English 246J

Graduate Pro-seminar: American Literature, 1855 to 1900

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2017 Best, Stephen M.
F 12-3 B40 Hearst Field Annex

Book List

Brown, William Wells: Clotel: or, The President's Daughter; Chesnutt, Charles: The Conjure Woman; Crafts, Hannah: The Bondswoman's Narrative; Douglass, Frederick: My Bondage and My Freedom; Douglass, Frederick: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; DuBois, W. E. B.: The Souls of Black Folk; James, Henry: The Golden Bowl; Melville, Herman: Benito Cereno; Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Uncle Tom's Cabin


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that “while the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not” – for the latter, he reasoned, had been superseded by the Fourteenth Amendment, “a new, more promising basis for justice and equality.”  Our goal in this course will be 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 wake of slavery and civil war.

We will survey a broad field of American literature from the second half of the nineteenth century; work 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 pragmatic 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; the deployment of British literature in antislavery discourse and African American print culture; civil war and the rise of antifoundationalism in American thought; slavery, natural rights, and the secularization thesis; sentimentality and the relation of feelings to perception; the intellectual consequences of the failure of Reconstruction.  

This course satisfies the Group 4 (Nineteenth Century) requirement.

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