American Literature to 1900
J. Michelle Coghlan - University of Manchester
This first-year course unit surveys American literature from its earliest periods to the end of the nineteenth century. It introduces students to the major genres and movements of early American literature, including narratives of captivity, seduction, and escape, fiery sermons and revolutionary oratory, gothic tales, sentimental fiction, and transcendental essays, as well as poetry in a variety of forms. In particular, we explore the rise of feelings—in the form of ecstatic religious experience, sentimental reform, the culture of sensation, and national sentiment—as a vital literary and cultural force in America; we also track the relationship between form and reform (most especially between social movements and antebellum literary genres) and closely attend to texts and counter-texts—the ways that American writers speak back to and rewrite one another, drawing on older forms to issue new calls for change, but also recasting familiar genres and styles for their own literary purposes. We read a mix of canonical and popular authors alongside and against the shifting geographical borders and cultural controversies of their time, tracking our key threads across texts that chart (and lay claim to) the development and formation of “American” literary traditions. And we conclude our study by turning to the way U.S. writers sought to reunite and reinvent “America” in the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction and its failure, a rapidly changing urban scene and a closing (but paradoxically expanding) frontier.