English 246J

American Literature, 1855 to 1900

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2011 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
TTh 11-12:30 223 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Brown, W. W.: Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter; Chesnutt, C.: The Conjure Woman; Douglass, F.: My Bondage and My Freedom; DuBois, W. E. B.: The Souls of Black Folk; Brent, L.: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Hopkins, P.: Contending Forces; James, H.: The Golden Bowl; Melville, H.: Benito Cereno; Stowe, H. B.: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Twain, M.: Pudd’nhead Wilson


In a speech delivered on the bicentenary of the ratification of the Constitution, Justice Thurgood Marshall scandalized his audience (and much of the nation) when he proposed that “while the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not” – for the latter, he reasoned, had been superseded by the Fourteenth Amendment, “a new, more promising basis for justice and equality.”  We will have as our goal in this course to plumb the depths of this rebirth of the nation in a generation’s search for new ways of thinking about philosophy and politics in the shadow of slavery and civil war.

We will survey a broad field of American literature from the second half of the nineteenth century that is distinctive for its paradoxical disaffiliation from those attributes often taken as essential to the constitution of a national literature (i.e., tradition, custom, inheritance).  We will read a body of American prose fiction, autobiography, and philosophy with an eye to discerning how it “ferments with a foreign stimulus” (to borrow a phrase from D. H. Lawrence) – the related yet distinct impulses toward cosmopolitan detachment and pragmatist contingency.  Black writers play a crucial role in the transformation of abolition from a cause requiring solidarity to a springboard for cosmopolitan detachment, and by way of this reimagining of the central dispute of the age exemplify the Emersonian dicta that “Men walk as prophesies of the next age.”  Their writings will thus figure prominently in our discussions.  Possible critical topics will include: abolition, cosmopolitanism, and the development of a transatlantic community of discourse; civil war and the rise of antifoundationalism in American thought; slavery, natural rights, and the scularization thesis; sentimentality and the relation of feelings to perception; the intellectual consequences of the failure of reconstruction. 

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