English 190

Research Seminar: Confidence, Trust, Belief, and Faith: Questions of Self-Representation, Imaginative Authority, and Cultural Transaction in pre- and post-Civil War America


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
12 Spring 2010 McQuade, Donald
McQuade, Don
TTh 2-3:30 206 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Franklin, B.: Autobiography; Jefferson, T.: selected writings; Whitman, W.: selected poetry; Emerson, R.: selected essays; Poe, E. A.: selected essays and stories; Melville, H.: The Confidence Man; Barnum, P. T.: Life of P.T. Barnum (1855 ed)

Description

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, especially as it is expressed in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to 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 patent medicine advertising.

English 190 replaced English 100 and 150 as of Fall '09. English majors may fulfill the seminar requirement for the major by taking one section of English 190 (or by having taken either English 100 or English 150 before Fall '09). Please read the paragraph on page 2 of this Announcement of Classes for more details about enrolling in or wait-listing for this course.

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