English 246I

American Literature to 1855

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2012 McQuade, Donald
TTh 11-12:30 108 Wheeler

Book List

Barnum, P.T.: The Colossal P. T. Barnum Reader; Melville, Herman: The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade


The series of great earthquakes at New Madrid, Missouri that rattled the entire Mississippi Valley in December 1811 sent shock waves of horror across the new nation. The newspaper and personal accounts of this calamitous event had special appeal for preachers of doom, watchers for the Second Coming, as well as believers in spiritualism and lovers of sensation. To be an American in the early nineteenth century was in no small part to read portents, to be lured by great expectations, and to breathe air that was tonic.

Nearly fifty years later, on the eve of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the “Worship” section of The Conduct of Life (1860), 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 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.”

Within this time frame, we will consider carefully artful readings — and mis-readings — of what I call the “promissory tradition” in antebellum American literature and culture, initially as it is pre-figured in the evangelical discourse of such celebrated itinerant preachers as Lorenzo Dow, Peter Cartwright, and Charles Grandison Finney.  The majority of our conversations, however, will focus on the writings of Emerson, Whitman, Poe, and Melville.  We will explore Poe’s fascination with hoaxes and the art of “diddling” as well as 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 patent medicine advertising. We will also devote considerable time to grappling with issues of identity and duplicity in Melville’s complex and disquieting novel, The Confidence Man, in which Melville suggests that “the great art of telling truth” may well best be practiced by telling lies. 

We will explore research questions that emerge from studying the appeal of various versions of the “confidence man,” at once a celebrant of promise and a broker of trust who trades on the ambiguities of imaginative authority in transactions that encourage faith and persuade audiences to believe.

This course satisfies the 19th-century historical breadth requirement.


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