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American Literature

Course Overview

American Literature is structured as a traditional survey course, exploring the wide range of texts that make up our national literature, from first European settlement to the 20th century. In order to gain a clear understanding of America’s literary history, the reading selection consists primarily of texts that clearly reflect the styles and ideas of America’s major literary periods, allowing students to analyze the relationships between America’s literature and its various religious, political, artistic, and philosophical movements. To focus students’ critical inquiry, the class will focus on one classic question throughout the year: What does it mean to be American? Students will explore this question—using the various texts as evidence—through in-depth live session discussions, analytical writing assignments, and creative projects. Students will also research and write two long-form essays, with guidance given through several drafting and workshopping phases.

Course Content

Unit 1: Beginnings

This introductory unit moves rapidly through 400 years of early American literature. The central inquiry focuses on the term “American Literature” itself—what texts do we consider “literature,” and how do we classify a text as “American”? We will begin by listening to Native American tales and examining ancient American petroglyphs and then move on to the poetry and chronicles of English settlers. We will then explore a variety of narratives from writers who began to explicitly define American identity before ending the unit with the earliest stages of our post-revolutionary literature. This unit acts as a review/diagnostic period, with several short activities and assignments reviewing topics such as analyzing theme, identifying poetic form, and drawing inferences from the text supported by evidence. Students will also complete a short literary analysis essay, which will serve as a diagnostic of readiness for the class.

Unit 2: Romanticism

The second unit will focus mainly on Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism, though we will spend some time with Whitman & Dickinson as well. We will begin by exploring several essays of the Transcendentalist movement and consider how this philosophy might still be working in our own time. We will then read a selection of short stories and poems in the Dark Romantic style, going into greater depth with this period for the first major essay. Finally, we will explore the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and consider which, if any, literary period these two iconic poets belong to, bringing us to important questions about how literary periods are shaped and defined. The wide variety of texts and short written responses in this unit will provide ample opportunity for us to consider how an author’s purpose and audience influence his/her methods, culminating in the large essay in which students will compare two authors from the same period.

Unit 3: Realism and Naturalism

This unit will address the related periods of Realism and Naturalism, with three weeks dedicated to reading and writing about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We will begin by considering the historical and cultural events that resulted in such a dramatic shift in America’s prevalent literary style and how the characteristics of Realism differ from those of the Romantic period. We will then shift into a discussion of race and regionalism before taking on Huck Finn. After the novel, we will explore the rise of female voices and experience in Realist fiction and the emerging role of women in American Literature. We will end the unit by reading several short stories in the Naturalist style.

Unit 4: Modernism

This unit is divided into three major sections: Modern Poetry, The Great Gatsby, and The Harlem Renaissance. As with the previous units, we will begin by discussing the historical and cultural context that resulted in the shift to new literary styles and techniques. We will highlight these differences by beginning with a study of Modern poetry, with a focus on the Imagists; we will consider how these poets used words to capture the essence of a single image and compare it to our own use of social media today. Next, we will continue our exploration of the theme of The Great American Novel by tackling The Great Gatsby, which will also be the focus of the major essay for the second semester. Finally, we will conclude the unit by delving into the Harlem Renaissance, examining the rise of African American art and literature, and we will end the unit by reading one of the great novels of that period, Their Eyes Were Watching God.