-visual materials (videos, slides, overheads, posters, music, etc.) to enhance your presentation. You should try to make your presentation as lively, interesting, and interactive as possible. The oral presentation is worth 25% of your final grade.

IV. Response Papers & Class Anthology: For almost every reading for this class, you will be required to write a one to two page response paper. Half the class will submit their responses before we discuss each text in class, the other half of the class will submit a response to the text and to one student’s response paper for the next class. These brief papers should respond to the text with sufficient detail to demonstrate that you have both done and thought about the reading. These responses must be typed and proofread, and must be between 250-350 words. You must include a word count at the bottom of your response. You will make two hard copies of your response paper: one that you submit to the professor and the other that you submit to your response partner of the week. You and your response partner will then decide which of your papers you would like to include in a class critical anthology. We may edit the chosen answers collectively in class. Before the end of the semester, we will “publish” this student work in an anthology distributed to the class. Students will be expected to use the class anthology as a critical resource for their final papers. We will need to assemble an editorial board to oversee the production of the anthology. If you volunteer to be on the editorial board, in addition to learning about desk top publishing and having the final word on the anthology, you will have the option of passing in one response paper late. No other late papers will be accepted.

V. Final Paper/Project: You will have the choice in this class to either write a final paper or to create a final project.

* You may choose to turn your out-of-class fieldtrip and research into your final project by photographing or videotaping, and then writing about what you learn from your outside research and your visit to an early American author’s home.

* Alternately, for the final project, you may generate a detailed annotated bibliography on a lesser-known early American author which you will distribute to interested classmates. The annotated bibliography would be an excellent option for students considering graduate studies in English, and for students interested in learning about early American authors whom we do not cover in class.

* Or, you may simply write a final paper. If you choose to write a paper, it must be 10-12 pages in length. I will pass out guidelines and general topics for the paper after the semester begins. The paper must be typed and submitted in a folder that contains all your rough draft work. If you choose to work on a project instead of a paper, you must submit a complete prospectus (detailed outline and bibliography) of the project at the beginning of class on Tuesday, November 21. The final paper/project is due on Tuesday, December 12, the last day of class. Please note: Papers/projects must be submitted on time. I will not accept late work.

VI. Grading: Your grade at the end of the semester is based on your class participation (25%), your fieldtrip and oral presentation (25%), your response papers (25%), and your final paper/project (25%).

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.


English 240f, Reading Schedule (subject to change)

I. From Rags to Riches, II

Robert Zubrin, “The Mars Direct Plan”

Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick (1867)

Response paper #1


II. Slavery in the 19th century American Literary Imagination

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Response paper #2

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)

Response paper #3

Group presentation: Harriet Beecher Stowe House and the Importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno” (1855); Moby Dick, selections

Response paper #4

“Hawthorne and his Mosses” (1850)

Group presentation: Herman Melville’s House and Melville’s Strange Career


III. American Romanticism and Transcendentalism

Louisa May Alcott, “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873)

Group presentation: Louisa May Alcott’s House and experimental communities in the 19th century

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

Response paper #5

Group presentation: The House of the Seven Gables and Hawthorne’s Representation of the Puritans

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841), “Nature” (1836)

Response paper #6

Group presentation: Emerson’s House and New England Transcendentalism


IV. The American Gothic

Edgar Allan Poe, selected short stories (1838-1846)

Response paper #7

Group presentation: Historic Deerfield and 19th century interiors


V. Captivity Literature

Maria Martin, History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin (1807)

John Foss, A Journal, Of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss (1798); Eliza Bradley, An Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley (1820)

Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)

Response paper #9

Prospectus, final project or rough draft, final paper, due today


VI. From Rags to Riches, I

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography (written 1771-90; published 1791, 1818, 1868)

Response paper #10

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, “What is an American?” (1782)

Group presentation: Olde Sturbridge Village and 18th and 19th century technology

Revised anthology essay due today


VII. The Puritans

Jonathon Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

Anthology publication date

Anne Bradstreet, selected poems (1650-1669)

Group presentation: Plimouth Plantation and William Bradford’s Of Pymouth Plantation

Final Week

“Genesis” (hand-out); Christopher Columbus, selected letters

Last Day of Class — Party & wrap-up

Final project due today

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