English 176

Literature and Popular Culture: The Promised Land--Representations of Confidence, Trust, Belief, and Faith in Nineteenth Century American Literature, Religion, and Patent Medicine Advertising

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2012 McQuade, Donald
McQuade, Donald
TTh 9:30-11 210 Wheeler

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A Course Reader


In the “Worship” section of The Conduct of Life (1860), Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “Society is a masked ball, where everyone hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding. . . .”  In the August 1849 issue of The Literary World, Evert Duyckinck, a prominent American biographer and publisher, argued that “It is not the worst thing that can be said of a country that it gives birth to a confidence man. . . .  It is a good thing, and speaks well for human nature, that . . . men can be swindled.”  We will explore research questions that emerge from studying the appearance — and the appeal — of various versions of “the confidence man” in the literature and popular culture of pre- and post-Civil War America.  At once a celebrant of shared belief and faith as well as an agent for exploiting assurance and trust, the confidence man trades on the ambiguities of self-representation and imaginative authority in the cultural transaction of making audiences believe.

We will consider expressions of what I call the “promissory tradition” in American literature and culture from, especially as it is expressed in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and the pragmatism of William James.  We will also spend considerable time reading and discussing Edgar Allen Poe’s fascination with hoaxes and the art of “diddling,” as well as grappling with issues of identity and duplicity in Herman Melville’s complex and disquieting novel, The Confidence Man, in which Melville discovers that “the great art of telling truth” may well best be practiced by telling lies.  We will also examine expressions of this tradition in the popular culture of the period, ranging from the celebrated humbugs of P. T. Barnum to the ubiquitous appeals of evangelical religion and patent medicine advertising.

This course is open to English majors only.

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