English 174

Literature and History: Writing the British Nation

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2014 Savarese, John L.
TTh 12:30-2 106 Wheeler

Book List

Burns, Robert: Selected Poems; Edgeworth, Maria: Castle Rackrent; Scott, Walter: Ivanhoe; Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads

Other Readings and Media

Additional Readings: Online coursepack (readings and audiovisual materials); extensive use of digital tools, archives, and databases.

Albums (Recommended): Ewan MacColl, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Folkways Records); Jean Ritchie, Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings); Jean Redpath, Songs of Robert Burns, Volumes 1 & 2 (Philo Records); Various Artists, There Was a Lad: Songs of Burns (Lochshore). *Note: these albums will be placed on reserve, though you can also procure them at many public libraries, via most digital music retailers, or through Spotify's subscription service.


This course will offer an introduction to critical methods focused on practices of historical interpretation. While we will read widely in critical and theoretical writing, our case studies will focus on key texts in the history of nationhood and nationalism, with particular attention to two literary forms that explicitly engaged and repurposed the British national past: the popular ballad and the historical novel. Both of these forms gain traction during a transformative period in the history of nationalism, a period that stretches from Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 through the populist revolutions of the early 19th century. The expansion of the empire during this period made it increasingly important for British subjects to understand themselves as sharing a coherent national identity—a point reinforced at home by the Acts of Union with Scotland (in 1707) and Ireland (in 1800/1801). Yet that new sense of shared Britishness also brought into starker relief the regional differences, local identities, and political tensions within the “four nations” of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  The poet Lord Byron, for instance, famously said that if the Act of Union with Ireland “must be called an Union, it is the union of the shark with his prey.” As Byron’s chilling metaphor indicates, the logic of nationhood could serve as license for colonial aggression, as well as motivating local, oppositional forms of nationalism that were erupting from Ireland to Haiti and Greece (where Byron, in fact, died while planning an attack on a Turkish stronghold). The historical novel, as it develops out of the “national tale,” offered writers one way to mobilize such regional or national sentiment and, more fundamentally, to reconceive of “history” itself as a process that readers could experience at work in their everyday lives. On the other hand, we will see that the very idea of a “national past” often prompted writers to leave behind the notion of individual authors and readers, and to look instead toward the collective, the popular, and the orally-circulated. Accordingly, in addition to reading the work of particular collectors like Ramsay, Percy, Scott, and Child, students will listen to more recent adaptations and remediations; practice navigating the field of ballad studies using digital tools, collections, and databases; and critically examine the various ways “traditional” and “popular” forms become politicized, from 18th-century antiquarianism to the folk revivals of the 20th-century.


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